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

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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  • Is this for real? If so, why does it qualify as newsworthy?

  • RampartStreet

    Being White in America is kind of like being American in an impoverished foreign country. It is a status which carries with it all sorts of automatic deference and privilege even if not overtly sought. It means being able to step back into a comfort zone at will which isn’t available to others. It means getting breaks in court like the one described in this link; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/11/ethan-couch-sentenced_n_4426722.html

  • RampartStreet

    Good questions, Peter, even though I don’t know from what perspective you are writing.

    In response, I’ll make this observation; broadened understanding doesn’t come automatically, it must be acquired anew with each generation. There are lots of people in Sam Tabacnik’s situation who have never considered alternative perspectives to the reality they know, let alone been personally confronted with them. His essay may seem an expression of naivete to you, if you are someone who has long wrestled with this confrontation; or, it may seem ridiculous (and perhaps threatening) if you are someone who has avoided or denied it.

    But, as I said above, broadened understanding doesn’t come automatically and of itself. It must be learned anew with each generation. And IMO that is why this article deserves to be published.

  • Catherine Michna

    Thank you for this excellent post.

  • scotchirish

    If everyone acted white the comfort zone would expand. Violent homicide would plummet, for openers.

  • Avram Penner

    Well done, Sam.

  • Avram Penner

    Did you perhaps miss the fact that this is an Opinion piece?

  • 1NONewsladder2

    Geaux Sam. I found your first piece pretty repugnant, yet I really appreciate your efforts to dig deeper into the miasma of race in New Orleans.

    Whereas I’ve always considered the “George Bush hates black people” argument a primitive expression of bourgeois naivete, Faulkner illustrated the misdirection of that rhetoric in more than one story of former slaves and white trash sharecroppers being pitted against each other by disenfranchised Confederate guerrilla propaganda. What the Yankees brought down south wasn’t as much White Privilege as Corporate Unity, thus such divisiveness served their aims as much as those of the KKK –as indeed, in later years there were more card-carrying, robe-donning members of the KKK in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois than the entire population of Django’s MISSISSIPPI.

    As then, now we have the same class misdirection, often mask marketed as racism, which *still* boils down to Haves and Have-nots. Saying “All whites are racists” belies the reality that 99% of the wealth of our nation resides in the pockets of 1% of the population.

    Religion used to be the opiate of the people.

    Thanks for a great piece of work.

  • Samantha Montano


    I was one of those critics of your last article. (See: http://disaster-ology.blogspot.com/2013/09/saving-world-one-trustifarian-at-time.html )

    I must admit that I am impressed with how you responded to such criticism. I think it is safe to say it is rare for an author to take internet comments seriously and work to educate themselves. I recognize that you took the opportunity to educate yourself and that was the best way you could have reacted. So… congrats on that.

    From this most recent article it is clear that you still have a long way to go in understanding privilege, yourself, and the intersection of the two. I hope you continue this journey and recognize that your privileges extend beyond race and I hope you continue to participate in this type of discourse.

    As someone born with my fair share of privilege I am always curious as to others reconcile their privilege and how they “check” their privilege on a daily basis within their community. I would encourage you to continue to consider how this new revelation of yours influences your understanding of New Orleans, “trustifarians”, and “do gooders”. I criticized you previously for not understanding what New Orleans is – I think you’ve taken a good first step in what I hope is a much longer journey for you.

  • White Privilege? Not being profiled or followed by police?

    Before the 1960’s, Blacks had separate fountains, bathrooms and sat in the back of bus.

    but were Blacks profiled back then as drug dealers, lazy, thugs, baby daddies, shoplifters, addicts, thieves, robbers, and Welfare Queens like they are today?

    No, they were not profiled as thugs before the 1960’s and Civil Rights as they, both Blacks and Whites, didn’t have to lock their doors. Hence, they must have had far more ethics, morals, trust and respect back then (even with a racial glass ceiling and separate white and black facilities), than they do today.

    So why not ask those university professors of yours, as well as that Institute, what they think about the above comments regarding ethics before the 1960’s and now in regards to crime and not locking doors in both, the Black and White communities? Back then, society and government didn’t promote divorce, living together, or sex before marriage. Back then, they believed in marriage and a lot of other things. Now, Blacks, who don’t know who their father is, don’t believe in that, except pants on the ground and wearing hoodies in the summer heat and even wearing them in their own house.

  • Another thing. Notice how many Black females have hyphenated last names.
    Back before the 1960’s, the Black men apparently had the respect of their wives to take the man’s last name. Now, many Black women don’t want to take their husband’s last name, probably far more than White women do.

    Black Men probably don’t make as much money as the Black women either.

    Hence, how can it really be a RACE thing when Black woman appear to be more financially and career wise successful than even before the 1960’s?

    And more financially successful than Black men? Apparently, Blacks as a whole are poorer overall, but it sure seems like Black women dominate career wise the Black race when compared to Black men.

    So, how can it be White Privilege if far more Black Women, than Black Men, can be a success today?

  • nickelndime

    “It’s a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear,” said TV talk show host Dick Cavett…Can you bring yourself to be receptive to truths that might be disruptive? Are you willing to send out an invitation to the world, asking to be shown revelations that contradict your fixed theories and foregone conclusions? If you do this hard work, I promise that you will be granted a brainstorm and a breakthrough.

  • nickelndime

    AhContraire – I hear you, man.

  • Alan Maclachlan

    A resort to nostalgia is a comforting response to many problems, regardless of whether it’s true or not.

  • Are you saying the super low crime rate before the 1960’s was not true and that people didn’t lock their doors back then? Are you saying they had double bolt locks, bars on windows, home alarms, store alarms, car alarms, security cameras in the home, business and city wide back in the 1920’s?
    And are you saying the Black race always a race that didn’t believe in family like it is now with 90-95% of the Black mothers who are unwed?
    And are you saying the Black race has never believed in family and was always a thug race, always wore their pants on the ground, hoodies in 100 degree heat and never knew who their daddy was, ever in history?

    Is that what you are saying?

  • scotchirish

    The article itself is a resort to liberal nostalgia.

  • Owen Courrèges

    The entire discussion of “white privilege” and the assertion that “all white people are racist” is pseudo-intellectual hokum, at least in my view. The truth is that we are all uplifted and burdened by a variety of factors in our lives, and there’s no easy way to keep score. When you try to do so, when you overgeneralize and make sweeping statements about belief and moral culpability of diverse groups, you become more a part of the problem than anything else.

    The example here is pretty clear; a total stranger told Tabachnik that he needed to take a harder look at his “privilege” and how it influenced his views. This person did not know Tabachnik. He hadn’t lived the life Tabachnik had. He didn’t know his background and experiences. He assumed a great deal based on nothing else than the fact that Tabachnik is white. If that’s acceptable, then racism in general is ok, because apparently we don’t have to look to individual characteristics anymore. Race is sufficient by itself as a basis for hurling judgments.

    Am I the only one who saw that?

  • scotchirish

    Good insight. Some stereotyping is fine. A large part of “white privilege” could be attained by cutting the illegitimacy rate. That should bring down the homicide rate in about 2 generations. “Asian privilege” would be the next level.

  • Amy Knoll

    I think so. I saw someone with their life experience that was pretty great compared to a lot of people who grew up in New Orleans and someone called them on their privilege. White people and people of color have different experiences in society. Men and women have different experiences. White men are categorically more privileged than any other person in America. Pretending this doesn’t exist is the hokum.

    I worked with people with HIV & AIDS in the early 90’s. The groups I worked with were predominately gay men. By the late 90’s the group being impacted by HIV most was people of color. As a white woman I had to take a step back and learn what kind of situations my clients were dealing with because I didn’t have the impact I did with the gay population. I transitioned to a different job because I could train people in the community to do my job much better than I could do it. I’m cool with that.

    I love cultural competency, I love that this guy took the time to hear about other’s experiences and learned from it. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to understand how society works and (fingers-crossed) level the playing field.

  • Owen Courrèges


    >>I think so. I saw someone with their life experience that was pretty great compared to a lot of people who grew up in New Orleans and someone called them on their privilege.<> White men are categorically more privileged than any other person in America.<<

    White men are not monolithic. Each and every white male is not in the same position as every other and has not had the same life experiences. If you assume otherwise, you become an insensitive bigot by refusing to deal with people as individuals. I hope that's not the case.

  • Alan Maclachlan

    AhContraire…why do you choose the most problematic behaviors among African Americans to characterize all African Americans? When you read stories about crimes or depradations committed by a White person, do you generalize that behavior as characterizing all White people, including yourself, assuming you are White? There are lots of White folks who aren’t meth-cookin’, head-bangin’ high school dropouts breaking into cars in Metairie or burglarizing houses in Mandeville. Do you feel as if you share the guilt of criminals and ne’er-do-wells based upon your shared skin color? If not, are you in fact applying a double standard in your racial judgements?

    What someone sees in others sometimes says more about them than about others.

    You drag out every stereotype possible in support of your position. Do you really believe that there was no crime or violence in the 1950’s and before? Do you really believe that none of the things you decry existed then? Do you really believe that none of the virtues of the past are still widespread today? Your nostalgia is showing, and it’s showing a distorted picture of reality.

    But, back to the topic of White Privilege; one of the most insidious manifestations of White Privilege is the privileged way in which White Americans are able to wear blinders when they view history, as is so clearly manifested in your post. Another, more widely public example occurred recently when Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty said the following, among other things;

    “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

    Alas for the good ol’ days of sharecropping and Jim Crow, when–sarcasm alert–no one sang The Blues!

    But, here’s a link to another view of history, with a different perspective. As a White person you are privileged to ignore this reality; but read it, and tell me what it contains that isn’t true;


  • Why do you choose the most problematic behaviors among African Americans to characterize all African Americans?
    Are you saying I should I choose the least problematic behaviors when characterizing them? Or maybe not saying anything at all about AA people? If so, why have DBE’s and racial quotas as I should look the other way for both the most and least problematic behaviors. That is, I, we should all pretend there is no color discrimination, or even problems, in the first place.

    You drag out every stereotype possible in support of your position. Do you really believe that there was no crime or violence in the 1950’s and before?
    What you call a stereotype were the facts, the culture and daily life of back then before the 1960’s. If you don’t believe me, why not check the jail sizes, the jail records, the police to resident ratio, the birth certificates with BOTH the father’s name and mother’s name, the businesses on Dryades that had Black owners. Why not see if there were alarm systems in houses and businesses back in the 1950’s and earlier or crime cameras in the 1920’s. It was way different back then before the 1960’s and every single fact, e.g. photo, literature, witness testimony, prove it was no stereotype, nostalgia, or distorted picture of reality.

    Yet, was there unfairness, mistreatment back before the 1960’s? Yes, sure there was. But was there blood on the streets, baby daddies, welfare queen momma, and abandoned kids, like there is today? No way was it like that back then.

    The unfairness, mistreatment, e.g. sitting in back of bus, separate water fountains or “protesting blacks singers performing in front of a white audience” means virtually nothing when compared to today’s injustices of two lost generations of Black men, pants on the ground, kids who don’t know who their daddy is, the complete disintegration of the Black family via 90% of Black mothers who are unwed.

    Someone said to me that I would never be able to get Whites to get over their “White Guilt” on Slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws. And I think I replied by saying, “Sure I can. I just need to show their most recent sins and policies that have completely destroyed the Black family via pants on the ground, black kids who don’t who their daddy is, two lost generation of black men, 90% of Black mothers are unwed, 90% of crime is black on black, and the list goes on and on.”

    And then compare the aforementioned indirect genocide to Slavery and Jim Crow laws.

    An unfair and unequal situation has been made far worse situation.

    The “White Guilt of Slavery” has now become the “White Denial of Two Lost Black generations and indirect Genocide”.

  • “White Guilt” versus “Even More White Guilt”
    Now that I think about it.
    Not only do some Whites, have White Guilt over Slavery, these same Whites, who supported these policies that promoted irresponsibility, e.g. Huey P Long NINJA Loan Homestead Exemption, 24/7 public intoxication, gambling, Section 8, EBT, WIC, SNAP, welfare have EVEN MORE GUILT to be ashamed of.

    The “White Guilt of Slavery” has now become the “White Denial of Two Lost Black generations, 90% Black Family Disintegration via 90% Black mothers unwed and indirect Genocide”.

  • Racism must be taught. It must have an example. Racism is taught by EXAMPLE in families who have it ingrained in their everyday lives. For all racism to stop, we must educate the ADULTS first – leave the children alone!
    PARENTS are the ones who are damaged and need the correction – from there, by gentle teaching, “racism” would be a thing of the PAST.

  • Mat Freimuth

    I have written a response to this peice here, it was too large for the comments section. I hope it finds you well, Sam. http://mfreimuth.tumblr.com/post/72042643994/an-open-letter-to-sam-tabachnik

  • Rebecca Metz

    An inspiring and encouraging read.

    I hope it will prompt the author and others to explore privilege beyond race… Privilege based on gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical capability, and more.