raising awareness about white privilege
by stephanie wong
Growing up, I would read novels or imagine fiction and fantasy scenarios with predominantly white characters. I never imagined myself to be the princess in my own drawings, who was likely to resemble Barbie or one of the Disney princesses. By the way, I grew up in a community where the only white persons I personally interacted with were my teachers, who did not look like Barbie or any princess.
Why did the default individuals in my fantasies typically turn out to be white? It was not until my second year in college when I was engaged in a course that involved discussions on race that I began to understand how the history of America, Asian Americans, and my family played a major role in how I viewed and came to understand myself.
Race is oftentimes a tense topic of discussion because it seems to be stigmatized in our society, as if we are racist or discriminatory to even consider the presence of race relations today. Recent events like Trayvon Martin’s death and the California federal appeals court’s rejection to lift the ban on affirmative action demonstrate how race and racism continue to be difficult topics to address or accept in our era.
However, in 2011, community members of Duluth, Minnesota, came together to break this tension over racial discussion and formed the Un-Fair Campaign. The campaign’s mission is “To raise awareness about white privilege in our community, provide resources for understanding action, and facilitate dialogue and partnership that result in fundamental, systemic change towards racial justice.”
According to Peggy McIntosh, an American feminist and anti-racist activist who wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” white privilege is the “unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits, and choices bestowed on people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.”
An example McIntosh provides in her list from “White Privilege” is: “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial responsibility.” No matter what her real strengths may be, McIntosh argues that her skin color has provided her with a set of unearned privileges.
The campaign’s resources include definitions, history of race in America, external sources, and links to other guides that might help in educating the public on issues of race.
The campaign seems inspirational, especially coming from a community where whites make up 89 percent of the local area’s population. In fact, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the nation’s most widely recognized civil rights organizations, supports the campaign as a partner.
Unfortunately, the website (unfaircampaign.org) is more like a dump site for resources to “facilitate dialogue” on race and to help visitor’s build a beginner’s level vocabulary and education on racism and structural racism, which are all necessary before one can truly grasp white privilege. I am not quite sure how the less race conscientious visitor would navigate the site and its sources—or how dialogue may be possible.
Furthermore, the campaign’s outreach through billboards and posters can create some “unfair” tension. I am afraid that its publicity has the potential to do more harm than good for its goals toward racial justice and dialogue. The campaign’s ambiguous and misleading outreach efforts provide potential for whites to become defensive or for persons of color to feel more silenced from conversations on race.
Every billboard has a fragment of a white person’s face, overlapped by the tagline “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.” All posters have the statement “that’s unfair” written on the model’s face and invites bystanders to “speak up” and “break the silence” if they see racism. For all outreach advertisements, the only call to action comes from the prints’ direction for bystanders to visit its website.
Breaking apart these posters and billboards, I take up two issues with the campaign’s outreach efforts. Firstly, the way in which the statements of privilege are written above models’ faces resemble the ways in which areas for corrections and changes are drawn on individuals who are about to undergo plastic surgery, or facial reconstruction. Therefore, it seems as if the advertisements are suggesting that these privileges are flaws that can be simply fixed or corrected.
Secondly, these advertisements lack any connection between the privileges written on the models’ faces and the actual concept of white privilege and racism. The greatest danger that can come out of this is for a bystander to view the campaign as a campaign against white people or one that raises awareness on whites as a racially oppressed group. If a bystander has never engaged herself in discussions over race or prepared himself with the basic vocabulary, a blunt “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white” or “[Insert an example of white privilege here], that’s unfair” can be offensive and ambiguous. Is it unfair to the white person who carries these privileges that she may not have earned or deserved? Or is it unfair to those who do not have those same privileges, even if these privileges are more like normal standards for how people should be treated?
I fear that even the reasonable bystander exposed to these advertisements would miss the campaign’s mission to bring the public toward a more racially just society. I also fear that someone could mistake privileges for stereotypes, or use the two interchangeably. I would not find a campaign to address the Model Minority Myth to be successful or inviting if my face had statements like “I am an obedient student” or “I will excel at math” scrawled across my face.
While I appreciate the campaign’s attempts to foster discussions on race and white privilege, I hope to see their publicity attempts change. From my own experience in facilitating and participating in discussions involving the topic of race and white privilege, it seemed that what really helped me and my peers understand these concepts were the literal space and facilitation for dialogue and conversations.
Today, I have come out of these spaces and conversations with tools that allow me to be more conscientious about racial injustice and to be more comfortable discussing race with others. Now, I understand how white privilege in American society has been a strong influence on my childhood imaginations.
The default characters of my imagination’s products no longer resemble Barbie or Cinderella but take on the faces of persons of color. I have also become more sensitive toward how I perceive others without real grounds for knowing what kinds of individuals they may be.
In order for the Un-Fair campaign to reach the public and generate similar paradigm shifts, I hope they reconsider the ways in which they have been approaching the conversation. As of now, I feel like only greater harm and misinformation are added to the mix through their outreach, and that’s unfair.