I am so fascinated by the latest storm over “go back where you came from.” The New York Times asked people who have had that said to them to tell their stories, and got over 16,000 responses. Sixteen thousand! Most of these are the stories of people who were born here, and yet there are others who believe themselves entitled to tell fellow citizens to leave their country, sometimes because they disagree over ideas, but sometimes (as the NYT article makes clear) just because they are not white.
I am fascinated, and appalled, but not surprised. The thing is, I say critical things about America all the time. In Britain, for example, novice drivers have to drive in a car that has a big red L stuck on it, so that other drivers know to look for rookie mistakes and give them a wide berth. As the parent of a teen driver who has been quite unnervingly tailgated, that seems like a good idea to me. Why don’t we do that in America? Or, in Britain, drivers do not treat driving as an almost-but-not-quite contact sport—they give way for each other all the time. It’s amazing to me that in America, which is full of people who are warm and generous in person, and where the roads are so good, drivers are so selfish. Or, how come America can’t figure out trains? The Europeans, the Chinese, the Japanese, and even the British have figured out trains. In America, taking a train is slower than driving. Crazy, right?
Oh, did I forget to mention? I’m an immigrant. But I am also white, European, well-educated, and not poor. No one has ever told me to go back where I came from, despite my 30 years of criticizing my adopted country. In fact, on the whole, I get the impression that people are quite pleased I’m here.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is white privilege. It means that I can take advantage of all the freedoms and benefits of citizenship—including unfettered freedom of speech—without anyone ever, ever, looking askance, let alone questioning my right to say it.
Several months ago, I received an email in response to something I had written about white privilege—it was at the time of the college admissions scandal, and here’s what I wrote. The writer of the email referred to the construct of white privilege as contentious, which took me by surprise. Is it, I wondered, actually a contentious construct? In other words, is there disagreement about whether white privilege exists, and if not, what makes it contentious?
So I did what anyone would do, I Googled “white privilege does not exist”. This did not yield a picture of white privilege as contentious, exactly, but definitely as an idea that needs explanation. So you might start with this article from Teaching Tolerance, and the Peggy McIntosh classic, which I always thought of as “Unpacking the Backpack”, and was surprised to find that the title actually includes the phrase “white privilege.” (I heard her speak, by the way, a few years ago in Vancouver at what must have been the 25th anniversary of the article’s publication). You might also visit the section of the CABE website on Equity. You could read this review of “The Privilege of Mistake.” And you should absolutely positively attend The Center’s Equity Institute.
In the reading and talking with people that I have done since I received that email, I have come to understand is that the term “white privilege” implies to some that they achieved what they have achieved not through a combination of determination and hard work, but because of the advantage of being white. If that was the case, I would resist the concept, too, because I have worked very hard. I have multiple graduate degrees, I have put in long hours, I have moved state multiple times, and it has not always been easy.
But there’s the simple logic of it. Racism is a well-documented phenomenon—I don’t think anyone would dispute that. And in a society where there are people who are discriminated against because of their skin color (or gender, or any other characteristic) then the necessary obverse of that is that there are people who hold an advantage simply because they are not the object of discrimination.
Lots of other good reads on this topic. There is Claudia Rankine in the New York Times, I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought about Their Privilege. So I asked. (She also wrote the equally great The Meaning of Serena Williams). And there is Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, Donald Trump’s Idea of Selective Citizenship. And you should watch this video about the Prudence Crandall School in Canterbury, where I was working last week with a great group of school and district leaders—Who knew that there was legislation in CT prohibiting black people from entering the state in order to receive an education???
And just for the record, there is much that is magical in America. Seattle is a marvel, as is the beach at Malibu, the Metropolitan Museum, baseball, and the whole concept of going out for breakfast. My friends and colleagues are unfailingly wonderful. I love what I do. If we could just figure out the trains…
As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to enjoy your summer. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org