What’s ‘white privilege’ all about? The People’s Institute offers tough insights

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PISAB

Leader of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, Ron Chisom has been working for decades to dislodge institutional racism.

Two months ago I wrote an opinion piece in this space lamenting the life of a recent college graduate. I reacted to my frequent rejection by Americorps for positions that I figured I was well qualified to apply for. I discussed my frustration with the way young people flooding into New Orleans had saturated the job market and mused on the difficulties of trying to “do good” in this city.

I assumed a lot of recent college graduates are going through the same thing, This should be a piece people can relate to, I thought. I can’t be alone in this struggle.

But the comments generated below the article surprised me. I was bashed for not understanding the city that I live in. I was scolded for griping about the job market while still on the family dole. People said I had no right to whine while so many others are so much worse off.

At first I was upset. What had I done to offend these people? Didn’t I have a right to talk about the issues facing college grads? Isn’t this a pervasive problem in a stagnant economy? The criticism definitely stung — particularly the insinuation that somehow I wasn’t entitled to express an opinion about my own life.

But after reading a number of comments, I came to one post that made me take a contemplative step back:

“Seems to me that folks are critical because it doesn’t appear that you are thoughtfully examining how your privilege is influencing your understanding of the current state of our city,” a commenter named “anon said. “For folks with privilege, particularly those who want to ‘save’ anyone or anything,” anon continued, “examining our privilege is a very deep, difficult, and necessary step in the process.”

The post was brief but it resonated with me. Blinders fell away, and I found myself developing a different attitude toward my critics. Instead of feeling unjustly attacked, I realized that anon was on to something: I had never thoughtfully examined white privilege. I had never, for any considerable amount of time, looked at how growing up middle class in Boston’s insular Jewish community had influenced my mindset.

Boston may have a history of racial tension, but it was possible to grow up there at the turn of the century without being constantly reminded of it. I went to a Jewish private school from kindergarten right through the end of high school and diversity was, well, nonexistent. You had white Jews from the north shore, white Jews from the south shore and white Jews from the middle of the state. Family backgrounds were more similar than different. How do you understand race if everyone looks the same?

Anon’s comment stirred me to action. I decided to confront my white privilege. I started doing research online and went to speak with professors at Tulane who were experts in the fields of sociology, African American studies and psychology.

Through my interviews and discussions with the faculty, I was made aware of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans-based organization best known for the weekend-long anti-racism “trainings” that it conducts nationwide. Its literature describes the organization as “dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation.”

If I was writing an article about white privilege, my former professor Melissa Harris-Perry told me, I had to talk to the People’s Institute.

Leader of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, Ron Chisom has been working for decades to dislodge institutional racism.

Leader of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, Ron Chisom has been working for decades to dislodge institutional racism.

I was able to sit down with the organization’s co-founder, Ron Chisom, who exposed my virgin mind to the realities of institutional racism, to the truth that our country was built for the success of white people, that the real beneficiaries of affirmative action in America have always been whites.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m working on white privilege,’ unless you understand where that’s coming from,” Chisom said, “otherwise it just becomes rhetoric.”

The Institute’s signature workshop, called “Undoing Racism Community Organizing,” works with groups of 40 to 60 people. Using “dialogue, reflection, role-playing, strategic planning and presentations,” Chisom said the sessions challenge participants to analyze the structures of power and privilege that hinder social equity and prepare them to be effective organizers for justice.

To understand my ingrained sense of white privilege, Chisom urged me to attend one of these workshops.

And so I did.

Anon was right about one thing: Examining privilege is long and difficult. This initial piece of the process was a three-day, 16-hour marathon.

The workshop trainers — an elderly white man named David Billings, who has spent 30 years at the Institute, and Kimberly Richards, an African American woman who holds a doctorate in policy, planning and evaluation — have honed their anti-racist skill sets through decades of struggle for civil, labor and welfare rights. They have fought for better schools and health care and also organized around issues particular to smaller neighborhoods and communities.

They led us through “power analyses” of America’s shaping social institutions: from school systems to criminal justice, the media and nonprofit organizations. For many of us, it was markedly revealing to see the ways in which racism pervades these enormous institutions — even if most individual leaders and foot soldiers within them may not themselves be “racist” in any stereotypical way.

We did the workshop in a church hall renovated since Hurricane Katrina. The walls were pure and white — a blank canvas for racial discussion and dissection. The faces around the circle were an eclectic array of black, brown, white and yellow. We were Latino, Caucasian, Asian, Native American, African American. In short, the room contained the most racially and ethnically diverse group I had ever been part of.

We did not simply sit next to each other as if on a bus or a plane; rather, we interacted, philosophized, questioned, dissected, constructed and vented about injustices perceived in the vast sea of racial inequity that is America.

On Saturday afternoon, the trainers introduced a controversial assertion: All white people are racist. This claim is, of course, contentious — which makes it divisive. Many around the circle were made uncomfortable by it, some of them were clearly upset.

“Can you imagine the emotion that goes on with white people when I make this statement?” Chisom asked me. “For some, it feels so good to hear the truth. But for many it’s too emotional. When you call them a racist, they don’t like that feeling.”

The racism Chisom is talking about may not be as overt or explicit as it was in the segregated South of the Jim Crow era. It’s now subconscious and ingrained, which, as the trainers pointed out, makes it even more insidiously toxic. We talked about how we have been conditioned to view black people as inferior and lazy, as drawn to crime and drugs and dependent on welfare.

Even if we deny adhering to these stereotypes, the trainers said, a society constructed around race has socialized us to feel this way — and sometimes to act on these subliminal feelings.

On Sunday, we went around the room, one at a time, as part of a discussion centered on what we like about our race.

The question startled and intrigued me. I have always been white, will always be white, and yet had not once thought about how I enjoy my whiteness.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that there were fundamentally two different types of answers to the question and that they tended to divide along racial lines. Virtually all the white people, myself included, said that what we like about being white is the freedom to move, freedom to speak without fear, and most of all, the freedom not to worry about race. As a noted white anti-racism activist, Tim Wise, has said, whites have the luxury of being able to effectively ignore race because it does not inhibit us from getting jobs, dealing with the police or shopping in a clothing store.

As I think back over the discussion, the white responses— mine included — reek of privilege. We sounded stuck-up and ignorant. While we had defined race in terms of the absence of various constraints, the African American and Latino people in the circle talked about specific attributes of their racial identity and their love and enthusiasm for those attributes: their hair, their music and food, their individual toughness and the resiliency of their communities.

None of us whites professed love for white hair or white music or white food. First and foremost, what we all enjoy about being white is our privilege. We like not being profiled and pulled over by traffic cops or followed by security in a mall. We like not worrying about whether a job we didn’t get was because of the color of our skin. In other words, we like not having to deal with race.

That’s one privilege I will now view in a completely different light. What started as a seemingly innocuous opinion piece about the post-college job market turned into a journey of self-exploration with a specific goal: trying to grasp the power and implications of white privilege.

I fully expect another round of harsh criticism. What right do I have — a 20-something white Tulane grad — to claim any understanding of the racist structure of a society that has bestowed its privileges upon me? Answer: Maybe none, but I believe that I have to start somewhere. Another critic may say, “So, you sat through one anti-racism workshop, drank the Kool-Aid and now are consumed with liberal guilt—toughen up.”

Again: maybe so. In political science classes we often spoke about the prevalence of the “us” vs. “them” mentality in our society, the notion that as humans we need to identify an “other” to be against. But the workshop helped me to at least glimpse a deeper truth: The “them” that we need to be against isn’t a race; it’s the subconscious, unspoken racism that pervades our institutions, and ourselves.

Freelance writer Sam Tabachnik is a recent Tulane graduate.

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