“White Privilege”: A Shield against Reason

Douglas G. Campbell

I was sitting in my office at California State University, Chico (CSU Chico), one warm afternoon during the spring 2009 semester when a very agitated student, who was scheduled to graduate in a few weeks, approached me for an extension on a course project.

“Why should I give you an extension?” I tried to ask nicely.

“I am under a lot of stress,” she said.

“What’s the problem?” I inquired.

“You wouldn’t understand. You see, I am the first in my family to go to college, and my family is making a big thing about graduation and expecting a lot from me, putting a lot of stress on me,” she whined.

“Actually, I do understand. I was the first in my family to go to college. Many of your peers are experiencing similar stressors. However, they are getting their assignments done on time.”

She sat staring at me for a moment with a surprised expression. Then she said, as if I would have trouble understanding her words, “But I have had to work to go to school. I have a job.”

“Many of your fellow students work, some as much as forty hours a week, but they still get their assignments done,” I replied.

“Oh, you just don’t get it!” she said with visible anger.

“Actually, I do understand. I had to work my way through college at San Jose State, and at times it was really tough,” I shared.

“Really?” she said with obvious disbelief.

“Yes, really,” I replied.

“I don’t believe you,” she said coldly and arrogantly.

Surprised by her attitude, I responded, “You don’t have to believe me, but why do you doubt me?”

“Well… just look at yourself,” she said with barely disguised disgust.

This student was referring to my skin pigment and sex. Her assumption was that I, being what some people call white, and male, must have had some easy or easier path to college and that I of course came from wealthy, university-educated parents. She applied this stereotype not only to me, but to white students in general, which led her to the conclusion that she was experiencing some unique stress as a result of the amount of pigment in her family’s skin. She therefore not only felt justified in asking for special consideration, but fully expected special treatment, which she did not get.

“Where could she have possibly learned such an obviously false notion?” you might ask. Unfortunately, this is a stereotype promulgated on campuses across this nation. CSU Chico, from which I recently retired, is one of those places that actively encourages the race-based stereotype that I describe. As evidence, I offer the following example.

One day, as I was scanning the pile of notices and junk mail from my campus mailbox, my attention was drawn to a campus-wide announcement from the university’s Office of Diversity concerning an upcoming presentation on “White Privilege and the Politics of Identity.” This abstract of the presentation was printed in large bold letters:

Whiteness is a racial category that has great meaning in terms of granting social power, privilege, and legitimacy to those who are recognized as part of that category….We will ground these analyses in specific examples from the 2008 Presidential election, arguing that whiteness, even in 2009, still functions to legitimate racist ideas, promote unqualified birdbrains, and prevent new structures for social equality from emerging.1

These words were accompanied by black and white pictures of three white males and one white female with emotionless expressions, probably meant to be representatives of the birdbrains.

Besides the childishness of the insult “birdbrains,” my attention was most drawn to the anger, paranoia, and unconstrained emotionality evident in the strong language of the final sentence. Paraphrased, the claim supported the idea that stupid white people get promoted, and that this is because they are white. This dubious claim is only one small emotional step away from the attitude that white people don’t deserve what they have. Such a claim is not only dubious, but also insidious. Once accepted as fact, it leads to a disturbing set of extrapolations such as (a) I am being or will be held back because of my skin color, (b) there is a conspiracy against people of my skin color, (c) white people are the enemy, (d) white people have it easy, (e) I need special treatment and protections to be successful, and (f) it is not my fault if I fail, because the instructor or system is against me. All this feeds the destructive emotions of anger, hatred, jealousy, and distrust.

The philosopher Eric Hoffer noted that those who desire to be carried to power and wealth on the backs of zealots, arm their supporters with a doctrine of false assumptions or unprovable theories designed to incite passions and create a shield against facts and reason.2 I suggest that with regard to race and ethnicity, such a doctrine of highly questionable assumptions is being promulgated on campuses across this nation, and for the very reasons that Hoffer noted, to arouse the passions of students and to stifle their ability to think for themselves. These assumptions are that (1) an all-encompassing white privilege exists in current society, (2) only white people have “the power” to be racists, and (3) race or ethnicity is the defining element of one’s character and value. These assumptions are mutually supporting. When one is challenged, it is defended with the other assumptions; circular thinking is used to defend the doctrine and its outcomes.

Of course, the assumption that there remains today a state of white privilege in the U.S. is at best highly questionable. One need only note the current administration in Washington, D.C. And a look at the unemployment and welfare lists or a drive through small-town America shows that economic and educational challenges are faced by people of all colors. The once middle-class white teenager, whose father is now an unemployed lumber mill worker is not likely to buy the notion that he is somehow privileged because of the shade of his skin. He may even see the notion of white privilege as nothing more than a dishonest excuse for personal failure and a pretense to deny him his right to be judged solely on the basis of his work, accomplishments, and character. Equally ridiculous and self-serving to that young man is the claim that only white people can be racist because racism requires power, and only white people have “the power.” He might well see that claim as nothing more than a rationalization for resentment and envy.

We have as evidence of the inevitable outcome of spreading the concept of white privilege the sad case of Lionel McIntyre, an African American Columbia University architecture professor who, during a discussion of supposed white privilege, violently struck a white woman to resolve their disagreement. According to the other individual Prof. McIntyre took a swing at during the heated discussion, “He was talking to us about white privilege and what I was doing about it—apparently I wasn’t doing enough.”3 Particularly disturbing are the number of African American writers, bloggers, and academics who expressed sympathy for McIntyre’s feelings, but little concern for his victim.4

I suggest that the assumption of white privilege contributed to the reaction of many among the faculty of Duke University and the local African American community to the accusations made by an African American “dancer and escort” against the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006. Before there was any proof that the athletes had committed a crime against the young woman, they were assumed guilty and subject to venomous and hate-filled denunciations. The imputation of white privilege also explains why the verbal attacks on those young men continued long after the accusations had been thoroughly discredited. So rigid is the paradigm that it persists even when facts disprove it.

On university campuses across the United States, the doctrine I have described forms the foundation for what are called “diversity programs” or “diversity action plans.” Without the false stereotype of the racist, privileged, undeserving, and prejudiced white population, there would be no justification for the large expenditures of resources to create an entire bureaucracy to establish and oversee protections, advantages, exclusive opportunities, training programs, targeted recruitment efforts, special services, and unique events for certain categories of people classified as something other than white.

I have observed that the advocates and bureaucrats of these diversity programs are very fond of stereotypes. They use them when it serves their purposes to extend privileges, deny opportunities, justify expenditures, stir animosities, spread feelings of victimization, and impose their social and political paradigms.

Under the umbrella of campus diversity programs are the various academic departments and student organizations based on race, ethnicity, or multiculturalism whose chief purposes are seldom openly admitted. The CSU Chico Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, formerly called the Multicultural Center, advertises itself as “an environment in which all students, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, or differences, feel safe and respected.”5 This implies that on the rest of the campus there may be reason not to feel safe and respected. Thus one of the center’s prime purposes is fulfilled: the maintenance of a state of vague paranoia among minority students to facilitate their acceptance of false assumptions.

Another of the purposes of these centers, departments, and organizations is to encourage students to define themselves and derive their self-worth in terms of their race or ethnicity and the real or mythical accomplishments of others with similar physical characteristics. I offer the following example. I was teaching an evening class some years ago, when I was drawn into a verbal exchange with a young African American student. I vividly remember him standing near the center of the class, stocky, and with his hair arranged in what was supposed to be an African style. On that warm evening he wore a long tunic of West African design. He was excitedly telling the small class about how he discovered who he was by learning African culture and history, and expressed pride in learning about the accomplishments of great African civilizations. When he referred to being part of a shared African culture, I interrupted him.

I suggested that he was fooling himself to believe that any glory from the accomplishments of others belonged to him, and that instead the only legitimate source of self-esteem would come from his own accomplishments. I also suggested that he probably had more in common culturally with a white kid who grew up a few blocks from where he did in his middle-class California hometown than with an African American low-income urban dweller on the East Coast, much less an actual resident of Africa. We then debated. The atmosphere became tense, his hostility became evident and worsened as he slowly grasped that reason was not on his side. Our conversation ended rather uncomfortably. I don’t believe he spoke to me again.

This young man desperately wanted to feel good about himself, not on the basis of his own accomplishments, but on the basis of real and supposed accomplishments of people long dead on a different continent to whom his only and tenuous connection was similar skin color and hair. I suppose he had a right to be angry and confused. Here was a faculty member who was using simple logic and facts to tear down part of the doctrinal shield that his university had been advocating to him.

Of course there is nothing wrong with learning about and experiencing aspects of various cultures, including one’s own background. However, the origin of our surname or the shade of our skin does not define who we are. It does not dictate our values, actions, achievements, or failures, and it does not make us better or worse than another person. It is our personal accomplishments and actions that truly define us.

The undeniable fact is that each human being is both physically and intellectually unique, the product of a unique genetic mix and set of experiences. It is not scientific, reasonable, or moral to assign ideas, opinions, perspectives, or emotions to people based on their physical attributes or surname. Nor is it scientific or logical to claim that any idea, opinion, perspective, emotion, or specific combination of these things belongs to one specific racial or ethnic group.

Yet, on campuses across this nation, such stereotyping is used to create de facto race and ethnicity quotas in the recruitment of students and faculty. According to these stereotypes, white people cannot represent diverse attitudes, perspectives, experiences, and economic backgrounds, while a person of color can provide a unique intellectual contribution by virtue of his race or ethnicity. Of course this is not supported by legitimate science or research, but that is unimportant to the advocates of the current diversity paradigm, for they have a shield against reason and for them the end justifies the means.

Can their shield against reason be broken? I do see some encouraging signs. The situation is fluid, official support for the myth of white privilege and for enrollment and hiring quotas is always inconsistent, decreasing when the public shows interest, and increasing when public scrutiny lessens. Many students and faculty pay only lip service to some or all of the current diversity paradigm, although most dare not risk publicly challenging it. The shared suffering of the current economic crisis has made a mockery of the concept of white privilege for most students. Simplistic correlations between wealth, unemployment, education, and race and ethnicity no longer convince young people sophisticated enough to note that self-determining factors are not considered in such correlations.

Furthermore, thirty-year-old and older studies referenced to prove the existence of white privilege or embedded racism no longer impress many of today’s students. Faculty stung by reduced operating and research budgets or anticipating future layoffs are increasingly questioning the funding of individuals and campus organizations that are based on the current diversity paradigm. The taking of increasingly extreme positions by some diversity advocates has made the true nature of their mindset more transparent. The reality of having to compete for jobs in a difficult economy has refocused many students back onto serious academics, thereby undermining the reach of those departments and programs that stress victimhood over useful knowledge and skills. The efforts to defund race and ethnicity studies programs in Arizona state universities and schools are also encouraging.

I see a window of opportunity to challenge the doctrinal shield against reason. I suggest that now is the time for all those who oppose any or all of the assumptions that I have described to take a stand for science, rational analysis, integrity, justice, and fairness. We should be clear in the classroom, on committees, in public discussions, and at every opportunity that the only type of diversity that should be advocated in any university or school is intellectual diversity, which advances tolerance and respect for differing ideas, opinions, and perspectives. We must speak the truth: that true intellectual diversity within an academic department or any organization cannot be attained by focusing on or exploiting skin color, family origin, or sex. We must remind all that an environment of true intellectual diversity attracts thinkers from far and wide, from all kinds of backgrounds.

We should be emphasizing to our students that the value a person has to a community or an organization as well as his self-esteem should never be based on group identity. We should never facilitate self-segregation or associations and friendships based merely on race or ethnicity.

At every opportunity we should oppose and challenge the myth of white privilege, and all other stereotypes. We should make it abundantly clear that we have the moral high ground, for ours is a campaign against fermenting hate, racism, jealousy, and pernicious stereotyping. Ours is a campaign against the myths that enslave individuals to predetermined cultures, relationships, and politics. Ours is the campaign for true diversity.

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