Our white privilege
Understanding privilege will help us combat inequality in our community
Published online Tuesday, Dec. 9
It’s hard to miss the signs on campus that say “Black Lives Matter.” It’s even harder to miss the street protests outside one’s office window, blocking the traffic on one’s drive home, and filling the newspapers and the television news.
Yet for most of us, most of the time, this is just a small distraction — someone else’s response to the inevitable injustice in the world, to the many injustices over which we have no control and assume no responsibility. MIT is hard enough without bringing the real world inside the Infinite Corridor. Are we not One Community Together in Service, collaborating harmoniously to solve the world’s great challenges?
The irony of this strange juxtaposition should hit us with force of the MIT firehose or take away our breath like tear gas.
Black Americans live in a parallel universe to the one we, a white woman and a white man, live in. This parallel universe is a murderous regime, in which black people are killed with impunity; there is apparently no accountability for white men who wear police uniforms. A grand jury refused to indict the policeman in New York who killed Eric Garner — an unarmed black man accused of selling loose cigarettes — using a chokehold maneuver banned by NYPD standards.
This was not an isolated incident. How many times must we read accounts of police who shoot, throttle, and beat up black men, women, boys and girls without any consequences? To be a policeman or a neighborhood watchman in America seems to be a license and an invitation to bully and to kill. No amount of evidence makes any difference: no number of witnesses, no taped phone calls, no videos of the events matter in the mock trials that follow. It appears that if the policeman is white and the dead person is black, the grand jury will not indict and a jury will not convict.
The first thing both of us thought of when Michael Brown was slain was the vulnerability of young African Americans. One of us thought of a friend’s young black son. The boy’s mother experiences fear not just when bad news comes; she fears for her son every single time he leaves the house. The other of us thought first of black students at MIT, brilliant young people, many of whom look like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Gabriella Nevarez, and many of whom have been stopped by police for walking to and from campus at night.
We white people cannot continue to live in our insulated safe parallel universe unconscious of this brutality and lawlessness without trying to stop it.
How can we stand by and watch this travesty of justice in our country? Does no one care about what is lawful and what is not anymore? It is bad enough that the wealthy get away without paying their share of taxes and that armed white Texans can face down federal law enforcement officers with seeming impunity. But this is human life. This is the life of citizens being callously snuffed out by those who are supposed to protect us all.
We have white privilege. With that privilege comes responsibility.
Our white privilege means that people do not call the police when they see us, do not feel fear that we are going to hurt them just because of our color. The police do not stop us on public streets or on the grounds of MIT. White privilege means we do not have to respond to offensive, derisive comments that we are at MIT because of affirmative action. Nothing we do is subject to continuous hostile scrutiny because of the color of our skins.
White privilege means that we do not have to search long for role models or mentors who understand our culture and share our experience. It means we are not made tokens of our race by being asked “What do white people think about…?” Instead of nursing anger at racist remarks, we are free to focus on our jobs.
White privilege is not a character defect. We cannot change the color of our skin any more than a black person can. But we can educate ourselves about the cost of white privilege to society and learn ways to use that privilege to reduce racism. For a start, we recommend reading readily available articles by Peggy McIntosh and Robin DiAngelo.
White privilege confers power to effect change. When others are discriminated against — especially at this Institute where we live and work, and whose mission we so deeply believe in — we cannot remain silent. We are here to teach and to learn, and education cannot proceed in an atmosphere of double standards. One cannot pretend to pursue truth while ignoring the uncomfortable facts of racial intolerance staring one in the face.
Some of the facts are available at a posting on isawyou.mit.edu: “In the air, but not centralized?” We are not speaking only about racism outside MIT. MIT racism is revealed in anonymous defacing of posters and anonymous postings at isawyou, MIT Confessions, and responses to letters to The Tech. We invite you to see the vitriol being posted by some people using MIT email addresses.
Reading those comments and considering what lies behind them will make you uncomfortable. Perhaps this article does, too. But that is okay. Learning is not always comfortable. If it is not safe to experience discomfort and learning here at MIT, then where is it safe?
We call on readers to examine their own feelings and attitudes about race and privilege, to share insights with others, and consider ways to use your MIT privilege — which all of us here have — to aid others. Janee Woods offered great advice in her article “Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder.” Help us create a community that respects and supports the lives, experiences, voices, and success of all our students.
So we call on readers to join us in speaking up against racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of bigotry and harassment by joining us at the “Black Lives Matter” event Wednesday, December 10, 5–7 p.m. in the Wong Auditorium in E51. We call on faculty, students, and staff to join us at the Institute Diversity Summit being held on the afternoons of Jan. 29 and Feb. 12, 2015, the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration held mid-day on Feb. 4, 2015, and, for students, the Multicultural Conference MC^2 on Feb. 6-7, 2015. In these places we will discuss the meaning of privilege, justice, and respect at MIT.
Together we will try to understand better how to recognize the biases in our community and how to rectify them. We will show that all people are valued, by showing first that Black Lives Matter. Everyone in our community deserves respect and deserves to feel safe. Everyone.
Edmund Bertschinger is a Professor of Physics and Institute Community and Equity Officer, and Ruth Perry is Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of the Humanities