Dismantling Trunks of Invisible Privileges in Higher Education
Ferial Pearson and Monica Fuglei
Blond hair gleaming
In the sunlight.
Six feet, two
Five feet zero.
Racism is over!
YOU PEOPLE like to play
There is no such thing
As White Privilege!
His voice bounces off the walls
Slams my heart into my rib cage.
Eye the door.
He blocks my exit.
Quietly, I respond.
Would you speak to a white male
professor this way?
It’s day two of class.
|We were in second grade.
She sat on the steps,
crying about reading.
They’ll hold me back, she said. They won’t
help. I can’t read.
We spent the day whispering
sounds from pictures to words,
decoding the pages.
Get up. Do something, the playground
monitor said, but
my friend’s eyes, when she understood
To both of us.
|They see me,
I will sit with one of them
at a desk.
I walk to the front.
Get their attention.
Faces cloud, confused,
She’s the professor?!
I start with my credentials.
Work hard to prove
I’m worthy of being there.
|They look up, look
like me, look at me -
Nobody asks if I’m the teacher,
eyes and ears open
ready to learn.
I think it is like this for everyone. I am wrong.
Observing a colleague -
If you are Indian, how can you teach English?
her student challenges.
Another interrupts her lecture: I don’t
understand you. I never understand you.
|They are used to
Us. We. Them.
What, now, when one of
Says Us. We?
A hairline fracture forms in the ice
It’s just that I never had a teacher
like you before. I’m sorry.
A drop in a sea
of bittersweet moments.
|When I say:
This is our classroom
We are a community
We will build what we need to learn
We will challenge each other’s ideas and
respect each others’ identities
What do you want to learn?
A few students remain quiet.
They wonder how much of a community our
community will be.
|I’m summoned to her office.
One of your colleagues came to see
your clothes are too ethnic; you
should dress more professionally.
My face burns.
I’m new here.
rebels against blazers.
My shape not recognized
By American tailors.
remind me of home
with colors of my youth and
my hair recoils from gravity.
Her pale hand reaches out.
Pulls a dark curl
near my face
I shrink away, still
unused to this
episode of intimacy,
even though it’s a
|My daughter calls it English teacher chic
It’s all nerdy t-shirts and cardigans or blazers,
skirts with cool socks, boots or Converse.
A colleague says It’s unique, but I love your
and runs her hands through my purple locks.
This is the first time a colleague has ever
touched my hair.
| I stare at the email:
Course evaluations are available
Mouth dry, I ask my husband to look
and let me know if it’s safe to go in.
Religious conservatives should not
be required to take this class.
It’s okay to be white.
I feel attacked for being a white
straight Christian man.
This goes against the way I was
Is she even qualified to teach here?
I should not have gone in.
The water was too cold.
Will this affect my tenure?
Will this affect my tenure?
|I stare at the email:
Course evaluations are
I rush to read the results.
Professor Fuglei was able to keep all of us
engaged in the content and made sure that we
felt comfortable and that our ideas were
regarded with respect.
I wish the curriculum was more apolitical.
This runs rampant in the Humanities, no
wonder why these depts. are losing
admissions. But, she never graded biased.
I still remind my colleagues
of the drawbacks
of student evaluations.
|A black student, inconsolable,
cried in my office
for an hour.
I tried to show her
how to report the racism,
all she really needs
is a listening ear from someone who
I rush into the meeting, late for the
first time, heart still hurting for her,
reminded of similar experiences of
I introduce an
I squeeze into a corner.
The meeting continues and I sit.
A brown face at the table.
I love how diverse our department is!
I look at the other four faces of color
in our department of 40.
My arms cross, defensively.
It’s ok! We know how busy you are, a
as she makes space for another chair
at the crowded table.
I sit across from the man
who interrupted me
into silence at another meeting
a year ago.
I’m so glad you’re here,
I was working, I say. I just lost track of time.
Everyone has left.
I am finally alone and able to start
While my heart and mind still
catch on daily microaggressive
hangnails from today, yesterday, the
week before, that first day
when I was so excited to be there.
Congratulations on the job! I guess
they needed to fill a quota, huh?
Don’t say ‘white people with guns.’
You’ll offend your students, bosses,
Don’t mention the Muslim ban in
class. It’s too political.
But where are you FROM, really?
I love Indian food!
Your complexion is so great. I wish I
was that dark, but tanning costs
Can you come and teach my 3 hour
class how to be culturally
Exhausted, drained, I can’t think
Work will have to wait.
It’s time to heal, gather strength.
And do it again.
Computer and office light off.
shoulders tight -
Halfway to the car, my phone buzzes with
But I leave it all to read and
In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” A Women’s Studies professor at Wellesley, she noticed that men were hesitant to acknowledge their advantages under patriarchy, even when they recognized that patriarchy disadvantages women. Similarly, white people tend to disavow the benefit they gain from white privilege, even when they acknowledge that racism exists.
I have read and used McIntosh’s paper in my classes over the past decade to teach my students about the concept of white privilege. Each time, I get pushback from some students. Each time, I feel strong emotions, because, as a queer Muslim immigrant professor of color who has visible and invisible disabilities at a predominantly white Midwestern University, I have been noticing that McIntosh’s observations reflect my own lived experiences as well. I decided to list my observations about all of the privileges afforded to my colleagues who do not share these identities as a therapeutic exercise, to reassure myself that I was not imagining things or being oversensitive to my colleagues’ unearned advantages. During this process, I felt overwhelmed. This list needs a trunk rather than McIntosh’s weightless knapsack to contain it. The trunk is heavy, full-to-bursting, and incredibly difficult to get people to open and examine.
My early work in the Education program at the University of Nebraska led to my first diversity classes. Raised with a belief in meritocracy and with little exposure to diversity training, it took me time to identify and acknowledge the ways in which I experience white privilege and unconsciously further systems of oppression. Such realizations are not easy, but are essential to the work we do. While the term “white privilege” can elicit negative reactions from people who still believe in meritocracy, I recognize that this unearned power can and should be used to dismantle systems of privilege and build future systems that acknowledge and empower the “broader base” McIntosh describes: everyone.
Grounded in an understanding that we are two women with different experiences in Higher Education, we understand exploring the root of these different experiences can expose privilege. Following McIntosh’s example, we have realized that the following privileges are granted to most white, cis- and gender conforming, Christian (or non-religiously observant), non-disabled men at our institutions and in the community:
- I can work in my discipline of passion without being pushed into studying and teaching race/diversity/multiculturalism/human relations.
- It is assumed that my expertise is on a topic that is not related to my race, religion, or culture.
- I will not be asked to be an expert on my race, religion, or culture.
- I can choose from a plethora of committees that will further my career as opposed to being pushed to serve on many, if not all, the diversity committees at my institution.
- I can spend time writing, publishing, studying, and resting instead of having to spend time unofficially mentoring and counseling the students of color in my college or department.
- I am asked to serve on committees because of the value of my thoughts and my work as opposed to the color of my skin.
- I can be sure that most people on job search committees look like me and can determine that I’m a “good fit” with them. From a racial perspective, affinity bias will likely work in my favor.
- I know that my chair, dean, chancellor, and other administrators at my institution look like me: white.
- I can easily find a mentor in my field who shares my racial/ethnic background and can help me navigate academia accordingly.
- In course evaluations, my race/ethnicity/culture/accent will not affect me negatively.
- My students will trust my expertise without demanding proof or explanation of my credentials.
- I will not be asked to speak for my race or religion in meetings.
- I will not be asked to do uncompensated work looking over colleagues’ materials for any “offensive” material.
- I will not be the only person of my racial and ethnic background at most meetings.
- I will be assumed to be the professor/expert in the room and not a student or aide.
- I can teach diversity courses without being at risk of personal, psychological, or physical attacks by students.
- I can be sure I have my job because of merit, rather than to fill a quota.
- In gender-balanced departments, I am likely to be included in casual conversation at work.
- I am likely to racially resemble most of my colleagues.
- In gender-balanced groups, I am likely to make friends with and be invited to join social events by colleagues.
- I can go through most days without any microaggressions about my identities.
- I will not be scheduled to teach or work on days or at times that are holy/sacred to me.
- I can be sure that catered work events respect my religious dietary laws and provide me with a meal that I can eat.
- My colleagues will compliment my work as opposed to only my attire or hair.
- I can be sure that the people serving on tenure committees share my racial and ethnic background.
- I will not be treated with suspicion or distrust when teaching, or when presenting at schools/organizations/conferences.
- I can be fairly sure no one will touch my hair, clothes, and body without my permission.
- I can be late to a meeting without worrying it will reflect negatively on my culture/community/race/ethnicity/faith.
- I can travel alone to present or speak in rural areas without fear of hostility or physical harm.
- I will be believed when discussing my negative experiences and action will be taken to rectify the situation.
- I can wear cultural clothing and still be considered “dressed professionally.”
- I can use all of my cognitive energy on furthering my career and passions rather than spending it on working through microaggressions, discrimination, unpaid labor, and systemic oppression.
- My lived experiences are considered “normal” and worthy of being addressed, rather than political and therefore controversial or taboo; to be hidden and dismissed by the people in power.
Call to Action for Allies
The purpose of pointing out privilege, and lack thereof, is not to shame; it is to make us aware of the power that comes from our identities so that we can leverage it to dismantle systems of oppression. As Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility. Like Spider-Man, we will sometimes make mistakes, but the work we do is important. Sitting in shame and guilt is not productive, and in fact often causes us to freeze in inaction. Use your privilege for good. Unpack your trunk and see what you can share.
- Most importantly, ask: How can I support you?
- Listen intending to understand.
- Instead of trying to fix people, figure out how to dismantle the systems that oppress them.
- Always follow the lead of targets of oppression. Allow them to lead you in challenging systemic obstacles.
- Spread awareness, share knowledge, and redistribute power.
McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies.” Working Paper 189, Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley, MA.