Toward the end of February, I was invited to speak on white privilege at a Zoom session for the Lima, Ohio, public library. My invitation resulted from a 2019 column that I wrote titled “White Privilege: An Alternative Perspective.” I began that article by discussing the book burning of Jennine Capo Crucet’s novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” which occurred after a talk she gave at Georgia Southern University. Some GSU students strongly disagreed with Crucet’s claims of white people being privileged, leading to an extremely contentious question-and-answer session.
In continuing this discussion for the Lima library, I opened with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that perfectly exemplifies our present situation concerning racism and race relations: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” We have every communication medium available to us in our digital age, but sadly, there’s a lot of shouting and finger-pointing and not much space for differences of opinion. Our racial and political clashes of opinions have been concisely summed up in the latest trending catchphrase “cancel culture,” which is the manifestation of the fear King described regarding our lack of meaningful and compassionate interaction.
In my presentation, I pointed out how many conservatives who vehemently dispute the notion of white privilege feel that their views are being vilified in the mainstream media, which they accuse of abrasive liberal bias. I included a quote from James Miller, an economics professor at Smith College. Miller was interviewed by New York Times reporter Michael Powell for a story on the case of former Smith student Oumou Kanoute, who alleged that she was racially profiled while eating lunch in one of the campus dorms in 2018. Kanoute’s claims were investigated, and no evidence of profiling was found, but Smith College remains in the news due to Jodi Shaw, a white former staff member, filing a discrimination complaint against the school for creating a “racially hostile workplace.” In Powell’s article, Miller provided his assessment of the edgy racial climate at Smith, stating, “My perception is that if you’re on the wrong side of issues of identity politics, you’re not just mistaken, you’re evil.”
I did not delve into identity politics in my Lima talk, and no one asked me any questions about it later in the session. Instead, I continued to focus on the tone I set with Dr. King’s philosophy with another quote from him: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” As fiery debates revolving around whiteness and privilege continue in the media, the fact that we are connected indirectly is rarely mentioned. I used an illustration of school disparities in urban and rural communities to further explain this point. For example, many white children who attend rural schools and many black children who attend urban schools suffer from poverty, have fewer academic resources and have lower educational attainment. Poor white and black students not having the resources to be what they “ought to be” affects all of us because some may never get the opportunity to attend college, pursue their career goals or display their God-given talents. Our society is robbed by not benefiting from what these students have to offer.
I ended my presentation with how I believe King would quote Acts 17:26 today if he were addressing white privilege, emphasizing that God created us to live with one another peacefully. Our biggest problem is that we continue to view one another through the lens of race and not a prism of godly love. I look at privilege as being related more to class inequities, which we can successfully address if we diligently work to provide everyone with fair opportunities. But we’ll never get there if we remain hung up on race.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc