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Part II: Speaking Out for Justice > Chapter 10: Engaging, Claiming, and Changing White Privilege: Educational Practices for Teaching and Learning about Intersectionalities
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Chapter 10: Engaging, Claiming, and Changing White Privilege: Educational Practices for Teaching and Learning about Intersectionalities

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Miami University

Interdisciplinary feminist family scholars have shown that the most effective practices for deconstructing privilege and promoting social change emerge from our own lives, classrooms, and scholarship. These activities provide opportunities to define and create new meanings for our teaching, research, and community building on issues that make a difference in our lives and the people we care about. They allow us to delve into vulnerable experiences and critical social analysis with courage and creativity (Allen, Lloyd, & Few, 2009; Blaisure & Koivunen, 2003; De Reus, Few, & Blume, 2005).

As instructors in college classrooms with relatively privileged students, the concept of privilege in general and White privilege in particular may be foreign and thus met with defensiveness and resistance. Instructors face the dilemma of introducing this concept in an academic context while also managing and negotiating the tensions that arise when students’ core beliefs are challenged and Page  174 threatened. Educators confront many questions: How do we teach about privilege so that our lessons penetrate the defenses that have been built up over years of socialization and reinforced through social institutions? How do we teach about privilege if we do not feel grounded in this interdisciplinary literature or limited in our own experience and understanding? Why should we even open the Pandora’s box of privilege when we only have a class session or two to address it? Who among us has not had the experience of writing words such as “sexism,” “racism,” “heterosexism,” “classism,” or “White privilege” on the board and being confronted by a barrage of student questions and comments, often hostile, about how you are perpetuating this problem by even mentioning it—that you are being biased, or that prejudice, oppression, and inequality do not exist anymore? How do you get past student resistance and enable them to consider the concept of privilege—intellectually and within their own ways of thinking, feeling, and acting?

Certainly, these are questions that have challenged feminist instructors with the aim of incorporating critical consciousness and social change into the curriculum and infuse new perspectives on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, age, national heritage, and global perspectives (Culley & Portuges, 1985; Fisher, 1994; Maher & Tetreault, 1994). The challenges do not disappear simply because we have made progress in curricular and knowledge transformation. Although we may teach from feminist perspectives, social institutions are controlling forces and new cohorts of students, socialized in the isms, (e.g., sexism, racism, heterosexism), come along fresh each year. At the same time, the concept of “whiteness” has emerged to expose how White supremacy in theory and practice continues to dominate relationships across races (hooks, 1994). Whiteness and White privilege serve as pointed critiques of majority group members’ collusion in maintaining social inequality, by “perpetuating a racialized society” (Blume & De Reus, 2009, p. 214), making teaching about difference, inclusion, inequality, and social change ever more complex and controversial, yet, from our perspective, necessary.

In this paper, we define and describe White privilege, discussing ways for teachers and students in the particular context of family Page  175 studies to reflect on and resist the effects of privilege based on social inequality. The work of confronting, understanding, and making conscious White privilege has developed beyond the conceptual realm and into practical solutions for social change (Blume & De Reus, 2009; Frankenberg, 1993). Yet ongoing and new challenges continue to emerge as a deepening consciousness develops among those (e.g., teachers, activists) who facilitate this work and as the effort to deconstruct White privilege is present at the beginning of contact with each audience (e.g., students, community members). It is clear that the intellectual exercise of classroom theorizing or the activity of taking field trips to observe “others” in their home environments is not enough to penetrate the thick skin of White privilege. Nor is it enough for scholars to critique experiential activities based on outdated notions of standpoint feminism (see Patai, 2007) that are designed to introduce students to concepts of privilege and institutional control without offering alternative practices. The problem of privilege is so embedded in psyches and institutions that it requires more than academic argument to confront. Feminist activism must be brought into the classroom in creative ways (Fisher, 1994).

Thus, we present an analysis of this problem as well as educational exercises adaptable for various groups to help participants break free of categorical perceptions of self versus other. Strategic exercises are one way to open a window for learners to reflect upon the contradictions they face in their own lives and the ways in which they do and do not experience privilege. By participating in such exercises, they have a relatively safe opportunity to literally change their positions and thus their minds, which can lead to new possibilities for action. Further, we address the need for more conscious infusion of critical engagement with diverse communities of students in service-learning experiences in order to be moved beyond a surface understanding that does little to awaken their perception of collusion and challenge them to confront their resistance or passivity. We also discuss the importance of educational strategies for developing learners own understanding in order to create more effective interventions for practice.

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Defining White Privilege

In her now classic description of White privilege, McIntosh (1989) defines White privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that people of the majority race can count on cashing in each day. White privilege is “like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks” (p. 10). As with other forms of privilege associated with the beneficial side of having social power, the possessor of privilege remains oblivious to these assets. Part of having “unearned” privileges means not having to acknowledge them. As Minnick (1990) observed, Whites are groomed from an early age to think of their lives as morally neutral and normative. Members of the majority culture—Whites, in this case—are indoctrinated into the belief (conscious and unconscious) that being White is normal and ideal. Thus, when Whites work for social justice on behalf of others, this work can be seen as allowing “them” to be more like “us.” The invisible privilege of Whites has consequences in terms of personal and interpersonal insensitivities as well as political and structural inequities.

There are also multiple consequences for the people without White privilege. One of the most important, double consciousness, was first described by W. E. B. DuBois (1996/1903) in his groundbreaking work, The Souls of Black Folk:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (p. 5)

Feeling this two-ness, though, means that the people who are being oppressed by those with more privilege and power have an opportunity to develop deeper forms of knowledge—both of their own experience of oppression and of those who are oppressing them.

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Oppressions, of course, are rooted in power, and kept alive through stereotypes, both conscious and unconscious. From a feminist perspective, oppressions are not static or additive, but intersecting—based on the belief of an inherent superiority of one gender, class, race, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, and the like, over another (Collins, 1990; Crenshaw, 1993; Moraga, 1983). As Audre Lorde (1984) has explained, oppressions are based on irrational fears and prejudices, on the one hand, and greed and power on the other. But, privilege is morally corrupting and retards emotional and civic growth (hooks, 1995). For people in positions of privilege, developing an informed reflexive consciousness about one’s own social locations is a necessary entry to changing thoughts and behaviors (Allen, 2000). In writing about Black feminist thought, Collins (1990) teaches, “revolution begins with the self, in the self” (p.229). Social justice for all families and ies, our topic for the Groves Conference and this book, also begins in understanding our own experience.

The Developmental Journey of Claiming a White Racial Identity

One of the key tasks in unpacking White privilege may be the developmental work involved in claiming one’s White voice on race (Foldy, 2005). Foldy (2005), Frankenberg (1993), Helms (1990), Morrison (1992) and the European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness (2005a, 2005b, 2007) all argue that understanding White privilege must be integrally tied to an understanding of White racial identity. The multiple developmental processes involved in understanding one’s racial identity, as well as the many different pathways taken, are well documented by these scholars. Consider the following examples.

Helms (1990) proposed a model of White racial identity development that encompasses six stages. The first three stages are centered on abandoning racism. In the first stage of contact the White person first encounters racial/ethnic others; experience here is characterized by little awareness of being White, and anxiety about encountering non-Whites. In the second stage, disintegration, the White person begins to recognize racial inequities (and to feel Page  178 guilt about them), and his or her own race. In the third stage, reintegration, there is a clear acknowledgement of both White identity and White superiority, although these are accompanied by blaming inequities on individual shortcomings. The next three stages center on the construction of a positive White identity. Stage four, pseudo-independence, is marked by the erosion of the belief in White superiority and the burgeoning understanding that oneself and other Whites are responsible for racism. Stage five, immersion/emersion, marks a shift from fixing the problems of racial/ethnic minorities to working as Whites to overcome racism. The final stage, autonomy, is marked by the expansion of learning about one’s White identity to learn about other forms of privilege, such as heterosexual, gender and class privilege.

Frankenberg (1993) engaged in an extensive examination of White women and race; her interviews purposefully over sampled White women who were involved in anti-racism work, who were feminists, and who were in inter-racial relationships. Frankenberg’s key argument is that race and racism fundamentally shape the lives of White women. The women she interviewed “thought through race” (p. 137); that is, they engaged in deliberate contemplation and conversation on race, difference, and racism, and how these affected themselves, others, and society. This consciousness was fraught with complexities. Some of the White women described a discourse of color evasion, wherein they strove to not see race, and evaded questions of power by maintaining color-blindness and emphasizing that while individuals may differ, we are united by a universal sameness as people. Others describe a discourse of race cognizance that emphasized the critical importance of recognizing difference in terms of histories, opportunities, and political structures, as well as the ways that racism has significantly shaped U.S. culture. For the younger women, this race cognizance was somewhat new, and often marked by a high level of angst and guilt, and belief in the intractability of racism; still, the women worked to understand the personal impact of racism as well as the ways that racism had shaped their lives. The older women, many of whom had a long commitment to anti-racist work, focused more on structural change and political activism. Frankenberg (1993) concluded:

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Whiteness . . . is a complexly constructed product of local, regional, national, and global relations. . . it is also a relational category, one that is co-constructed with a range of other racial and cultural categories. . . . This co-construction is, however, fundamentally asymmetrical, for the term “whiteness” signals the production and reproduction of dominance rather than subordination, normativity rather than marginality, and privilege rather than disadvantage. (pp. 236-237)

The European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness (2005b) also speaks to the challenges of understanding one’s White racial identity. The Collaborative writes about the recognition of a “White supremacist consciousness” as a critical phase of development here. This recognition means coming to see the myriad discourses on the superiority of the White race, the constant binary of White versus non-White that positions racial/ethnic minorities as the inferior other, and the implicit normalcy of “White” values and cultural practices. Ultimately, “White supremacist consciousness hides in a profound unconsciousness about the impact of hegemony” (p. 247). As a result, understanding White privilege must encompass an unpacking of the ways in which supremacist consciousness and hegemony permeate our language, actions, and structures.

What then, are the implications of this discussion of White racial identity for our work on unpacking White privilege? First, we (the authors) are individuals who are engaged in anti-racism work, particularly in our roles as college professors who regularly work to foster among our students a deep understanding of privilege and oppression. As a result, we must understand both where we are in our personal journey of unpacking our own White racial identities, as well as how we embody these in our everyday practice. Second, this discussion reminds us that the students we work with on a daily basis themselves represent the “gamut” of White identity development, from what Frankenberg (1993) calls power evasiveness (the denial of structural inequities and the assertion that race is irrelevant) to the deep race cognizance (with all its ambivalences and contradictions) that she discovered in women who had been engaged in anti-racism work for decades.

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Experiential Exercises to Confront Identity, Oppression, and Privilege

The experiential exercises we now discuss allow participants to literally get out of their comfort zone by exploring feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. As in previous work (e.g., Allen & Beitin, 2007; Allen & Piercy, 2005; Boler & Allen, 2002; Lloyd, Warner, Baber & Sollie, 2009; Piercy & Benson, 2005), we present ways to stimulate discussion with various groups in classrooms, communities, and institutions as well as to promote and stimulate critical dialogue and social action toward change. Both informal conversation and institutional discourse on these subjects is often frozen in place by entrenched conversations. The very idea of “interrogation” has become stale, as many of us in academia “know” what it means to interrogate White privilege, but few of us have been able to get beyond interrogation as an intellectual endeavor and on to the practical business of living social change.

These methods have their roots in women’s studies and critical pedagogy (Lather, 1991). Feminist consciousness raising groups, where second wave feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s met informally to acknowledge and come to terms with how sexism and other forms of oppression structured their individual and collective experiences, comprised a keystone in using dialogue to stimulate social action (Allen, 2009; Fisher, 2001). While the idea at the time was that White, middle-class feminists became activists in order to get “their piece of the pie,” consciousness raising (CR) was about speaking bitterness. The radical politics of CR were not to get a bigger piece of the pie, because “We believe that the pie itself is rotten” (Kreps, cited in Freedman, 2002, p. 87).

This politicization through the mechanism of personal experience has continued to this day in the development of women’s autonomous organizations worldwide, such as self-help centers, health care collectives, fair trade organizations, and agricultural cooperatives (Desai, 2006). McIntosh’s pioneering work over the past two decades has also been very influential, particularly in terms of the National SEED program (Seeking Educational Equity and Page  181 Diversity), teaching “tens of thousands of English speaking teachers in 12 counties how to create multiculturally sensitive, gender-fair classrooms” (Mendelsohn, 2010).

Another major contribution to challenging and changing complex intersections associated with oppression and privilege comes from Paolo Freire’s (1997) classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed which is often used as an analytical tool in other disciplines. Examples include bell hooks’ (1994) application in Women’s Studies and Black Studies and Augusto Boal’s (Schutzman & Cohen-Cruz, 1997) transformation of the concept of “theatre of the oppressed” into image theater. In Boal’s (1997, 2002) important innovation of Forum Theater, he used storytelling and improvisation for those actually engaged in political struggle—peasants and workers—to spontaneously interact with the audience. He would stop the play and suggest alterative courses of action, thereby rehearsing possible solutions for social change (Schutzman & Cohen-Cruz). A key element in improvisational social change work is breaking free of the intellectual to use “the body as one’s most essential tool in transforming physical sensations into a communicable language and altering everyday space into a theatrical arena, or aesthetic space” (Schutzman & Cohen-Cruz, 1997, p. 3). Also adapted for grassroots ensemble theaters by artists and academics working with local ies, these are methods of thinking with the body in order to engage in the analysis and discussion of critical social problems (Leonard & Kilkelly, 2006). More recent forays into qualitative research methods, with Denzin’s (2003) performance ethnography, Richardson’s (1997) use of “playful” autoethnography, and Janesick’s (2004) use of “stretching exercises for qualitative researchers” demonstrate the strategy of bodily movement as metaphor and critical analysis in changing position (e.g., getting out of the way of stuck patterns of thinking and acting) in order to promote new insights into complex issues and social change.

What these diverse methods have in common is a perspective on performance as something to do, or go through; performance as a verb, rather than a noun (Denzin, 2003). Experiential activities in the context of deconstructing privilege and confronting social locations and intersections allow participants to challenge and dismantle Page  182 taken for granted ways of thinking and practice about how gender, race, sexuality, class, age, religion, nationality, and a host of related cultural systems are linked to power and historical oppression. Thus, dynamic exercises that involve some form of kinesthetic movement literally allow participants to move in ways that disrupt entrenched habits of discourse and practice (Leonard & Kilkelly, 2006).

Augusto Boal (1979) calls this performance process, demechanization: the undoing of habits of mind and body that prevent us from finding new ways to see and frame the possibilities of undoing oppression. The hope is that participants produce complex ways of reflecting together about invisible social arrangements and power structures. Thus, as we have adapted and implemented these exercises in our own classrooms and community work, we see many concrete objectives in these exercises: (a) to make the connection between the private and public explicit; (b) to deal with the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation diversity; (c) to understand the contested nature of ideas; (d) to open up to new ways of thinking about and investigating the social world; (e) to experience the tensions and contradictions of oppositional categories; (f) to break down invisible and unconscious stereotypes; (g) to actively move about the room in order to change our position; (h) to engage people in discussion and group participation without singling anyone out; (i) to deal with controversial issues in a safe context; (j) to expose our prejudices to our own selves; and (k) to represent multiple voices through emotion and physical movement.

A caveat is in order. Writing about these exercises and actually performing them are two different experiences. The description below, admittedly, seems one dimensional, perhaps a trite response to the formidable opponent of the forces of oppression and privilege. Yet, in person, our experience over many years and in many contexts—both as participants and as facilitators of these exercises reveals an alchemical response of head and heart. Written descriptions of exercises do not do justice to the praxis of participating in activities that stimulate and promote empowered social movement.

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Oppositional Categories and White Privilege Exercises

The facilitator explains to the participants the following instructions:

  1. The exercise takes place in silence as people move to a particular part of the room in answer to the list of questions.
  2. Discussion will happen after we move and observe ourselves.
  3. I will ask you questions, and you will decide, using your own criteria, where you will stand.
  4. Questions are asked one at a time, with a few moments for reflection between questions.
  5. Response is voluntary; situate yourself as you define the term or terms.
  6. During the exercise, note (without verbalizing it) moments of energy or tension and interesting configurations. These form the basis for discussion.
  7. You may become annoyed or object to questions and want to resist or qualify in advance of responding. Remember the exercise is done in silence; just go wherever you feel most comfortable or what fits you most closely. Do not ask for clarification.
  8. Pay attention to how you feel and what you are thinking as you move about the room:
    • How does it feel to be forced to choose or to make a decision about yourself?
    • How does it feel to find yourself categorized, without an opportunity to explain your ambivalences, contradictions, or experiences?
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    • How does it feel to have to choose to misrepresent yourself because “telling the truth” could have a consequence you do not want or could get you in trouble?
  9. Although it is best to hold questions and comments for discussion to the end so we can proceed in silence, I may break the silence so groups can ask questions of one another.
  10. Discussion works best if it begins with very specific observations and descriptions, then moves on to analysis of the groups’ responses.
Warming Up Questions:

The first set of questions are warm-up questions, designed to introduce the exercise in a non-threatening way. Questions should be designed or added to address the character of the group (e.g., classroom, community group). The questions are preceded by the following instruction: Go to this side of the room if you… / Go to the other side of the room if you…

Go to this side of the room if you are...Tired/ Go to the other side of the room if you are... Awake

  • Born outside the USA
  • Always on time/ always late
  • You have been to all 50 of the United States
  • Have a pet you consider to be a member of your family
Questions about Oppositional Categories:

Continue asking questions in the same manner, dealing now with issues of identity, oppression, and privilege:

Go to this side of the room if you are… Feminine/ Go to the other side if you are… Masculine

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  • Conservative/radical
  • Partnered/unpartnered
  • Have children/do not have children
  • You are an only child/have siblings
  • Physically active/inactive
  • Student/retired
  • Like to stand out in a crowd/shy
  • You are angry at some you love right now
  • You are a tomboy/sissy
  • Your intimate relationship is interracial
  • You believe in an absolute right or wrong
  • You are forgiving/hold a grudge
  • You trust women/trust men
  • You could worship with a female cleric
  • You have a family member or very close friend who identifies as GLBT
  • You feel powerless/powerful
  • You have done something you know to be illegal in the past year
  • Have a room of your own
  • Grew up in a rural community (urban, suburban)
  • English not first language
  • Are part of an invisible community/minority
  • Didn’t stand in categories for fear of identification
Questions about Privilege:

The following questions are based primarily upon McIntosh’s (1988) list of privileges associate with being White, but also include examples from other forms of privilege associated with gender, sexual orientation, and the like. Again, questions and categories Page  186 can be adapted for the particular audience and goal of the particular course or workshop:

  • When I go shopping, I am assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can arrange to be in the company of people of my own race most of the time.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or civilization, I am shown people with whom I identify.
  • When I turn on the TV or read the front page of the newspaper, I see people of my race or ethnicity widely and positively represented.
  • I can protect my children most of the time from people who may not like them.
  • My race is more valued in this society than any other.
  • I can talk with my mouth full and not have people attribute this to my race or class.
  • It is acceptable for members of my gender to use swear words.
  • When I accomplish something important, I am called a credit to my race.
  • If I criticize our government, I will be seen as a cultural outsider.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race or ethnicity.
  • My partner is almost always invited to the same social functions as I am.
  • I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  • If I need medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • I have experienced discrimination based on my gender/I have not experienced gender discrimination.
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  • I can easily find people who are willing to talk with me and advise me academically and professionally.
  • I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods in which to live where people approve of our household.
  • I feel welcomed and normal in the usual walks of public life (social and institutional).
  • There are few consequences for me if I ignore the perspectives of people of other races.
  • If I am having a bad day, I immediately consider whether it had racial overtones.
  • Most days, I do not hear a negative comment or slur about my sexual orientation.
  • I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my gender on trial.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I am pretty sure that if I talk to the person in charge, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can easily buy picture books, dolls, toys, children’s magazines, and postcards for people of my race.
  • White privilege has benefit ted me/not benefit ted me.
  • My particular experience of oppression is different from yours/the same as yours.
  • I trust members of the majority race/I do not trust members of the majority race.
  • I believe sexual orientation is a choice/I believe sexual orientation is a biological given.
  • The academic profession is egalitarian/hierarchical.
  • Systems of oppression can be changed/not changed.
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Image Theater

Many exercises can be derived from image theatre, a practice central to Augusto Boal’s (1979) Theater of the Oppressed. These exercises involve using bodies to sculpt interpretations of power and privilege (Boal, 2002; Leonard & Kilkelly, 2006). In our discipline, these exercises are similar to the concept of peoplemaking used in family therapy (Satir, 1972). The strategy is to facilitate small groups of participants to create three-dimensional portrayals of issues they wish to discuss. A concept is chosen, for example, “resisting White privilege,” and group members are given the task of interpreting the concept into a physical representation—using participants’ bodies. To illustrate, (a) one group member lays on the floor, (b) a second member stands on one foot and with the other foot presses down on the first participant to indicate oppression, (c) a third member stands behind the second participant and puts his/her arm around the participant’s neck so as to indicate resistance from this oppression. Then, other group members join into the “portrait,” by adding postures that symbolize the concept under analysis. The group will also make images of a desired solution to the problem. Then, all of the groups return as a whole to engage with each other in critical dialogue about the various images and solutions each individual group created.

Group Clusters

In this exercise, the activity is to ask group members to: “Place your hand on someone else’s shoulder,” and then, move around in clusters as particular “body” shapes develop. Participants are advised that this will be a safe touch exercise, where only shoulders and hands meet. Moving the clusters around allows participants to experience thoughts and feelings associated with rules of inclusion and exclusion by responding to questions that are non-threatening and then moving on to questions that are more challenging to consider in the presence of others. The facilitator precedes each statement with “Put your hand on the shoulder of the person…” (additional questions can be added that suit the purpose of the group):

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  • Whom you have never met before
  • Who reminds you of someone in your family
  • Who knows you better than anyone else in the room
  • Who you feel drawn to
  • Who reminds you of yourself
  • Who should get more recognition for the work they do
  • Who you would like to know better
  • Who has influenced you more than they know
  • Who seems to have the most power in the room
Facilitating Discussion of the Experiential Exercises

After the exercises have concluded, the instructor brings the entire group back together in a circle arrangement and states that discussion works best if it begins with very specific observations and descriptions, then moves on to analysis of the groups’ responses. Questions to promote reflective dialogue include:

  • How did it feel to participate in these exercises?
  • What did you learn about yourself as you participated?
  • What did you learn about your peers?
  • What else would you like to know about anyone in the room?
  • What new insights did you gain about White privilege?
  • How would you define White privilege now?
  • In what ways did we accomplish our objective of working toward our goal of getting out of our comfort zone about White privilege?
  • How does the experience and understanding of White privilege in our own lives relate to larger social and political issues?
  • In what ways has moving (demechanizing, thinking on your feet) helped to dislodge static ways of thinking about “diversity” and disrupt our habits of talking/discourse?
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  • What new possibilities of undoing oppression do you see now that we have participated in this exercise together?
  • Collins (1990) said, “Revolution begin with the self, in the self.” Where would you take it from there?
  • In what ways can these exercises be varied and adapted for your use in teaching, research, or practice?
  • How would your classroom, community, workplace, or family be different if people were free to share in more authentic and vulnerable ways?

Once the Privilege Backpack Has Been Opened – What Next?

The exercises we have presented above have served us well in deepening the process of interrogation of privilege for our students and for ourselves. Yet, we are aware that this interrogation does not always result in deep change. We are reminded here of the classic statement on male privilege made by sociologist William Goode (1982), who wrote that men hold onto their privilege “because they can.” Apart from a deepening critical consciousness, there is little reinforcement to change. Like the coming out process, where a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person must come out over and over again, confronting White privilege is an ongoing process of facing the challenges associated with majority status. What then, are the critical tasks once the “privilege backpack” has been opened and examined? We identify four critical processes for furthering the interrogation of White privilege: confronting the good White person, self-reflection and critical humility, working in relationship, and becoming a conscious ally.

Watching Out for the “Good White Person”

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to change is the allure of the “good White person,” described both by Kendall (2006) and in the work of the European American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness (2005a). The good White person shows up in multiple ways. For the student or professor who is beginning to articulate Page  191 her/his White racial identity, that is, beginning to acknowledge the influence of racism in our societal structures and personal beliefs and actions, a self-construction as an enlightened or good person may engender a fear of discussing race too deeply, in order to avoid making a mistake. This fear of saying the wrong thing, of being perceived as racist, inhibits the kind of self-reflection and re-learning that is necessary to engage the process of self-confrontation of the ways in which one’s own behavior is in collusion with dominant forms of oppression and privilege.

As a “good White person,” we may also have difficulty coming to terms with our naiveté and blinders (Foldy, 2005; Frankenberg, 1993; Kendall, 2006). It means working through guilt and shame at having not known better, and while such guilt can bring about a visceral and embodied understanding (e.g., think about how guilt feels), it can also get in the way when it becomes the predominant and long-term reaction. Indeed, seeking out racial/ethnic minorities to help exonerate one’s guilt (by showing members of a marginalized group that I now “get it”) is a form of privilege in and of itself, as it positions people of color as confessors who must now provide absolution for the wrongs we perpetrated against them.

The “good White person” may continue to show up among those who are actively and deeply working on understanding their privilege and White racial identity (Kendall, 2006). As we engage in a journey of self-discovery and re-learning, it is all too easy to fall into the self-construction of goodness. The European American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness (2005b) describes this as a framing of the self as one who understands, as one who is engaged in enlightened anti-racism work and who is ironically superior to those White folks who are not in touch with their racial identity. Simultaneously, the good White anti-racist person make seek out people of color for friendship and approval, in order to prove their trustworthy-ness as a person who can work across race and difference without prejudice or racism (Foldy, 2005). As researchers, teachers, and colleagues, we must continuously unpack these multiple dilemmas, and learn to engage in dialogue that allows for the recognition of our missteps and fears, and that calls us “on the carpet” when the good (who is covering for the superior) White person rears up.

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Self-Reflection and Critical Humility

Self-reflection is a key part of social movements. Learning to see how outside institutions are reproduced within the self and using that knowledge as a catalyst for intellectual and social change are key to feminist and anti-racist work (Allen, 2000; Collins, 1990). Observer and observed are on the same causal plane; thus, experience matters in knowledge production and understanding (Harding, 1991). Self-reflection is a critical activity of deepening one’s awareness of the practices associated with unquestioned ways of being, doing, and knowing. It is also a necessary activity for disrupting the status quo of how women, people of color, LGBT people, old people, and the like are treated as “other.” This process is one of challenging in oneself taken-for-granted realities that are externalized in culture and internalized in self. For example, a truism is that marriage is a sacred union of equals. Yes, this is more of a cultural ideology and only a reality for those couples with the most privilege: primarily middle class heterosexual couples with the means to legally do so (Cherlin, 2004). Excluded are poor, primarily African American couples without the financial means to marry, and gay and lesbian couples without the legal right to do so. Self-reflection upon this structural reality, particularly for those who benefit t from marriage, requires a leap to seeing their own situation as privileged. Seeing such privilege carries with it the implication of taking some action such as working for marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples; for many, this implication is a burden.

In anti-racist work, self-reflection is combined with critical humility, “a dialogic practice of communicating and acting with confidence while remaining humble about what one does not know” (European American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness, 2007, p. 1). Critical self-reflection is a humbling process that unveils contradictory emotions, often stemming from the experience of intersectionality. An openness to confronting one’s own privilege is often rooted in the process of facing one’s own oppressions. For example, a White educated woman, in a lesbian relationship, may be open to examining her class and race privilege, seeing its connection to her own oppression of gender and sexual orientation. The concept of intersectionality can help her scrutinize this slippery slope of Page  193 fighting oppression and privilege and seeing their entanglements. Yet, at the same time that gender and sexuality oppressions may be bridges to understanding race and class oppressions, they are not reducible (Allen et al., 2009; McCall, 2005). Living in this tense space without easy resolution is one of the challenges—and gifts— of self-reflection. A reflexive approach enables us to examine and reveal the fault lines in our thinking, writing, and practice about social structure and process, by exposing them to others for scrutiny (Smith, 1999). Self-reflection is a location of chronic discomfort, but discomfort provides the emotional acuity so necessary to sharpen one’s perspective on oppression and privilege. Note that critical reflection and humility are the essential points of entry for praxis, but activist follow-through is necessary to do something constructive beyond insight and awareness (Smith, 1999).

Deepening Our Work-in-Relationship

While self-reflection and critical humility are integral components of unpacking White privilege, we must also attend to how our work unfolds in relationships, groups, and ies of learners. As noted above, unpacking White privilege has to go beyond work on the self, to work-in-relationship. The European American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness (2005b) describes a process of collaborative group inquiry that was designed to understand whiteness and challenge hegemony. They drew on Reason and Bradbury’s (2001) second-person action research/inquiry, which emphasizes beginning with dialogue to help develop a y of inquiry and learning around an issue of mutual concern. Members of the Collaborative worked together to interrogate their first-person inquiries (which included practicing new behaviors, unlearning habituated behaviors, reflection in action, and staying present to one’s emotions), and used the group process to stay accountable to oneself and others. They found that the group inquiry was critical for providing a place to explore complex experiences, and a space for both support and challenge. The process of interrogating the connection between private and public (personal and political) has its origins, as noted above, in consciousness raising groups and women’s collectivities for change. Working with our differences through coalitions of support—not erasing difference but acknowledging and building Page  194 bridges—is important for effective social change (Nylund, 2006; Reagon, 1983; Suyemoto & Fox Tree, 2006).

Allen (2000) also describes an experience of working across race divisions with Black and White colleagues in a university setting to prepare for the practical goal of presenting a performance piece entitled, Color Conversations, at a Women’s Studies conference. In preparation, the group met, collectively, and separate groups of White women and Black women, to explore race-related stories, emotions, and behaviors taken toward racialized others. One outcome was the uncovering of cross-racial distrust that was socially constructed yet enacted in personal relationships. By speaking the bitterness, a CR practice—naming and claiming it, we came to a place where the professional civility that was maintained at a surface level was confronted by unraveling its intellectual and emotional distortions, thereby opening doors to change.

Work-in-relationship to interrogate one’s privilege is increasingly available to our students, given the emphasis of many universities on service learning. However, there are pitfalls within the service learning umbrella when the emphasis is primarily on projects that connect university students to local communities under the umbrella of “doing good.” Service learning has been defined as “the linkage of academic work with community-based engagement within a framework of respect, reciprocity, relevance, and reflection” (Butin, 2007, p. 177). Yet, ironically, service learning is often separated from social justice education and anti-racist work, and instead is framed as charity, as resting on individual effort, and as unquestioningly beneficent (Butin, 2003; Camacho, 2004). Manley, Buffa, Dube, and Reed (2006) describe many service learning opportunities as “soup kitchen” models: “experiences where students explore social problems but do not learn about the nuances, complexities, and challenges that create the need for service” (p. 117). Thus, one of the many challenges of service learning is to co-construct an experience that allows students to get deeply connected with their own privilege, one that helps them understand how their very presence as university students in a local community brings with it a certain gaze and the potential to perpetuate power differences (Camacho, 2004) and reinforce stereotypes.

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Working in-relationship with communities, while simultaneously learning a community’s history and topography, holds great potential for deepening our understanding of the processes of privilege and power (Butin, 2007; Camacho, 2004; Manley et al., 2007; Oldfield, 2008). Dunlap, Scoggin, Green and Davi (2007) proposed a model for White privilege and socioeconomic awareness in the they identified five stages in this process. First, a trigger event causes students to become aware of their socioeconomic and race privileges. This is followed by a period of grappling with emotions and processing the trigger event, particularly the dissonance between their constructions of the world and their present experiences. A period of personalization ensues, wherein the students moved from distant observers to carefully listen and converse with people at the service-learning site, while actively constructing meaning around their experiences. This is followed by a sense of a “divided-self” wherein cognitive and experiential collide, causing a disequilibrium that may be accompanied by waves of guilt. The final stage is one of disequilibrium resolution; this occurs either through assimilation of the service learning experience into their existing (often stereotypical) ideas about the groups they are working with, or accommodation that incorporates in-depth struggles that begin to acknowledge the role of race and class privilege and challenge negative stereotypes. Dunlap et al. (2007) conclude that supports and resources are essential here, especially the opportunity to engage in self-reflection and dialogue.

Becoming a Conscious Ally

A key task along the journey of interrogating one’s White privilege is to move towards becoming a conscious ally. Our ideas here were catalyzed by the work of Frances Kendall (1996, 1998, 2006) on “how to be an ally if you are a person of privilege.” Kendall has been conducting workshops on becoming an ally at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity and around the United States for many years. Both of us have attended her workshops and identified them as pivotal experiences in thinking about specific behaviors that could be enacted within a White racial identity that is centered on social justice and equity.

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Being a racial justice ally is also discussed by Katz (2003) and Reason, Scales, and Millar (2005). Reason et al. (2005) emphasize that “in order to develop as allies, White people must develop an antiracist, privilege-cognizant white consciousness” (p. 60). This consciousness incorporates the developmental journey described earlier in the work of Helms and Frankenberg. However, we frame becoming a conscious ally also in terms of concrete behaviors. In a sense, what is critical here is taking the step from internal consciousness to informed action.

As Kendall puts it, being an ally means intentionally choosing “to be a change agent at both the personal and institutional levels” (2006, p. 142). In her book Understanding White Privilege, Kendall offers a wealth of ideas on being an ally. She emphasizes strongly the personal reflection and work that goes into developing into an ally, from the necessity of continuously learning about the institutional and personal experiences of those who are marginalized, to being clear about the impact of our own privileges. Being an ally means sharing the lead and giving up control; most importantly, it means allowing the individuals we are allied with to “call the shots” and set the agenda. It means promoting inclusion and justice in your organizations and communities, and actively working to create a hospitable climate.

We have found that the specific actions of a conscious ally depend on one’s developmental progression in the journey to develop a White racial consciousness. In our experience, being an ally means speaking up when a racial joke is told. It means working as hard as you can to remember the name of each person of color you meet (because you know that all too often Whites get it wrong and send the message that “you all look alike to me”). It means making sure that issues of race and racism are raised by White people (rather than leaving it to the people of color in the room to always be the spokespersons on race). It means publicly aligning with people of color on the issues they have defined as their primary concerns. Being an ally requires careful listening, engaging in a long journey of learning about race, racism and their intersectionalities, and being exquisitely careful to never ask a person of color to “teach me” Page  197 (because you are aware of its implications of “my right as a White person to your knowledge and emotions as a person of color”).

Being an ally requires the willingness to publicly acknowledge one’s mistakes (and they will happen). It means taking the action to work together towards systemic change, supporting people of color who speak truth to power, and garnering the courage to speak it yourself (while simultaneously naming and resisting the privilege that will come your way when your passionate critiques of racism are “heard” just because you are White). Ultimately, being an ally demands the moral courage and confidence to take a stand, even against family and friends (Kendall, 2006; Reason et al., 2005), to become what Bailey (1998) and Segrest (1994) describe as a purposeful “race traitor.”

The work of engaging, claiming, and changing White privilege is challenging and ongoing. Whether instructor or student, we are all learners in the process of identifying, defining, and confronting the institutional systems that structure patterns of inequality and privilege. Although our work is undertaken primarily in educational settings, it cannot be distant or intellectual. To engage the process of change and stimulate meaningful social action, feminist strategies reveal the power of experience and reflection to awaken critical consciousness and the necessity of empowering movement to act upon the inequities one embodies within self and toward others.


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