Ask a Scholar: Is "White Privilege" a Good Way to Teach about Race?

Carol Iannone

Dear Ask a Scholar,

Students at our daughter's school were invited to the White Privilege Conference. I would argue that this is a very divisive approach to teaching diversity in American Culture; it teaches victimization. Isn't there a better method to teach race and gender dynamics than this loaded gun?

Answered by Dr. Carol Iannone, independent scholar and editor-at-large of the NAS's journal Academic Questions. Dr. Iannone received her Ph.D. in English literature from SUNY, Stony Brook, and has written widely on cultural and intellectual issues. She has served on the faculty of the Gallitan School of New York University and was the 2009 recipient of the National Association of Scholars’ Barry R. Gross Memorial Award.

The White Privilege Conference has been held annually for twelve years, and is sponsored by a consortium of institutions of philanthropy and higher education in the Minneapolis area. This year's conference was held at the Sheraton Bloomington in Minneapolis from April 13-16.

The reader is right that the idea of "White Privilege" is divisive, and I would add that the way "diversity" is taught today is also divisive. And neither is a serious or legitimate effort to teach about race. (For the purposes of presenting a concise discussion I will focus on race and leave gender aside.) "White Privilege" is not a pedagogical or scholarly concept but a politicized notion designed to empower blacks and other minorities through claims of victimhood and to instill guilt in white students in order to make them more malleable to the social engineering of left liberal experts. It is based on envy, resentment, false pride, false humility, and a desire to gain power over others without having to earn it. It is the opposite of education in every sense.

Here are some  examples of this:

According to the conference website, "White Privilege" includes being able to:

  • assume that most of the people you or your children study in history classes and textbooks will be of the same race, gender, or sexual orientation as you are
  • assume that your failures will not be attributed to your race, or your gender
  • assume that if you work hard and follow the rules, you will get what you deserve
  • [achieve] success without other people being surprised; and without being held to a higher standard
  • go out in public without fear of being harassed or constantly worried about physical safety
  • not have to think about your race, or your gender, or your sexual orientation, or disabilities, on a daily basis... 

First of all, as is typical of today’s left, these goals and demands are based on the pretense that we have not been living under several decades of leftist rule in education in which, for one thing, the curriculum has already been transformed in the direction of promoting nonwhite and minority achievements and denigrating the key white historical figures of our nation. Further, the general import of this list is to freight generally neutral, innocent attitudes with opprobrium, aimed at making the white person guilty for the very air he breathes.

Essentially, whites are being led to feel culpable for being a majority at all. The solution is to diminish themselves in spirit and in numbers. Of course, this has actually been happening since the mid 1960s, with the strong support of white leaders on both the left and the right, but the complaints would have it seem that we are still living in an age of unquestioned white rule. The truth is, even if whites disappeared altogether, conferences on white privilege would continue, because the whole outlook being cultivated is one of negativity toward whites. Those who indulge this form of thinking are living a secondary life, living not in relation to the truth but in relation to a resented "Other" who supposedly holds all power in his hands. If the "Other" were to disappear, they would still continue to relate themselves to it because this connection has become the cornerstone of their intellectual and emotional formation.

Another way in which "White Privilege" is the opposite of education is its use of vague undefined concepts and its encouragement of belief in a vague undefined utopian future. The conference website features a quotation from multicultural theorist Gary Howard in which he outlines how to create “change”:

"Whites need to acknowledge and work through the negative historical implications of 'Whiteness' and create for ourselves a transformed identity as White people committed to equity and social change...To teach my White students and my own children...that there are different ways of being White, and that they have a choice as White people to become champions of justice and social healing."

Notice the presumption of guilt (“negative historical implications of ‘Whiteness’”), the unexamined premises (current ways of being white are no good), the false choices (“become champions of justice” or, presumably, defend injustice), and the undefined terms (“social healing”) being presented as apodictical givens rather than as subjects for examination and reflection. And notice the destabilizing, quasi-Stalinist concept of "a transformed identity" and the evocation of a future paradise of "equity," "justice," and "social healing," even though we're not exactly sure of what we are to be transformed into, or of what our healing will consist.

"Our conference is on the radar of conservatives because it threatens the status quo, because we're not just talking about individual change, we're talking about systems change," University of Minnesota professor Lisa Albrecht, a local organizer, remarked.

No, the reason we are concerned is that instead of imparting to young students an appreciative understanding of the natural rights and freedoms guaranteed the individual under our Constitution, this approach substitutes a set of inchoate, ill-defined aspirations based on group identity. And again, notice the reference to overthrowing the status quo, when, in reality, the status quo in education has been radical left-liberal, multiculturalist, and anti-"white power" for the last forty years.

Finally, the promotion of the idea of White Privilege is meant as a distraction from the failure of schools to provide a decent education to minority youth and to acknowledge the self-destructive habits that create obstacles to learning, such as lack of self-discipline and disdain for "acting white," or, even more important, to demand that society address the larger problem of widespread fatherlessness.

"Our school system has been set up ... to perpetuate white supremacy and white privilege," declares one of the conference's spokesmen. Minority students "do not drop out—they are pushed out."

What is the factual basis for this amazing assertion? Let us remember that prior to the Civil Rights movement the complaint was that in the South blacks were taught in segregated schools, which, according to the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown decision, made blacks feel inferior and damaged their ability to perform. The path to academic equality between the races, we were told, was through integration. Then, in the 1980s, the complaint was reversed by 180 degrees, and we were told that what caused academic failure was that blacks were given the same education as whites, the same history, the same cultural models. The path to academic equality between the races, we were now told, was through multiculturalism, in which blacks would be presented with nonwhite cultural models. And now, another quarter of a century later, and after many more campaigns to improve minority performance, ranging from charter schools to Goals 2000 to No Child Left Behind, we're still being told that "our school system has been set up to perpetuate white supremacy” and to push minorities out. In reality, improving the performance of blacks and other minorities has been the central concern of American education for several decades.

Furthermore, imagine how impossible it becomes to learn when you're being constantly told that the reason you are not doing well is that white racism is keeping you down. That assures that blacks will not become self-starters, but remain mired in racial animosity.

Not only that, but many of the methods employed to improve minority academic performance have damaged it and led many blacks to give up in frustration. Whole language, for example, advanced vociferously in the 1980s as a better way to teach minorities, has deprived generations of students of the chance to acquire reliable reading skills through the proven method of phonics.

A better way to teach about race would be to point to the principles of the American Founding that allowed for the expansion of rights and the inclusion of many disparate people within our polity. It would emphasize that the individual is of primary importance in America. It would acknowledge that while some measure of group identification is legitimate, group identity cannot be the foundation for our system. It would acknowledge historical sins but also the efforts at redemption, and it would emphasize the spiritual importance of gratitude for blessings rather than resentment and complaint. It would discourage racial group comparisons and encourage pride in individual achievement, however modest, if genuinely earned. It would emphasize that only a people united across group lines can uphold our system of self-government and ensure its proper furtherance. It would convey how this is being part of what Lincoln called the last best hope of mankind, and how this is true privilege, that is, partaking in the unique historical achievement that is the United States of America.

* * *

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