Saturday, September 12, 2015

What is White Privilege?

This week at Wake-Up Wednesday, we welcomed Dr. Troy Smith of the history department here at TTU. He joined us to discuss the topic of white privilege, and what follows are some of our insights from the evening's discussion. 

So what is white privilege?  Many people associate white privilege with prejudice, but it’s not exactly the same thing.  While prejudice can be handed down as a learned behavior from family members, it is ultimately a choice one makes to be prejudiced towards a certain group of people based on their race.  White privilege refers to the cultural privileges white people are born into in this society and have no choice in.  Some aren’t even aware that it’s something they have.

To better explain white privilege, Dr. Smith spoke about the concept of whiteness.  White people did not always identify themselves as white.  In fact, the concept of whiteness only came along when white people began interacting with other races who happened to have darker skin colors. Shortly after this interaction began, a social hierarchy developed placing white Anglo-Saxons at the top and other races at the bottom.  This hierarchy and concept of whiteness became the backbone of the slave industry.  White people had to believe that black people were inferior to them in order to justify slavery.

Slavery left the hierarchy permanently ingrained in everyone.  W.E.B DuBois said that black Americans had a double consciousness meaning that they not only had to see themselves as how they truly were but also had to be aware of how they appear to white people.  White people do not have to have this awareness.  White people in the United States seem to possess an ingrained fear of black men.  This fear traces back to our ancestors who feared slave rebellions of black men during the antebellum period.  It doesn’t mean that these people are racist though they may be; it only means that the race hierarchy put in place by our ancestors still plays an important role in today’s society.

In 1954 when Brown v. Board was brought to the Supreme Court, psychologist Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie Clark designed an experiment to show the psychological effect of segregation on school children.  Black and white children were given dolls that ranged in skin tone from white to black.  They were then asked questions like which doll would be the good doll and which one would be the bad one.  Both black and white children responded that the white doll would be the good doll and the black one would be the bad one.  This study was replicated ten years ago with similar results.  This is just another example of how white privilege and social hierarchy have leaked down into the generations.

So now that we’re aware of white privilege, what can we do about it?  Can we do anything about it?  How do we use it to everyone’s advantage?  As white allies, we can change the system from the inside.  As unfortunate as it is, one white person is generally more likely to listen to another white person especially on race issues.  This is a prime example of white privilege.  If we use that privilege by speaking to people about the issues of groups other than our own and becoming a support group within activist groups, we can change the white privilege system from the inside out.  We must, however, remember to come with a sense of humility as we offer our support.  - Chelsea Mathes and Andrew Smith of the Tree House, commenting on our conversation with Troy Smith 

Join us next week as we begin an interfaith journey with Rabbi Rami with a talk titled “Heart of Judaism”.

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