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Social Sciences

A Road to Realization

By Gregg Sangillo

Through AU coursework and programs, students examine issues of racism and privilege.

Through AU coursework and programs, students examine issues of racism and privilege.

After a year marked by racial turmoil, many white people are now active participants in the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, if we understand the concept of white privilege, even supportive whites may occupy a complicated position in the fight for racial justice. White activists often admit that they benefit from the same racist system that they're trying to destroy.

But academics studying white privilege say that acknowledging racial hierarchies is a solid first step towards eradicating them. American University has a sociology course, "White Privilege and Social Justice," that can help students sort through some of these thorny issues. Students of all races and ethnicities—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and others—can learn more about racial identity, privilege, and unequal opportunity in American society.

The Course in Context

"There's an enormous field of white privilege studies that has been in existence since the early 1990s," says Celine-Marie Pascale, a sociology professor who started the course at AU in 2004.

Nationwide, white privilege courses have not been universally accepted. At the University of Notre Dame, a student publicly criticized a white privilege course and ended up doing an interview on Fox News. But aside from some complaints in the first year, Pascale says the class has been well-received at AU.

Last semester, the course was taught by Wanda Parham-Payne, an adjunct professorial lecturer. "I always reiterated that this is a safe space, and I'm not here to judge you," Parham-Payne says. "If students wanted to disagree with something other students said, that was up to them. I feel like those types of conversations are crucial in order to improve race relations."

After Parham-Payne's lectures, students would break into group discussions for about 20-25 minutes. Students also wrote personal, reflective papers on how race, class, and gender have influenced their lives.

AU alum Katie Beran says Pascale's course had a profound impact on her, and she even wrote about the experience in her law school admissions personal statement. "The class entirely re-conceptualized how I thought about race and how I experienced race relations on a daily basis," says Beran, who is white. "The course taught me that if I wasn't really fighting to change the current power structure, I was inadvertently supporting it."

Beran, who was an Honors student and a sociology major, describes the course as a journey of self-realization. "I came out on the other end feeling really committed to using my privilege to try to impact societal change," she says.

After graduating from AU, she went on to law school at University of Pennsylvania and co-founded the Civil Rights Law Project there. She's now a law clerk for a federal judge in Philadelphia.

White Privilege, Unearned Advantage

Pascale describes white privilege as a "social benefit that gives you unearned advantage." White people are afforded certain opportunities simply because of their privilege, and "whiteness" has been socially constructed as the norm, experts say.

"Until we can look at and dismantle those systematic and generally unsought advantages, we can't begin to dismantle the effects of the marginalization. So if we have 10 apples, and I'm consuming nine of them, we can look at how sad life is for you with only one apple. But until we address the fact that I've got nine, it's not going to change for you," Pascale says.

Academics offer empirical evidence to support this. "Studies have shown that if you send résumés to different employers that are identical in all aspects except name (Susan Smith in one and Tekisha Green in the other), the person with the name readily identifiable as 'white' gets the interview most of the time. Here you can see how racial privilege operates in ways that have nothing to do with whether or not the applicant is racist," Pascale explains.

In her class, Parham-Payne utilized Devah Pager's "The Mark of a Criminal Record," a widely read article in the field of sociology. When comparing white and African-American job applicants with comparable résumés in Milwaukee, Pager found that the white job applicant was more likely to get a callback for an interview. Even whites with criminal records were more likely to get job callbacks than African-Americans without criminal records.

Starting Small, Thinking Big

In addition to this course, AU has hosted forums on racial understanding and white privilege. The Center for Diversity & Inclusion holds workshops on "Unmasking Your Privilege." On January 24, a number of campus organizations were involved in a Teach-In for Justice, which included a session on white privilege led by Pascale.

Assistant Vice President of Campus Life Fanta Aw helped with curriculum design and faculty recruitment for the Teach-In. "The feedback we've gotten from students and participants who attended the white privilege [session] has been overwhelmingly positive. Many said it was really an eye-opener for them," Aw says. The whole event was a success, she adds, drawing from a diverse cross-section of students, faculty, staff, and administrators.

In wrestling with issues of privilege, Aw hopes these courses and programs will provide students with a sense of agency. She wants people to feel empowered to discuss race with friends and family.

"What I think is most challenging for students, and rightfully so because of their age group, is 'So, what can we do about it? We're seeing these high levels of injustice. But what can I as one person do about that?' And what we're saying to them is, 'You can [make a difference].' But the way you can is you start with your community, you start with your inner circle. And you build out."

Breaking Down Barriers

A frequent complaint about these kinds of courses and discussions is that they're preaching to the converted. People in attendance, the thinking goes, are probably already vocal opponents of bigotry. But Aw insists that anyone who attends can still learn new techniques in confronting racism.

And it's hard to pigeonhole some of the white students participating. Sophomore Becca Lamb is a Christian conservative who is pro-life. But she didn't view the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York along conventional left-right, ideological lines. "It did feel like there was no political side to this," says Lamb, a student in the School of International Service. "I can look at Michael Brown's parents and the people of Ferguson and say, 'We need to be showing compassion.'"

She's taken courses related to gender and power, where the privilege issue has been discussed extensively. Her international affairs-focused sorority, Delta Phi Epsilon, was a co-sponsor of the recent Teach-In.

In response to a question about students and social media, Lamb says, "We don't learn to deal with conflict well. We can just block, we can just delete, we can just erase. And so, when you're forced to sit in a room with someone you care about, and talk it out and get to common ground, that can be really good. And it's really good for us to go through that."