There is controversy swirling around the web-o-verse about an antiracism awareness ad program begun in Duluth, MN, called the Un-Fair Campaign. Its aim is simple:
To look at racism and to encourage a community dialogue about the causes and solutions.
Sounds great, right?
Except that quite a lot of folks, it turns out, have a problem with it, not least of all because the campaign makes the suggestion that much responsibility for understanding the causes of and solutions to racism lies with whites. And as billboards around Duluth propose, “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.”
This means that because whites reap so many of the lasting benefits of racism, it is difficult for us to perceive and understand an unfair, racist system today. Because, after all, as a group, we’re doing just fine.
But because it is difficult for many whites to perceive and understand racism today, it is difficult then for us to take a stand against it.
The campaign therefore challenges whites to take a much more critical look at racism and its historical and structural consequences today, so that we may begin to understand how racism has benefitted us and continues to benefit us. And so that we may begin to take steps to create a more socially just, equitable system.
Unfortunately, some people are having difficulty seeing this approach as a good thing. And while I do understand the concern from white people who feel a perception that we are being singled out for being racist simply because we benefit from racism, the reality is much deeper than that.
Whites who benefit from racism are not racist because they benefit from racism.
However, it is important to acknowledge that whites as a group absolutely do benefit from racism, even when they are not the ones actively perpetuating it. And to ignore that fact, perhaps, is then to passively condone it.
Further, to those whites that feel angered or slighted by the suggestion that they benefit from racism: I know. And I’m sorry. I know it sounds threatening. It sounds like someone is trying to take something from you, to tell you that you don’t work hard or that you don’t deserve what you have simply because you are white. And I’m sorry it sounds like that. I know.
But, for the most part, nobody is trying to take anything from you except your ignorance. Nobody is trying to take anything away from your hard work or your position, except for the ability to be oblivious to racism anymore. Your ability to ignore race and racism in your life is the only thing anybody is trying to take from you at this point. And that’s a good thing, I promise. It’s what we all say we want: Social Justice. Equality.
Racism is structural and grants privileges. And of course, privileges exist in a variety of forms, not just in regard to skin color. Men are privileged in this country, oftentimes regardless of race. Heterosexuals are certainly privileged in this country, again often regardless of race. Christians are absolutely privileged in this country, mostly regardless of race. And those of us born into comfortable middle or upper class socioeconomic niches are of course more privileged in this country, regardless of race.
And while it is important to understand each of the ways that privileges benefit and don’t benefit the making of our individual identities, just because these many different forms of privilege exist doesn’t make any one of them by themselves less valid.
So whereas I can walk into a conference room in my profession, and be damn assured that the majority of people in the room will be people of my same race, no matter how male, hetero, Christian, or wealthy a black colleague of mine may be, he does not benefit from that same privilege when he walks into the same room.
That is a privilege that I have that my black colleague does not have. And while it’s easy to scoff at the notion and suggest that something like race shouldn’t make any difference, I promise, it does. And we cannot be oblivious to that. We can’t ignore that anymore.
The tough irony of the position of the opposition to the Un-Fair Campaign, then, is that white people getting angry and arguing that they don’t see racism is pretty precisely the point of the campaign in the very first place: that “it’s hard to see racism when you’re white.” So by some people getting up in arms about being called out on the inability to see racism, those people have just proved the campaign’s point exactly.
I definitely support the Un-Fair Campaign and what it is doing for advancing necessary and critical social justice education about racism. I will be able to take a lot from this campaign and use it in my own work on a college campus and in my life as a parent. And I wonder what others in higher ed positions might glean from this campaign and how we can continue to infuse our campuses with critical dialog and thought. And fairness.