As I was reading about Georgia Southern University students burning Jennine Capo Crucet’s novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” a story about Crucet’s experience as a Latina student at a predominately white institution, I began thinking about how we can change the conversation regarding white privilege.
Crucet, who’s a professor at the University of Nebraska, spoke to Georgia Southern students in October about her book. The discussion became a bit heated after a student asked Crucet a question about white privilege, expressing disagreement with Crucet’s perspective on the upper hand she believes white students have. Some students then proceeded to burn copies of Crucet’s book after her lecture, which was caught on social media. Part of one tweet read: “These people decide to burn her book because ‘it’s bad and that race is bad to talk about.’ White people need to realize that they are the problem and that their privilege is toxic.”
Believing that white people are “the problem” is the discourse that we need to change. In our present political age, white privilege, along with other socially constructed terms such as “microaggression,” are at the forefront of discussions about racial discrimination and inequality on college campuses.
White privilege, by simple definition, is the benefit that white people are afforded in society due to the effects of institutional racism, even if they are unaware of these advantages. Dialogue about institutional racism centers on education, income, health and criminal justice disparities resulting from racist practices ingrained in our social and political establishments.
Microaggressions are defined as adverse interactions or biased snubs toward a minority group. These offenses can be deliberate or inadvertent. For example, a person of a minority group may be intentionally ignored by his or her white colleagues during an important business meeting. White privilege could be relevant in this scenario if this minority professional were purposefully overlooked for a deserved promotion that was given to a white colleague with fewer credentials.
While I am well educated regarding the historical racial discrimination and deprivation that is ever present in the workplace and our nation as a whole, I don’t like the term white privilege, which is also linked to “white guilt.” I am saying this as an African American educator who teaches mostly white students at The Ohio State University-Lima Campus.
Lima is a rural, working-class region in northwestern Ohio. I am blessed with the opportunity to help all of my students understand racial complexities and discuss ways that we can find common ground moving forward, especially as their generation matures.
In my television diversity courses last year, I invited my pastor to speak after I finished the opening section on 1970s prime-time shows. My students had just learned how Norman Lear examined race, sexism and economic inequality in his sitcoms “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.”
My pastor spoke to my students about her life growing up as a young black girl during the latter part of the Jim Crow era in Virginia. She described the shame of having to walk on the other side of the street when a white person was approaching and the anguish she endured when one of her white friends was punished for associating with her. She explained that her faith in God, rooted in a strong Christian family, got her through the worst of times. One of her most profound statements: “None of what happened in the past is your fault.” After her lecture, several students told me they had never heard a black person describe what it was like living through segregation in America. One student was holding back tears.
These are the types of conversations we should be having about race. In my television diversity course, students learn why racial prejudice is still prevalent in our country, but I also emphasize that this unpleasant truth does not negate the fact that they are hard workers. I refuse to look at my students through the prism of race, but I pray and ask God to give me words of grace to speak over their lives as I teach them.
White people are not the problem. It is the ugly spirit of deep-seated racism that we must all fight together.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc