Reconciling Privilege in the Academy

I was thinking about my post after I published it yesterday and I wanted to add just one thing to put it all in context. My approach to blogging (since VT) has been to do the readings FIRST and then look at the Prompt so that I am able to form my own ideas before I look at the issues through the lens provided by the Prompt. So, with that in mind, I think you can better understand the frame of mind I was in while creating this piece of writing.

This week, we were assigned two readings. The first, Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” involves McIntosh systematically discussing and confronting head-on the issues of her own experience of white privilege. She describes how her own education and upbringing supported her ignorance of that privilege and how that fundamentally put her at an advantage in her life. I have seen this piece before—in a different graduate course here at VT: Contemporary Pedagogy—so I have been exposed to it before and have had the opportunity to reflect on the concept which McIntosh analyzes.

The second reading, Audre Lorde’s “There is No Hierarchy of Oppressions” makes the case for removing degrees of/distinctions around the concept of oppression. To her, oppression is oppression is oppression and I do agree. Oppression (like intolerance) can affect anyone—it can be grounded in race, gender, physicality, or truthfully, in any aspect of a person’s identity that can be picked apart and labeled. Lorde writes:

“I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of another part of my identity. I know that my people cannot possibly profit from the oppression of another group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. Rather, we diminish ourselves by denying to others what we have shed blood to obtain for our children. And those children need to learn that they do not have to become like each other in order to work together for a future they will all share.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Lorde concludes her piece in saying:

“I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

That last sentence has been echoing in my mind. It reminds me of another quote from Martin Niemöller, “a Lutheran minister and early Nazi supporter who was later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) who said this:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. “

When we do not speak out against injustice or oppression, we are complicit in its perpetuation. So while we teach children (and young adults) about the destructive nature of systematic intolerance, hate, oppression, and privilege–problems into which they have been born but are not (yet) responsible for–problems to which they are complicit to, as well, if they grow into adults who do nothing about the plight of their fellow man.

And so in completing these readings, I was thinking about how the political and social climate in the United States today tells a troubling story when we consider these longer timelines that include our nation’s “discovery” and early years, the period of slavery that followed, the post-civil war era of Jim Crow and segregation, civil rights, and the current events which threaten to repeat the past. (We’ve been talking about these issues a lot in this class, and so I have been more aware lately of when I see diversity issues in the headlines. Like this story about how students don’t understand that slavery was the cause of the civil war in the United States…) I like to think that my education and experience have given me an awareness of and preparation for talking about these issues.

My upbringing in Mississippi has shaped and will forever shape who I am as a person. I was taught to be kind, tolerant, and open-hearted. I was taught to be a problem-solver and a thinker, and I was taught to be appreciative and respectful of the contributions coming from all parts of the rich diversity that comprises our society. So while I come from a place with no shortage of troubling history, I am often reminded of the progress in our country when I think about my day-to-day life–and to some, I understand that my comprehension of “progress” in our country is merely a veil provided to me by my own white privilege. That could be debated until the cows come home, but I will say this:  I live in a mixed-race neighborhood. The congregation at my church is mixed. The majority of my close friends are not white. I do struggle with dissonance between what I learned culturally as a child and what I practice today as an adult. New knowledge that I have gained–let’s say– especially since I started attending Virginia Tech, makes me feel very open and empowered to talking about these tough issues. I count myself as one of those people who believes now that I know better, I’ve got to do better; I’ve got to help make the change in society.

It is taking me a lot of courage to muster up the will to talk about these issues, but I will be completely frank with you. Over the last year-year and a half, these issues of diversity, inclusion, oppression, and privilege have been hard topics for me to get my head and my heart around. Not because I think they are wrong–on the contrary, because my naivete and upbringing acted to skew my perception. I was an adult before I realized that the world I live in is not the world that all of my peers do. I think I always was aware of the differences in treatment of people of color wrought by those in power, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the maturity to fully understand the system in which I was living. I suffered from being brought up in a society whose mantra is “that’s just how things are.” I do not deny that I have experienced privilege, but I want to affirm, upon reflection, as McIntosh has, that I am now asking the question: “what can I do to change it?”

But nothing about my upbringing, knowledge, or understanding of race, diversity, inclusion, and privilege could have prepared me for the blog prompt that we were presented with this week.

So here is the blog prompt for this week in Diversity for Global Society:

The academy/academia claims to rest on merit — the idea that we should earn what we have, that we should not have what we do not earn; moreover, that we should not claim to have earned what we did not fairly work for.

How do you decide whether you have earned certain advantages in your academic career, or whether you have some success because of unearned advantages?

How does your understanding of academic research, teaching, and service change depending on whether or not you succeed because of merit or because of other factors?

Bam! I was not prepared to be asked these questions. I want to start by saying first, that I have never questioned whether my academic career has been the result of unearned advantages. I have always worked hard–especially since I got into graduate school and realized that I had just one chance to change my stars and it was completely on me to make it count. So let’s unpack them.

How do you decide whether you have earned certain advantages in your academic career, or whether you have some success because of unearned advantages?

I am floored trying to think about how one decides whether or not success comes as the result of (unearned) advantages. I suppose it’s an advantage to be a student in the United States to also be a citizen, because those students are eligible for student loans (which have primarily funded my graduate career)–is that colossal debt an advantage? Some may think so, I do not.

Because of my work history in the service industry, I was awarded a small scholarship which helped to kick off my graduate school career. Earned advantage? I think so.

I have worked extremely hard for the grades I have earned. I have been active and engaging throughout this entire process–and if the relationships that we build while in the Academy can be called an advantage, then I must admit, I’ve experienced those, too. For I would not be here at Virginia Tech if I had not been introduced to a graduate student (now faculty member) in the program of which I am attending. We met at a conference–he was friends with my professors–and he was there to recruit for his graduate program. So is my being at Virginia Tech a product of my hard work or a product of who I was lucky enough to study with, to know, to share a meal with? That’s grey area. I certainly met all of the academic criteria to become a student here–but without that social connection, I don’t know if I would have stood out from the rest of the applicants as exceptional and someone to have in the college.

How does your understanding of academic research, teaching, and service change depending on whether or not you succeed because of merit or because of other factors?

This is even more troubling. It calls into question everything that I am hoping to be a part of one day. If whether or not one makes it into academia is dependent on something other than merit, then what in the hell are we all doing here? Up until this moment, merit was the one thing I’ve hung my hat on. I can’t imagine someone making the mental, physical, emotional, and time commitments required to make it this far–or further–if they don’t have the merit to back it up. To me it seems ridiculous…. that eventually, the lack of substance in an individual’s work ethic, work portfolio, or whatever else—would just fall apart and leave that person exposed for the fraud that they are.

And yet, the more I think about this prompt, the more I question the validity of anyone/everyone’s right to be in academia. If somehow it isn’t merit that has landed us all here… if perhaps it is some unearned advantage…. If we are all the product of “who you know” not “what you know,” then there is a systemic problem in academia for all of us. But we are social creatures. How can anyone separate the “bias” and “privilege” that come from formal introductions in academia? Are we even capable of removing that bias? I think we can acknowledge it, but in the end, it’s as much a part of us as any other part of our story.

After this reflection, I am left with more questions than answers. I am less sure about the world I live in–and the Academy which I am fighting for a place in in my own right. I suppose that’s why I’m in this course to begin with–because I understand that I need to be asking these questions and confronting what I inherently accept to be true.

References & Images:

McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Students aren’t learning about slavery

“White Privilege” cartoon

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