[people2]Social relations junior Ryan C. Smith hasn\’t had to grow up thinking about his race – he\’s white, like most of the people around him. But college has provided an opportunity for Smith to consider what it means to be white in America and the privileges that come along with it.
Smith, along with four other students, discussed the notion of white privilege during a panel at the Race in 21st Century America conference held on campus in early April. During the discussion, Smith said he noticed that in his job as a caddy, when he mumbled or spoke quietly, golfers didn\’t pay much attention to it, but when caddies of color mumbled, it was seen as a weakness of their race.
\”Privilege is really about access to resources, power and influence given systemically at the expense of others, done on the basis of that person\’s membership in a group,\” said Frances Kendall, a consultant based in California who specializes in issues of social justice and institutional change, with a focus on diversity and white privilege. \”It\’s conferred power granted without regard to how someone is as an individual.\”
For example, people of color are more likely to be followed in stores or pulled over while driving, less likely to receive housing loans, and often learn a history of white people unless it is a specialized Chicano literature or African history course.
\”You need to start looking at the things you see everyday,\” said Betty Sanford, a specialist-advisor in the Supportive Services Program, during the discussion. \”It\’s not just whether you call me the n-word – it\’s why do you think the majority of students are one color? Why do you think the majority of faculty are one color?\” Sanford said it\’s about looking at the people in positions of power.
Social relations and advertising sophomore Kristian Grant said white privilege is about both the everyday occurrences and the larger institutional problems: \”the extra thank you or polite service [white people] receive when they\’re out, the benefit of the doubt the police officer will extend, the idea that \’white is right\’ … they are all a part of white privilege,\” Grant said.
For people of color, race is something that can be frequently, even constantly, on the mind. \”I unfortunately am aware of race almost constantly, but especially when I\’m outside of my home or \’comfort zone,\’\” said Grant, who is black. \”Whenever I am in the company of whites, I recognize the difference between us or the one that is implied. There doesn\’t have to be a specific thing to make me think of race – I\’m always thinking of it; it\’s always there.\”
Grant said coming to MSU made her realize her minority status, especially as a student in the James Madison College. She said she is often the only black student in her classes and becomes frustrated when she is asked to become the spokesperson for all black people. \”You wouldn\’t ask white people, \’What do white people think about that?\’ But people will look at me and say, \’for the whole black race, what do black people think?\’\”
According to the MSU website, 8.4 percent of students are African-American, 5.7 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, 3.2 percent are Chicano/Other Hispanic, and 0.7 percent are Native American. But that only adds up to 18 percent. What about the other 82 percent?
In her book Understanding White Privilege: Creating Ways to Authentic Relationships Across Race, Kendall says whiteness is often assumed, and that is part of white privilege. In this case, it is assumed the remaining 82 percent of students are white. Unlike people of color, white people often see themselves as race-less, because \”it continues to confer power to white people as individuals and identifies \’the other\’ as less important, less valuable, less everything,\” Kendall said.
[quote]Even the categories provided in surveys and census reports are not consistent and often force people to choose a category that does not accurately identify their race or ethnicity. For example, another panel member at the workshop, international relations and psychology freshman Nada Zohdy, has often felt frustrated with the racial classification categories. Zohdy identifies as an Egyptian-American, but is rarely given the option of choosing \”Middle Eastern.\” She usually has to choose between \”Caucasian\” and the all-encompassing \”Other.\”
But for students who simply check off the \”Caucasian\” box without second thought, the idea of white privilege might come as a surprise. \”A lot of my white, middle or upper class peers dismiss the privilege they possess,\” Smith said. \”Many of them have never encountered the idea that racism is still prevalent today or that it has evolved into something more subversive.\”
International relations and social relations junior Ashley Newby said white privilege is easy to miss if you\’re not actively looking for it. \”A lot of people would argue there is no racism only because they don\’t have to deal with it and don\’t have to notice it,\” Newby, who is black, said during the panel discussion. \”If you don\’t have to notice it, why would you?\”
One student who dismisses the idea of white privilege is Kyle Bristow, an international relations/political theory and constitutional democracy sophomore and president of the MSU chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom. \”I don\’t believe that white privilege is really in America, because racism isn\’t institutionalized like it once was,\” said Bristow, who is white. \”There is no giant white conspiracy to suppress people of other races.\”
But some disagree, arguing that institutionalized racism is very much alive in the 21st century. \”When I think of white privilege, I think of institutions, especially education,\” Newby said. During the panel discussion, she talked about the ways in which predominately black schools are often times ill-prepared for standardized testing and higher education. \”Looking at affirmative action being reversed, things that were meant to level the playing field have now been taken away,\” Newby said.
Kendall, who is white, said the passage of Proposal 2 \”sent a very clear message to black and brown people that they are not really wanted in Michigan schools.\” She said the proposal also sent the message that \”you can discriminate in favor of white people, but cannot discriminate against white people.\” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Michigan is the most segregated state in the nation. Five of the 25 most racially segregated metropolitan regions in the U.S. – Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Benton Harbor, and Muskegon – are in Michigan.
YAF chapters across the state played an important role in building support for Proposal 2 last November. Bristow said YAF \”pretty much ran the [Proposal 2] campaign.\” YAF members were integral in designing the proposal website, making television commercials, and gathering petition signatures.
MSU-YAF\’s recent conflicts with other student groups at YAF-sponsored anti-immigration events have left Bristow doubtful that students on campus will ever get along completely. Students from both YAF and MEXA (Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlan) have called each other racists and each has labeled the other as a hate group. \”I am Latina, but I personally do not believe in blaming all the problems in my life and of my people on \’white privilege,\’ however when racism is staring me dead in the face how else should I react than to stare back and call it what it is?\” said Crystal Cuevas, a physiology junior and member of MEXA who was present at the controversial April 19 YAF event, where Minuteman co-founder Chris Simcox spoke on campus. Five protesters, all people of color, were arrested at the event.
\”The kind of relationship that exists between [YAF and MEXA] is not stable; there is a lot of tension, passion, anger, and hate,\” Cuevas said. \”The \’minorities\’ feel as if they are unwanted [at MSU], which should be a big red flag for administrators of an institution set on being very diverse to do something to lessen that tension.\”
So, what can we do about it? During the panel discussion, James Madison associate professor Louise Jezierski said there needs to be more dialogue on campus about issues involving race. \”More discussion needs to be created,\” Jezierski said. \”Faculty and students both need to create these discussions on white privilege.\”
Kendall also encourages people to have conversations about white privilege anywhere and everywhere. \”The more you think and talk about it, the more it spreads the process,\” she said.
And as a white man, Smith hopes to do just that – one person at a time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *