I previously published a version of this post on LinkedIn. When we talk about whiteness, we often center individual White people as the space where work needs to be done. We call upon Whites to critically examine their own beliefs, biases, and prejudices. We embrace an ideology that suggests if we can change one person’s heart at a time, we can slowly address racism, and other isms, that act as barriers to equality. Those are nice intentions, but by favoring them, we fail to recognize or acknowledge that whiteness permeates our lived experiences at organizational and structural levels. The very systems within which we work and operate are built upon whiteness, and the privileges inherent to it. Yes, the individual work is needed and necessary, but that individual work represents only a snippet of what needs to happen.
In this post, I’ll address whiteness based on White privilege, how whiteness functions as a property value (and how that connects to higher education), and what faculty and staff and predominantly White institutions (PWIs) can and should do to address inequities built upon whiteness. Much of this post is drawn from my piece Meaning and Implications of Being Labelled a Predominantly White Institution, published in College & University.
In her seminal work Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh dug in to situate White privilege as a set of unearned advantages. For example, as a White man, I’ve never felt like I’ve been followed around a store, because I look like someone who might steal. I’ve never been pulled over by police, except for when I engaged in an unlawful act (e.g. speeding). I’ve never been assumed to have gained admission to an academic program or a job due to affirmative action. Because these and other things don’t happen, I feel fairly free to go about my life. I am confident that I can carve out my own comfortable little spot in the world. That’s White privilege.
Whiteness as Property
Cheryl Harris wove a perspective on whiteness through her analysis of legal doctrines and the ways in which whiteness is imbued with property rights. In making the connections in Whiteness as Property, Harris identified four key components of property rights that connect to whiteness:
- Right of disposition – whiteness is inalienable, in that the rights of the property owner cannot be disentangled from the property.
- Right to use and enjoyment – there’s a connect between whiteness and cultural capital, in that whiteness can serve as a resource, and can both be exchanged with others who hold the property of whiteness, and can be accumulated in ways that provide series of privileges (see White privilege above).
- Right of reputation – in a society built upon the normativity of whiteness, we associate White with good, which carries an assumption of rightness and righteousness.
- Right to exclude – Property owners have rights and authority to welcome and exclude others from that property. Through the pervasiveness of whiteness in casting Whites as the norm throughout U.S. society, the right to exclude often goes unnoticed, and unchecked.
Addressing Whiteness at PWIs
Acknowledging that whiteness is a system issue is a good place to start. But we can’t allow that to be where we stop. In the C&U article, I suggest that student affairs staff (but other administrators and faculty, too), ask some critical questions about the institution (borrowed/paraphrased from pp. 22-24 of the article):
- Does the curriculum – particularly the general education requirements – reflect diverse perspectives?
- In what ways (and in what spaces) are students from underrepresented groups engaged on campus?
- To what extent do campus traditions and celebrations reflect the diversity of the student population?
Answering these and other critical questions about the PWIs in which we work is an important step in addressing the predominance of whiteness on our campuses. But, the answers are likely to lead to more questions, including “what are you doing to address the issues?” There is a lot of work to be done when it comes to addressing systems of oppression. But, if we critically examine and consider what the PWI label reflects, hopefully we see that the work ahead is necessary.
The steps to be taken will vary by institution. I won’t assume that every student affairs division is at a place to take action to address systemic issues on their campus. However, I hope that most, if not all, are willing to begin the process of, at a minimum, asking the questions I pose above. If that’s not the starting point, maybe they’ll be open to hearing about perspectives on how whiteness informs the systems and structures at play in a PWI.
If you would be interested in having me visit your campus to speak with faculty and/or staff, please visit http://drbrianbourke.com/contact-me.