Westmont College and White Privilege

by intersectionalstranger

The following article is  by a senior faculty member at Westmont College. The contributor says this piece was written to open up conversation on the mistakes we’ve made and thereby to make room for a hospitable Westmont. Indeed, I found this reflection strikingly refreshing;  just the sort of searching self-examination that Westmont would do well to explore. Please consider this blog post an invitation to enter into this conversation — Editor

On a study abroad program, one of the first productions we saw was a joint venture by the Market Theatre of Johannesburg and the Citizens Theatre of Glasgow. With a Scottish and South African cast, The Girl in the Yellow Dress focuses on a relationship between a black African man and a white European woman. And the story of the ambiguities of their relationship comes to suggest far-reaching patterns of white privilege and stereotypical expectations. A Japanese-American student within the Westmont group recognized those patterns astutely, acknowledging that “Celia’s life screams of privilege and an ignorance of the world opposite of her own,” exuding “a mindset of superiority over others, what Pierre calls a ‘floating above,’ the result of a privileged lifestyle.” Extrapolating from the way in which “Celia is unaware of how lucky she is to have grown up in a privileged majority white home” to wider patterns in which “many are unaware of the negative experience of the black minority culture and in denial that racism still exists,” the student demonstrated how both characters had been damaged.

Even before reading the student’s play review (from which I’ve been quoting), I was hoping that The Girl in the Yellow Dress might provide a means to initiate classroom discussion about the nature and extent of white privilege. I thought the topic was so important that the co-leader and I arranged for the entire group to discuss the play (not just the subset taking the theatre class). The discussion did not go well. I did not want to put students of color on the spot by calling on them to speak about issues of white privilege (there were four students of color in a group of 26). And a number of white students spoke quite dismissively, largely denying the very existence of white privilege. In the category of “mistakes I made that I regret,” I was never able to turn the corner and create a situation where anyone had an “Aha!” moment of recognizing the relevance to their own experience. I tried to console myself that we had begun a conversation which could continue at a later day. After the semester was over, I found out that was not the way some students of color experienced that discussion. Some had been so put off by the obliviousness and insensitivity of some of the white students (and maybe by my inept handling of the situation) that they felt silenced.

Another course dealt with immigrant literature and the program co-leader and I continued to try to find ways to address topics of racial justice. From Westmont we obtained a copy of the film, The Color of Fear, which we arranged to show one morning after breakfast at a joint meeting of two classes which together included every student on the program. Perhaps I should acknowledge that we did not tell students in advance that we would be showing a documentary dealing with white privilege, and I think some students felt that we had sprung it on them in a way that was somehow unfair. I heard a couple of students referring to that day as “the morning we woke up to racism” in a tone that seemed ironic and resentful rather than grateful or enlightened.

But The Color of Fear did affect some students intensely. We moved straight into a discussion following the showing of the film. There were lots of comments going in lots of different directions and it was difficult for my co-leader and I to control the genie we’d just let out of the bottle. Some students were making theological pronouncements, some were resentful that racial issues were being raised yet again, some were upset that so much attention was being given to racial prejudice and not to prejudice based on sexual orientation. But one Korean-American student spoke up tearfully about how often she was treated as if she were invisible, and how often she was treated as if she couldn’t understand English well, and how often she was categorized on the basis of her skin color. She was daring to spill her guts in a room that was 86% white. None of the other three students of color said a word about their own experience. And then one of the white students turned to respond to a theological point another white student had made—and that set off a whole round of responses. The Korean-American spilling her guts had just said sometimes she seemed invisible—and her fellow students responded by treating her as if she were invisible. I think I’m usually pretty good at leading a discussion, but I really blew it that day by not intervening to say we needed to deal with what had just been said. A real discussion has to make room for comments that might seem to be going in a different direction. But I missed what might have been a teachable moment.

One other comment sticks with me from that discussion. One of the white men in The Color of Fear when asked his ethnicity responds that he doesn’t have any ethnicity, that he’s just an American and thinks everybody else in the room should just regard themselves as American. Of course that’s a way of saying “I don’t have to acknowledge or deal with the way your experience differs from mine, since my experience should be treated as normative.” In our own group’s discussion, one of the white students said she knew the answer to the problem. The answer, she said, was that we were all one in Christ. While that’s certainly true at an important level, it can also be a way of saying “I don’t have to listen or respond to the way your experience differs from mine.” And it can also be a way of saying “my experience is normative” so “just be a Christian in the same way that I am.”

I spent a lot of time listening to the Korean-American student in the days following that encounter. The other students of color also reached out to her privately to offer support that they had felt too intimidated to offer in the group setting. But I feel like I just abjectly failed to get any of the 22 white students to reflect at a deep level about the nature of white privilege. Maybe I’m wrong. I can hope that a few experienced a slight difference in the way they think about the issue. But I can’t recall evidence for that hope.

In her thoughtful critique of her Westmont experience, Joy Ubani calls for hiring more faculty of color. (Yes, and faculty need to be welcoming of diversity in ways that will help retain faculty of color!) She also calls for mandatory cultural sensitivity training, and her experience demonstrates just how acutely we need that. I would also like more training on how to facilitate discussions regarding unconscious racism and white privilege.