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INTRODUCTION TO SOCIOLOGY 111 (Sociology of Race/Ethnicity)
Dr. Matthew A. Jendian Associate Professor of Sociology California State University, Fresno
July 1, 2004 (revised June 2006 and August 2007)
(The following essay is compiled from excerpts of Allan G. Johnson’s Privilege, Power, & Difference,McGraw Hill, 2000, and Paula S. Rothenberg’s White Privilege, Worth Publishers, 2005, which I have adapted, personalized, and made directly applicable to our class.)
Vast amounts of knowledge, from scientific research to passionate memoirs, document the trouble surrounding issues of difference in society, trouble relating to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class.
Despite this, we are, both individually and collectively, stuck in a kind of paralysis that perpetuates the trouble and its human consequences. All of us are part of the problem. But, we could also make ourselves part of the solution if only we knew how.
This course provides an introduction to a way of thinking about the trouble that has the potential to help us become part of the solution by getting us unstuck. We will be able to see not only where the trouble comes from, but how we, as individuals, are connected to it, which is the only thing that gives us the potential to make a difference.
Immediately, when most people read/hear the above: “that all of us are part of the problem” and “we as individuals are connected to it,” they think they are about to be told they’ve done something wrong, that blame and guilt aren’t far behind, especially if they are members of any of the dominant groups—white, male, heterosexual, or of a privileged social class. This defensive reaction has done more than perhaps anything else to keep us stuck in our current paralysis by preventing each of us from taking the steps required to become part of the solution.
As a person who is white, male, heterosexual, and a middle class professional, I know about such feelings of defensiveness from my own life. But as a sociologist, I also know that it’s possible to understand the world and myself in relation to it in ways that get past the defensive feelings and give us all a common ground from which to work for change.
It’s my hope that this course will have something to offer almost everyone who wants to deal with these difficult issues and help change the world for the better. If we are successful, then the meaning and emotional weight of concepts like privilege and white racism will soften and shift.
The project of interrogating whiteness and identifying white privilege will have a different meaning for us depending upon our own racial/ethnic background. While some of us who are white may be uncomfortable with the conversation and seek ways to deny responsibility for benefiting from white privilege, others may feel guilty and become overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility for enjoying an unearned advantage. Some of us who are not white may feel we have long been aware of the power of whiteness to shape culture and values and may feel we have intimate knowledge of how white privilege operates. Others of us who are not white may feel a sense of confusion when confronted with the claim that whiteness provides the norm or standard by which other things are judged. Wherever we are and whatever experiences, doubts,
and expectations we bring to this class, we are likely to find that the very diversity of our backgrounds and the specific relationships we have to the questions being raised and studied will turn out to be important and valuable aspects of a shared learning experience. Whiteness and white privilege will look different and have different meanings for everyone. By sharing our perspectives, each of us is likely to become aware of aspects of our society and forms of social interaction that previously were invisible to us.
WE ADDRESS IT OR SUPPRESS IT
Many people have an immediate negative reaction to words like racism, sexism, or privilege. They don’t want to look at what the words point to. People ignore the trouble by trying to get rid of the language that names it. They discredit the words or twist the meaning into a phobia or make them invisible. It’s become almost impossible to say racism or white privilege without most whites becoming so uncomfortable and defensive that conversation is impossible. And that’s part of the privilege—to ignore the reality of racism when it makes us uncomfortable, to rationalize why it really isn’t so bad, or to deny our role in it.
Since few people like to see themselves as bad, the words are taboo in polite company, including many diversity training programs. So instead of talking about the racism and sexism that plague people’s lives, people talk about “diversity” and “tolerance” and “understanding
difference.” Those are good things to talk about, but they are not the same as the “isms.”
How do you talk about the consequences of social domination, subordination, and oppression without saying the words dominant, subordinate, or oppression? Our collective house is burning down, and we’re tiptoeing around afraid to say “Fire.”
The bottom line is that a trouble we can’t talk about is a trouble we can’t do anything about. Words like racism and privilege point to something difficult and painful in our history that continues in everyday life in our society. That means there is NO WAY to talk about it without difficulty and without pain. It is possible, however, to talk about it in ways that make the pain worth it. To do that, we must reclaim these lost and discredited words so that we can use them to name and make sense of the truth of what’s going on.
Reclaiming the words begins with seeing that they RARELY mean what most people think they mean. Racist isn’t another word for “bad white people,” just as patriarchy isn’t a bit of nasty code for “men.” Oppression and dominance name social realities that we can participate in without being oppressive or dominating people. You’d never know this by listening to how these words are used in the mass media, popular culture, and over the dinner table.
Members of privileged groups will have an easier time in this course if they try to tolerate the discomfort of such words and NOT take them as personal accusations. That’s not how I use them. As a person who is white, male, middle-class, and heterosexual, I know that in some ways these words are about me. But in equally important ways, the words are not about me because they name something much larger than I, something I didn’t invent or create, but that was passed on to me as a legacy when I was born into this society—positions I occupy in the social
If I’m going to be part of the solution to that legacy, it’s important to step back from my defensive sensitivity to such language and look at the reality it points to. Then I can understand what it names and what it has to do with me and, most important, what I can do about it.
DIFFERENCE ISN’T THE PROBLEM; PRIVILEGE IS
The trouble around difference is really about privilege and power—the existence of privilege and the unequal distribution of power that maintains it. The trouble is rooted in a legacy we all inherited. It isn’t our fault; it wasn’t caused by something we did or didn’t do, but now that it’s ours, it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to deal with it.
Talking about power and privilege isn’t easy, which is why people rarely do. The reason for this avoidance seems to be a great fear of anything that might make people in the dominant groups uncomfortable or “pit groups against each other.” This fear keeps people from looking at what’s going on and makes it impossible to do anything about the reality that is deeper down, so that we can move towards the kind of world that would be better for everyone.
Ignoring privilege keeps us in a state of unreality, by promoting the illusion that difference by itself is the problem. Denying that privilege exists is a serious barrier to change.
The trouble around diversity, then, isn’t just that people differ from one another. The trouble is produced by a world organized in ways that encourage people to use difference to include or exclude, reward or punish, credit or discredit, elevate or oppress, value or devalue, leave alone or harass, and ultimately reproduce a hierarchy of what is valued.
Individuals are the ones who experience privilege or the lack of it, but individuals aren’t what are actually privileged. Privilege, rather, is defined in relation to a group or social category. I’m not race privileged because of who I am as a person but rather because of what social categories others put me in.
We don’t have to be special or even feel special in order to have access to privilege, because privilege doesn’t derive from who we are or what we’ve done. It is a social arrangement that depends on which category we happen to be sorted into by other people and how they treat us as a result.
To have privilege is to participate in a system that confers advantage and dominance at the expense of other people (and this can cause distress to those who benefit from it—that’s where the guilt may come from and some may go to great lengths to avoid feeling and looking at it).
The prevalence of racism, sexism, and heterosexism is among our worst-kept secrets. Much of the time, people manage to act as though nothing’s wrong. Privilege/oppression is the proverbial elephant in the room, and if the teacher or the boss won’t talk about it, the subordinate trying to learn the ropes and get ahead certainly won’t be likely to take the risk of making powerful people uncomfortable by bringing it up.
Most organizations’ failure in the area of diversity occurs not because they’re run by mean- spirited white male bigots—few are—but because they deal with diversity badly or not at all,
unless a crisis forces the issue. Even then, they deal with it only enough to make it seem to go away, which usually doesn’t include confronting the reality of privilege and oppression.
The oppressive effect of privilege is often so insidious that the dominant groups complain whenever it’s brought up for discussion. They feel impatient and imposed upon. “Come on, stop whining. Things aren’t that bad. Maybe they used to be, but not anymore. It’s time to move on. Get over it.”
But people who are members of the dominant groups—white, male, heterosexual, middle or upper class—have to ask themselves how they would know how bad it really is to be a person of color or female or gay/lesbian or working or lower class. What life experience would qualify a white person to know the day-to-day reality of racism? People of color, by comparison, are experts in the dynamics of race privilege, because they live with the oppressive consequences of it 24 hours a day.
Most members of the dominant group do not see privilege as a problem (for a variety of reasons). Confronting racism and sexism is hard and sometimes painful and even frightening work.
If people can own the problem and see that the trouble is truly their trouble and not someone else’s, people are more likely to do the serious work on issues of privilege.
The discomfort, defensiveness, and fear come in part from not knowing how to talk about privilege without feeling vulnerable to anger and blame. There is no way to do this work without the possibility that people will feel uncomfortable or frightened or threatened. But the risk isn’t nearly as big as it seems.
BREAKING THE PARALYSIS AND MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Breaking the paralysis begins with realizing that the social world consists of a lot more than individuals. We are always participating in something larger than ourselves—what sociologists call social systems—and systems are more than collections of people. To understand what happens in society, we have to look at both the society and how individual people participate in it. If patterns of racism exist in a society, the reason is never just a matter of white people’s personalities, feelings, or intentions. We also have to understand how we participate in particular kinds of social systems, how this participation shapes their behavior, and what consequences it produces.
This is how systems of privilege work: good people with good intentions make systems happen that produce all kinds of injustice and suffering for people in cultural devalued and excluded groups. AND, if you take a different path and respond differently, people would let you know it and you’d encounter a good deal of resistance.
To perpetuate privilege and oppression, we don’t even have to do anything consciously to support it. Just our silence is crucial for ensuring its future. No system of social oppression can continue to exist without most people choosing to remain silent about it.
If most whites spoke out against racism; if most men talked about sexism; if most heterosexuals stood openly against heterosexism; if middle and upper class individuals advocated on behalf of the working class and others who are oppressed, it would be a critical first step towards revolutionary change. But the vast majority of “good people” are silent on these issues, and it’s easy for others to read their silence as support.
Absolute/either-or thinking divides the world up into different kinds of people—good people and bad people, racists and non-racists, good guys and sexist pigs—when human experience seems to be more holistic, involving elements of both ends of these continuums.
If we have a vision of what we want social life to look like, we have to create paths that lead in that direction. We can choose whether to be just part of the problem or also to be part of the solution.
For example, if white privilege makes it easier for white people to get a hearing in some situations, then those of us who are white can use that opportunity to speak out against racism and other social inequities. We can all protest incidents of racist harassment or intolerance on our campuses. We can go to school board hearings and argue against public school budgets that
perpetuate segregation while “protecting” white property values. We can speak out against racial profiling and police brutality. We can seek ways to connect across racial lines in a society that
for many of us is still largely segregated in housing, schooling, and social patterns. We can all refuse to laugh at racist jokes, and we can challenge our friends, neighbors, and colleagues when they, often without thinking, parrot positions that reinforce the unfair advantages that white people enjoy in a variety of venues.
The first step toward dismantling the system of privilege that operates in our society is to name it, and the second is for all of us, but especially those in positions of privilege, to speak out against the system of privilege as a whole.