Perspective: Group Discussion on White Privilege

Posted on: April 6, 2018, by :

By Jeff Turner

On April 3, 2018, the Butler University Diversity and Advocacy Committee hosted an event. The topic was white privilege. Since Butler is less than three blocks from my house and I was free that evening, I decided to attend. It proved to be an extremely worthwhile experience. There were over sixty in attendance, the vast majority Butler University students. After a brief introduction in which the terms racism and white privilege were explicitly defined and the rules for the event were laid out, the students were assigned to groups, the rule being at least two People of Color (POC) in each group.

I joined a group of ten students, and one moderator, Carla. There were seven who identified as white in the group and five POC, including myself. Six questions were posed to the group, three addressed to those who identified as white, the other three to POC in the group.

The first question posed to the white group member was “What do you like about being white?” Some very interesting answers were provided. Alyssa, a Butler student from Kendallville, responded, “Growing up in a predominantly white area I faced no prejudice, never knew what it feels like.” This seemed to be the generally shared opinion of the white group members. “Halloween costumes and movies, seeing myself reflected is more comforting,” David, another group member said, referring to the predominance of white faces in pop culture in regards to his privilege.

The second question was posed to the POC in the group: “What do you like about being people of color?” Skyler responded, “I really like the culture behind it. Black culture feels more special, unique.” Skyler continued, expressing that when surrounded by people of color “I feel connected to home.” In regards to the group she said that it was “good to be around people who understand that.”

There were several interesting shares from the group when the next two questions were posed, for the whites how they benefited from white privilege, and for POC, how they had been impacted by it. I decided to interject at this point, relating to my experiences with the legal system when younger. My mother is black, my father white. Had I not had a white father, back in high school I could have potentially faced some very harsh consequences for some youthful indiscretions. This prompted Toby (name changed to protect his identity) to share his experiences with the legal system in regards to this question also. He related how he and a white fellow Butler student were arrested, and how the prosecutor somehow lost the white student’s file, but Toby still potentially faced harsh consequences for his actions. Fortunately his situation was resolved without him facing any such consequences.

Another POC in the group brought up the need to “watch how we (POC) dress, and how we act … can’t act suspicious,” and how whenever people of color make any type of statement or do anything, “we are (perceived as) representative of our whole race, in contrast to white people,” a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.

When asked what those in the category of white can do to make things more equitable, the white group members provided some very interesting answers. One woman cited the need for whites not to say “I can never imagine someone experiencing that,” and how such statements prevent whites from putting themselves in the shoes of people of color. “Can’t fix an issue unless you acknowledge it,” another member added.

When the question was posed to the people of color in the room as to what would they like to say to whites about white privilege, I added to this response that empathy is vital to combating it — that so many people are wrapped up in their own little worlds, rather than allowing themselves to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

“Acknowledge your privilege,” Toby said, and calling out racism when you see it and creating a space for POC were other ideas suggested. Also raised during this insightful conversation was the concept of microaggressions, how little things in everyday life impact people of color, like hotels not having haircare products for people of color, band aids being flesh colored, how Wal-Mart keeps haircare products for African-Americans locked up in the back of the store, flesh colored make-up referring to a white complexion, and the like.

“So many little things add up,” Carla, the group moderator said.
When a representative from our group related what we discussed and mentioned microaggressions, Tony, a moderator from another group, offered a particularly illuminating comment. “A microaggression isn’t really a microaggression; it’s an aggression,” a point that everyone in the room seemed to agree with.

Afterwards, dinner was served and I conversed with three of my group members in more detail. “It’s a topic that I’m interested in,” said Roua, when asked why she attended this event. “I wanted to see what people had to say. It’s a conversation I have a lot with my friends of color, not so much with white people.”

“I wanted to see what white people had to say about white privilege,” said Toby, when posed the same question. His family comes from West Africa, and he was the one who mentioned his brush with the law. When I asked him to share further about his particular experience, he explained how he was at a liquor store with a white friend who had a fake ID who attempted to buy liquor. All Toby did was accompany him. A black undercover police officer present on the scene arrested both of them for underage possession of alcohol. However, the prosecutor wound up “losing” the file for Toby’s white friend. Fortunately the charges against him were ultimately dropped. “The fact that they lost his file and not mine stuck out to me as white privilege,” he added. Overall, Toby said he was glad he came, and he found the event to be a good experience, a “big eye opener.”

Skyler, an African-American Butler student, explained that she came to the event because she “has friends who are part of this program, who ran this, and I came to support them.” When asked what she learned from the event, she said, “I wouldn’t say I learned anything, but was able to remember (from this discussion) that not all white people are ignorant or sheltered, and (some) are open to learning.”

“I like what (Tony) said about microaggressions,” Roua added when asked what she learned from the event. “Language is important. The fact we don’t pay attention to that perpetuates the same message we are trying to avoid, to stop.”

All in all, it was refreshing to see that the white members of the group were aware of their privilege, and none of them challenged or attempted to counter any of the statements made during the evening. It was a very progressive, liberal group of young people, who had embraced a multicultural worldview and welcomed diversity. However, this doesn’t really do anything to address the problem of white privilege, because in my opinion, those who would most benefit from an event like this are the least likely to attend. How such people can be brought into the discussion on this issue was a point that none of the three group members I talked to seemed to have a clear idea as to how to address. Skyler did mention that the university would soon be adding a required course for freshmen that deals with social justice, though it will take some time to add it to the curriculum.

Nevertheless, it appears that these students are aware of the issues presented by white privilege, and have ideas for how to address it. They all seemed to be in agreement that something needs to be done to combat it.

Can any real progress be achieved? Only time will tell.

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