Examining White Privilege: What is the Fear?
Dickinson student Leda Fisher asks the question “Should White Boys Still be Allowed to Talk?” in her opinion piece in the college's daily news publication, The Dickinsonian (Fisher 2019). Reportedly, Ms. Fisher indicates that she has received overwhelming support in response to her piece. However, the backlash and negative comments have been swift and brutal, including calls for her expulsion. The opinion piece has gone viral, which presents the opportunity to explore why her comments have pushed so many buttons. Specifically, examining the role of higher education, exploring constructs related to power, and the impact of cumulative rage are issues for further consideration.
The Role of Higher Education
We expect colleges and universities to value freedom of speech, to support the development and expression of thought, and to expose students to new ideas. However, these priorities come with challenges, including the challenge to listen while feeling uncomfortable. The evidence about white male dominance in the classroom and other life settings is clear. Being silenced, mansplained, and not having room for diverse views are routine characteristics of school and work environments for women and people of color. It is unclear why Dickinson students would not be glad for the insight that Fisher provides about her experience, and appreciative for her courage in putting such a perspective out there. Further, as a woman of color at a majority white school, why would her vulnerability not be supported? Supporting vulnerability is also the role of students in higher education.
Feminism, since its inception, has been acknowledging and understanding power. Contemporary feminist theory speaks about the definition of power as “the capacity to produce change “ (Miller, 1991), and notes that power itself is not bad/wrong/evil. In fact, there is an understanding that power is what helps us make decisions about our lives and move us forward. The distinction is made of the difference between “power over” which speaks to how one uses their power to impact themselves and others; and the “power with” approach, where we can share in the capacity to produce individual, organizational, and collective change. “Power with” does not necessarily mean that you lose anything; it means that you gain the perspective and respect of others. As this understanding deepens, it promotes mutual benefit.
The question to those of us who are white is , can you sit quietly and really listen to the experience of someone else? Can you share power? Just as being heard and having a voice is critical to healthy psychological development, the experience of not having a voice is also a critical experience in one’s life. Suppressing your voice for a moment so that you can listen to another does not make you weak. It makes you vulnerable in the best possible way. It helps you to grow in your understanding of another person's experience, and it gives you knowledge which will undoubtedly help you in future interactions with those similar and different from you.
Some of the response to the op-ed seem to focus on a perspective that Fisher is “being racist” for making generalizations about white boys, and that such generalizations are “just as bad” as the racism experienced by people of color. She has subsequently responded to this accusation with the prevailing definition of racism which speaks to systematic efforts to marginalize others based on race. (Yahoo, 2019). Yes, Ms. Fisher makes generalizations and it is understood that the generalizations do not apply to 100% of the white male population. But she is naming a prevalent and universal experience a Why is it so difficult to see the position of power and privilege that white boys occupy? I speak for myself, and not for Ms. Fisher, but it is understood that it is not your fault that you have such privilege. It is understood that you did not ask for it, and you may not even be fully aware of it. But you experience your privilege in most life situations. You may not even realize that there is another way to behave in the classroom that does not involve your constant contributions. Rather than defending yourself, why not take a moment for reflection and observation? If you have privilege, you have a responsibility to understand that you have it and use it to ensure all voices are heard. This is your real power.
I suspect that part of the negative reaction may be related to the clearly articulated rage Ms. Fisher expresses in the opinion piece. Women, and especially women of color, are not supposed to express anger, let alone rage. Again, what is the issue with listening? Awareness means knowing that the issue of women experiencing rage is is occurring throughout the United States right now. There is a growing body of literature about it (i.e. “Good and Mad” by Rebecca Traister). The style and flavor of anger will unfold as it chooses. We may not like the way it sounds and the way it makes us feel. But we must listen.
Welcoming the contributions of students like Leda Fisher make all of us more aware, more attentive, and more self-reflective. The journey of self-reflection is life-long, and being open to the sometimes painful but inevitable growth that comes with engaging in another person's experience is one of the ultimate goals of higher education and beyond.
Lisa Eible, DSW, MSW, LCSW has over 27 years of social work experience. She serves as adjunct faculty to Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania. Lisa has advanced certificates in Cultural Competence and Trauma. Professional interests include social work in healthcare, administration, leadership, supervision, Relational-Cultural Theory, and diversity issues.