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Race and Beyond: The Conundrum of White-Male Privilege

Written by Sam Fulwood III on 12 May 2014.

A pair of emails crossed my desk yesterday that plunged me down a rabbit hole and into an exploration of white-male privilege—it was an amazing trip. My understanding of the phrase “white-male privilege” tracks along the lines laid down by feminist writer and academic activist Peggy McIntosh, a senior research scientist and associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, whose 1988 essay coined the phrase “invisible knapsack” as a metaphor for the benefits “of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that white Americans disproportionately carry compared with black and other Americans of color. As McIntosh writes, the weightless and invisible backpack carried by white males is the largest and most expansive of all, granting them access to the most spaces with the least doubts about their sense of place or authority.

As if to confirm such beliefs, the first of the emails sent to me by a colleague documented this theory with supporting evidence. A study conducted by a trio of social scientists—Katherine L. Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Modupe Akinola of the Columbia Business School, and Dolly Chugh of New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business—surreptitiously surveyed more than 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities to discover that faculty members ignored requests for mentoring from women and minorities at a higher rate than from white males.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers sent identical letters to professors in 89 disciplines at 259 of the nation’s top colleges and universities. The only differences were in the names of the students—Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Huang, and Mei Chen—which were designed to signal ethnicity, gender, and race in an obvious way.

“We found that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from Caucasian males, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions,” the authors wrote in the abstract of their study.

In an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Milkman said the race and gender of the faculty didn’t faze the white male’s privilege. “There’s absolutely no benefit seen when women reach out to female faculty, nor do we see benefits from black students reaching out to black faculty or Hispanic students reaching out to Hispanic faculty,” she said in the interview.

I heard that story when it was first broadcast but didn’t give it a lot of thought until yesterday when I reviewed it again on the NPR website. There, I discovered an angry response from an NPR listener named Richard Barton, who said he was one of the professors that received a letter from the researchers. He took umbrage with the implication that his failure to respond to the researchers’ fake letter represented racial animus. As Barton wrote:

For one, some professors whom I know simply do not respond to any unsolicited email, period. Is that ‘rude’? Possibly, but it cannot be considered a sign of ‘bias’.

Secondly, some professors (myself included) are admittedly widely inconsistent when it comes to answering unsolicited email. While it may sound self-serving, I like to think that in my case whether or not I respond to an unsolicited email has more to do with the following external factors than with subtle encodings of racial or ethnic bias: my workload at the moment I receive the email, including but not limited to deadlines that are pending and/or the amount of grading I am facing; the time of the semester (early is better than middle or later); and so forth. These factors are far more likely to determine whether or not I respond.

His pained response triggered a long string of comments. As I read, they dropped me deeper into the rabbit hole of angry response to the claims of white privilege.

But before continuing with Barton, let me tell you about the second email that I received a couple hours after the first. This one contained a link to a Time magazine opinion piece by Tal Fortgang, a Princeton University freshman, who argues that fellow students constantly challenge his white-male privilege. He writes:

There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. ‘Check your privilege,’ the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year.

In his autobiographical essay, Fortgang explains how his Jewish immigrant grandparents fled the Nazis, escaping near death, to make a new life in the United States. This led to his father and mother making a life for Fortgang. Clearly proud of his family, faith, and heritage, Fortgang concludes he has, indeed, been privileged in his life but not as “detractors” understand it:

Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting. While I haven’t done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a better life. But that is a legacy I am proud of.

I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.

Barton and Fortgang are two of a kind. They protest with emotion and logic that they should be recognized as individuals, not a member of a privileged—read: racist—group. Fortgang, in particular, makes a valid point when he argues that gender and race never reveal the whole story of a human life. Similarly, Barton raises sincere doubts about a host of factors other than white-male privilege that might influence human behavior, some having nothing at all to do with racial or gender bias.

Of course, those with privilege rarely acknowledge their advantage. Why would they? But it’s hard to escape the obvious: These two men feel aggrieved that an unwanted group association is stigmatizing them. Welcome to America, white guys.

What Barton and Fortgang are asking of those who challenge their privilege is precisely what their nonwhite and nonmale neighbors have long sought for themselves. Everyone wants to be seen as a fully developed human being and not to be delimited as a member of a racial or ethnic group or by gender. Barton and Fortgang must come to grips with the fact that being white, male, or both is becoming less likely to be viewed as the default position for an American. Their personal experiences won’t be the yardsticks by which all others are measured, no matter how much they argue to the contrary.

As Barton and Fortgang—and the nation—embrace this reality, then the unconscious bias that favors white men and fuels the real-world effects of prejudice and discrimination against others may be finally recognized and defeated.

The challenge in all of this is a simple question: Who is allowed the privilege to determine how another person is viewed or treated? As our nation becomes increasingly diverse, it’s likely many voices and views—not just those held by white men—will be represented in the answer.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

Applications are now open for the next class of CAP Leadership Institute. For more information about the Fellows program or to apply, please follow this link. The deadline for applying is July 18, 2014.

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