Recently, the first black American president spoke candidly about his personal experiences with racism. He refrained from publicly discussing this issue until his second term in office, when demonstrations throughout the U.S. protested the “Not guilty” verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin.
The negative backlash for discussing this topic was remarkable, but not surprising. Our research shows that white-student evaluations of instructor performance may be negatively impacted by discussions of racism and privilege. Apparently, this research finding is also relevant to the nationwide political arena. News commentators and others criticized the president for dividing the nation along racial lines, apparently ignoring evidence that our country was already divided, so much so that demonstrations were already taking place in numerous major cities.
Showing true political astuteness, the phrase that the president did not use was “white privilege,” although the examples that he gave of his personal experiences were certainly illustrations of this concept. White privilege refers to the numerous societal benefits that white individuals experience due to skin color. These benefits are not readily apparent to white individuals because the benefits are a part of their normal daily lives.
Being followed by security personnel while shopping or being stopped while walking or driving through affluent neighborhoods are just two examples of the discrimination experienced daily by persons of color in this country. This problem is so serious that many black parents carefully teach their children how to behave in these situations in order to protect them from escalations that could result in loss of life.
Yet many white individuals believe that racism is a societal problem that is primarily restricted to the distant historical past. The majority of whites today view themselves as victims of reverse racism more often than they view blacks as victims of racism. Overt and covert racism continue to be major problems in today’s society, particularly on predominantly white college campuses.
In a 2010 study conducted by Annemarie Vaccaro, the social climate on a college campus in the northeast was described as hostile for women and persons of color. At other institutions, researchers have reported that 65 percent of black students experience verbal racial harassment. In fact, about 50 percent of white students admit to exhibiting open dislike toward others because of race, engaging in physical violence, name calling, and negative facial expressions.
Derald Wing Sue and others have described “racial microaggressions,” or “the brief, commonplace, and daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental slights and indignities” directed persons of color, which often occur automatically and unintentionally. The negative effects that modern racism and racial microaggressions have on students of color on predominantly white campuses include academic and psychological problems, as well as risk of suicide.
A major corollary of white privilege is that it is invisible to white individuals. Therefore, when students of color attempt to describe their feelings of being uncomfortable or feeling alienated on predominantly white campuses, they are likely to be viewed as “complainers” or “paranoid.” If they mention racism, students of color incur the risk of being seen as individuals who are merely seeking illegitimate special favors. Attempts to discuss issues of privilege and covert racism with white individuals are often met with a wall of indifference, perhaps even hostility that is very difficult to penetrate.
Given the negative commentary that followed his comments on racism, the president of the United States appears to have encountered this divisive racial wall as well.
It is the responsibility of college and university professors to prepare their students for successful careers in a culturally diverse and global society, but recent history suggests that we are failing in this obligation. The American Psychological Association’s educational goals for the psychology major include sociocultural and international awareness, with learning outcomes regarding mastery of concepts related to power and privilege. Other professional organizations, including the American Sociological Association, have developed similar learning goals for teaching in higher education.
Instructors have been charged with teaching their white students to understand their own privileged positions in society relative to those of marginalized groups. Although the concept of privilege can and should be applied to discussions of sexual orientation, disability status, and other factors relevant to prejudice and discrimination, the seminal paper in this context is Peggy McIntosh’s list of white privileges. In fact, we have demonstrated that this list provides a useful tool for teaching these concepts.
The white privileges identified by Ms. McIntosh involve a wide range of human activities, including shopping, housing, obtaining medical and legal assistance, travel, television viewing, career-training, child safety, and academic curricula. All of these various human activities and contexts are impacted by racism for persons of color.
There are numerous resources for developing effective teaching methods in the education of white students about racism. Yet we have observed that merely presenting white students with Ms. McIntosh’s list of white privileges can have a measurable positive effect on their attitudes about racism. As educators, we can improve race relations in this country by helping our white students become more aware of situations that are impacted by racism and privilege.
The president of our country felt it necessary to use a teachable moment to educate the American public about racism and privilege. He did it in front of an entire nation and the world. Would it have been necessary if we had been teaching our students about these important societal issues in our much smaller classrooms?
Su L. Boatright
Professor of Psychology
Undergraduate Program in Psychology
University of Rhode Island
Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design
University of Rhode Island
Associate Professor of Psychology and Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design
University of Rhode Island