By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
A couple of years ago, as dean at a university, I was walking downtown when I noticed a friend of mine sitting with a young minority woman and decided to join them. The conversation turned to white privilege.
The reality is that I cannot understand what it means to be a minority. I have never been pulled over for a minor reason, followed by employees in a store, or been called slurs and made to feel unsafe. As a white male, I am fortunate enough to have completed my doctorate, and had a successful teaching career that led me to one of the higher administrative positions on campus.
I have never asked for favors based on my race and gender, but it has not escaped my attention that I have reached the levels that I have. There is no secret handshake or spoken code, and in high school even went so far as to ask why a temporary position went to me rather than the other person that was applying for a job that day. (The answer, by the way, was that he was looking for a permanent job, as opposed to temporary which is the position they had open.)
So, as a white man, why should I be concerned with the rights of people outside of my demographics? The reason is simple. I believe that everybody has things to offer to society, and we are better off working together. I asked a seven year old about Martin Luther King, Jr. yesterday after watching a documentary on the work he had done. This second grader told me that she felt that he was a brilliant, talented and energetic man, and came to the conclusion that, had it not been for the need to have a human rights movement, his abilities would have been used towards some other worthy cause. How is it that a seven year old has better insight than so many “adults” in our society?
How much time and effort has been wasted on what seems to me to be an obvious truth; that everybody is the same? How much talent, intelligence, and creativity have we discarded because the source had the wrong skin color, or because they were the wrong gender, or because their God had the wrong name?
Personally, I like to live in an ideal world. I agree with the sentiment of Albert Einstein, “I’d rather be an optimist and a fool than a pessimist and right.” I believe in a world that can and should have social equality, I believe in a world that can be and should be free of harassment, and I believe in a world where everybody should be equal and free, and I will continue to fight for these ideals without apology.
But the question becomes, how can somebody who has never experienced social inequality fight for it? In interviews, one of the favored questions of panels is “what plans do you have to further the cause of equality on campus” or some flavor of it. How can I present a plan to help a situation that I really cannot understand as an outside observer? Personally, I think the worst thing that can happen is to develop a plan and impose it upon the people it purports to help. The Native American people have been subjected to these plans to “help them” for far too long. Why hasn’t anybody ever gone to them to ask what it is that they want or need, rather than telling them what will be done for them?
The first step is to realize that there is still a significant problem. Today I saw a video of a recent peaceful demonstration by native people in Washington, D.C., in which the native people were confronted by white teens in what appeared to be an organized attempt to harass, intimidate and strike fear into the native people.
The second step is to be willing to step up to protect each other. Gillette just made a commercial advocating for this concept and has met with significant resistance, and in a recent blog I questioned why so many men were so offended by the mere suggestion that they can do better. In a faculty meeting (at a Christian college no less), there was a lot of negative discussion over a student, and whether or not she should be dismissed, because of her line of work that was putting her through school. I was the only one who defended her, and pointed out her generous and giving nature.
We are all in this together. Our nation can be stronger by working together or weakened because of the fractured nature of our society. As a culture we can grow enormously by giving opportunity to all, or continue to crawl by limiting those that are given a voice. As a species, we can survive the current crises by working together or put the fight to keep a privileged few on top of the rest.