Essays & Criticism 1

Denying White Privilege

Every year, Welcome Week means students return to Ball State and school starts back in session. Excited and eager to make friends, students make their way to Neely Avenue, a popular street for parties at the beginning of the year. There is a swarm of people crowding the street and surrounding areas, looking for somewhere to meet new people and celebrate the upcoming semester.

Ball State senior Raven King, however, cringes at the thought of her experience with this particular part of campus.

She was out with a group of friends when they came across a house that seemed welcoming. As they approached, they discovered this was not the case.

“There’s too many black people here. You can’t come in.”

She stood there, shocked.

Ten words. Two sentences.

This was enough for Raven to vow to never return to Neely. Three years later, she’s kept her promise.

This was not Raven’s first encounter with racial discrimination. As a child, she was unaware of the judgements being placed on her because of her appearance. She believes she was too young to be aware of why she was treated differently, but looking back, she’s hurt by the way people interacted with her because of her appearance.

“I wasn’t treated like the rest of the kids. I was almost treated like an alien,” she said when she recalled her visits to her step-mother’s family. Raven acknowledged that the town her family lived in had a significant lack of diversity at the time of her visits and remembers the toll it took on her experience.

“At the fairs, I would get totally ignored. We would be at activities for kids and I wasn’t included.”

This discrimination that Raven experienced, both as a child and as an adult, is one experienced by others across the nation.

Forty-nine percent of African Americans reported experiencing a major racist encounter in their life, according to an article published in the Journal of Research on Adolescents in 2006, in a national survey of adult African Americans. These instances range from being hassled by a police officer to being discouraged from seeking higher education.

While some of these types of offenses are deliberate, Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology professor at Yale University, has conducted studies that suggest that stereotypes and prejudices may occur subconsciously, known as implicit stereotyping. In these circumstances, a person may know that they are making a judgment, but they may not be fully aware of the basis on which they are making it.

This idea of subconscious prejudice has been Ball State Professor Dr. John Ambrosio’s understanding of racial discrimination and white privilege.

“[White privilege] is essentially not having to recognize that you do have privilege because of your skin color,” said John, a professor who teaches a course on social foundations.

White privilege is commonly denied by people throughout the United States. According to a survey of 1,000 adults conducted by YouGov, 56 percent of its participants did not believe that discrimination was an issue in their community.

As a caucasian male, John has made himself fully aware of the privileges he receives because of his race and teaches this concept to his students as well.

In teaching his multicultural education classes, John discovered that many of his students disagreed with him. They would often express that, in their opinion, they didn’t benefit from being white. Many of his students came from working class and lower income families. They said that they believed their families were not privileged because of their skin color, but instead because they worked hard.

“Because [white privilege] is invisible to white people, they don’t realize they have it,” he said. “Being privileged doesn’t mean you get ahead… but you benefit psychologically and emotionally from it.”

John teaches his students that white privilege doesn’t just manifest itself economically, but in many different ways.

Raven’s experiences are examples of how white privilege can affect a person emotionally. She remembered being outraged and hurt by the way others interacted with her because of her skin color. These seemingly small interactions were significant enough that she still feels pain at the recollection.

White privilege is also displayed in structural circumstances. John, who completed his graduate work at the University of Washington, said he never felt culturally marginalized while some of his African American peers did.

“They didn’t feel welcomed. There were very few black professors. So [they] never saw someone in a position of influence or authority that looked like [them],” he said.

This is not uncommon for authoritative positions in the United States. According to Fortune, only four percent of the CEOs on their Fortune 500 list are made up of minorities, which also includes Latin Americans and Asians.

Furthermore, the question does not fall on whether or not white privilege exists, but on what can be done to alleviate its effects from society.

Ball State junior James Wells believes that one way to combat racism and white privilege is by diversifying schools.

As a black resident of Gary, Indiana, he was immersed in a majority African American community growing up and felt a “semi-culture shock” when coming to Ball State.

It is his belief that all moral and ethic perceptions people have are developed in grade school. Cultural acceptance comes from constantly being surrounded by people who don’t look, act, dress, or think the same way and being aware of people who may have a different background or family history.

“The school system will go out of its way to celebrate whatever culture is present in the school,” James said.

To him, the higher the number of cultures that are celebrated in a school, the more accepting and understanding its students will be upon graduation. Ultimately, James and many others, believe that the most important part of countering white privilege is to acknowledge its existence and to have dialogue about it.

John admits that the Millennial generation that James and his students are a part of thinks much differently than his and that younger people are having a bigger impact on the way different cultures are perceived, but he still believes there is more that needs to be done.

“Belief systems don’t just go away unless there is some sort of historical reason for it to happen,” John said. He said there must be a “historical unwinding” that occurs in the system itself and not just in people’s mindsets.

Another Ball State professor, Dr. Ruby Cain of the Teacher’s College, agrees with him.

As an African American, Ruby wants to educate her students and community about the struggles and hardships the African American community face. In her course titled, “The Community Educator,” Ruby instructs each individual student to learn about their ancestry and to have discussions about current struggles and how they can contribute to a greater society.

She is active in educating her community and is even a part of a non-profit organization called It Is Well With My Soul, which also attempts to educate the community on different ethnic backgrounds.

Ruby’s course and involvement attempt to start a conversation and make her students aware, but while acknowledgement is the first step of combatting racism, it is one of many.

James said that even those who believe they are not racist can still be part of the problem by not speaking out against white privilege and acknowledging how they benefit from it.

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