So much of my college’s anti-racism and diversity efforts had to do with white privilege that I was almost made to believe that this was my main issue. I should engage with diverse others because I most likely grew up in a homogenous suburb. I should study abroad because I need to experience other cultures. I should do service projects in order to meet and help people who are not like me. The reality: I was a black Latino from a lower-income, immigrant community in New York who had a difficult time adjusting to the racial/economic make-up of a college campus. For me, addressing race and identity was not reducible to white privilege.
Austin Channing Brown has written an excellent post about “White Privilege Weariness.” As someone with experience in leading conversations on privilege at predominately white institutions, she asks: “Is it possible for us to talk about race, even white privilege, without making white people the center? I wonder if it's possible to bring the narratives of people of color to the center, to hold them for their own sake. I'm trying to recall if I have ever experienced a workshop/training that sought healing for people of color rather than education for white people.”
The problem with the discourse of white privilege is that it often crowds out the concerns and agency of students of color. We are there for the pedagogical consumption of our white peers. Any talk or event that deviates from that as the main purpose is subject to interrogation: “What can I do? How does this apply to me?”
How much of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” is mostly about the negotiation of white identity? I suppose that is why movies like The Help and Avatar, and campaigns like Kony 2012 are so appealing. The “other” is present but the main narrative has to do with white guilt and with the possibilities of white self-redemption. It’s all a kind of solipsism capable of absorbing diversity into itself.
Another problem with the language of privilege has to do with results. How much has privilege-talk, per se, improved conditions for people of color? The language of privilege has accelerated and become mainstream in American society. Yet, it has not necessarily worked to transform institutional inequality. What happened with Macklemore at the 2014 Grammys provided a good example. With all due respect to Macklemore as an artist (heck, I’ll admit that I like the thrift shop song), the truth is that he robbed Kendrick Lamar for best rap album. Those are not my words but the words that Macklemore, himself, texted to Kendrick after the awards. Ironically, Macklemore had already made a song titled “White Privilege” in which he critically reflects on white rappers gentrifying hip-hop and taking away black artists’ profits. Nevertheless, none of this changed the patterns of Grammy voting and results. Neither did it inspire Macklemore to address the problem in his acceptance speech. At the end of the day, what he did do was publicly share a text message showing that he felt bad.
What can we learn about the discourse of white privilege from Macklemore? I think that the theologian Amaryah Shaye put it best in her tweets. Stringing them together, she wrote: "What this event really shows is how useless the language of white privilege is in bringing about systemic change. Making white people aware of white privilege just gives white people more language to talk about themselves with while avoiding any kind of structural redress. Macklemore is probably feeling guilty right now, but what good is that?"
Thinking back to my college experience, what did the incessant focus on privilege do? It did not help me think about my own identity. It did not empower me. It did not increase the retention rate of students of color at my school. It did not change the fact that no faculty of color have ever retired from my college and few have ever been tenured.
Can white privilege-talk be more than a self-congratulatory pat on the back that changes nothing?