White Privilege, Complicity, and the Social Construction of Race

White Privilege, Complicity, and the Social Construction of Race

Applebaum, Barbara

In their ethnographic study of students who participated in a course that focuses on the political and social power of whiteness, Kathy Hytten and John Warren’ describe a white student, Phillip, who recounts a story about his efforts to remove the confederate flag from use by the mascot of his former high school. Phillip recalls how he and his black high school friend collected hundreds of protest signatures throughout the school and presented them to the principal. After participating in this course on whiteness, Phillip is astonished to remember the different ways his classmates responded to him and to his friend, who was his partner in this undertaking. Hytten and Warren discuss Phillip’s newly understood recollection of this event in his life and quote from Phillip,

As word of the petition spread, articles began to appear in the school and local papers. Many people regarded me as deserving praise. Few said the same about my friend. I, it seems, was treated as an individual, as a particular person engaging in specific acts meant to help others. My friend was regarded more as another underprivileged black kid spending more time rebelling against authority than taking care of his grades, getting a job, and so on.2

At the time, Phillip was acutely cognizant of the racist ways in which his friend was treated. After participating in a course on diversity that focused on whiteness and white privilege, however, what Phillip now realizes is that he was blind to the privileges he enjoys. Through reconsidering this personal experience, Phillip uncovers not only what he calls the “interlocking oppressions of active, visible forms” but also, “invisible, embedded ones.” He offers,

. . . prior to this reflection, I had failed to note that the racism in this experience came not just in the guise of individual acts of negative regard of my friend, but also in widespread and unthinking positive reaction to me.3

How can I get my white pre-service teachers to grasp what Phillip understands?


In his forward to the 1998 book, White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America,4 Michael Apple poignantly cautions educators “issues of whiteness lie at the very core of educational policy practice. We ignore them at our risk.”5 Within the last two decades, educational theory and practice have increasingly acknowledged that the diversity of subject positions and the different cultural, ethnic and racial experiences of those who are to be educated cannot be neglected. Predominantly colorblind approaches to diversity have been accredited with ignoring the power relations and oppressive features of difference that have profound discriminatory effects on students. Many scholars and advocates of anti-racist education have shifted their attention from an exclusive focus on the victims of racism, to the system that perpetuates racial injustice and to the people who intentionally and unintentionally uphold such a system. Apple’s counsel is penetrating and prophetic in its call to name the whiteness of education and in its affirmation that issues of social justice cannot be addressed unless the power of whiteness is made visible.

Given that the teaching force in North America is still predominantly white while the student body that they teach increasingly is not,6 making whiteness visible has become a crucial objective in many colleges of education. At an accelerating pace, teacher education programs all around North America have begun to frame required Educational Foundations courses specifically in the direction of a critical whiteness pedagogy. Such pedagogy aims to “examine the various ways that social forces, including language, knowledge, and ideology, shape white identity and positionality in contemporary American life.”7 In particular, the objective of such courses is to interrogate whiteness and the ways in which whiteness is invisibly maintained as the center of education. One of the means by which such courses help white teacher candidates to recognize the unmarked marker of whiteness is to raise awareness around the whiteness of white identity usually through an understanding of white privilege. Teachers who recognize the socially constructed nature of whiteness and the ways in which it has marked others as different and deviant, such courses assume, will be able to challenge power inequalities that are sustained through the schooling process8 and will be better prepared to serve all their students.

Cynthia Levine-Rasky ,9 however, has recently pointed to acute problems in the ways in which white privilege is often introduced to white teacher candidates, leading to outcomes that are counterproductive to the objectives of such initiatives because they not only reify but, also, recenter whiteness. By admitting privilege, Levine-Rasky points out, white students were actually able to avoid owning their own complicity in systems of oppression-their confessions of privilege served as a redemptive outlet. In particular she faults teacher education for “failing to elaborate upon the basis of white privilege in the historical, social and political arrangements between groups” and for highlighting the “individual as sole locus for analysis, neglecting the contradictions in subjective experience and in educational discourse.”10 Phillip’s recollection is a confession of privilege, yet it does not appear to function as an evasion of his complicity. How does his confession of privilege connect to his complicity in systems of oppression? Levine-Rasky’s critique of white privilege pedagogy highlights the limitations of white privilege pedagogy that focuses exclusively on making white privilege visible but ignores teaching students about the link between the privileges they enjoy and how such privilege sustains systems of oppression. In this paper, I suggest one way that social justice educators can make this link explicit to their students by underscoring the ways in which “race” is socially constructed and sustained.

White Privilege Introduced

In many courses dealing with diversity in schools of education, Peggy Mclntosh’s 1992 seminal essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,”11 is often the primary resource employed to introduce students to the concept of white privilege. According to McIntosh, white privilege functions like an “invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious,”12 My students who are in various ways ascribed dominant group status are readily shocked and resonate with the unearned and taken-for-granted advantages that as white and/or as heterosexual and/or as male that Mclntosh lists. Mclntosh, however, describes white privilege as an invisible knapsack of unearned assets that confers dominance. While most of my white students pick up on the “unearned assets” part of Mclntosh’s definition, what appears to elude them and what they completely ignore is what Mclntosh means when she claims that their privilege “confers dominance.”

A number of months ago, after what I considered to be a good discussion of Peggy McIntosh’s influential article, I asked my students to identify three examples of how privilege, in the sense that Mclntosh articulates, works on our own campus. Among the responses I received to my requests for dominant group privileges that can be seen today on our campus, however, were:

These responses indicate a resistance to the discourse of privilege and/or a misunderstanding of the concept of dominant group privilege. Not only do some of my students fail to appreciate the systemic nature of dominant group privilege, as the first five comments suggest, they also do not see how the oppression of people of color systemically sustains and makes possible dominant group privilege, as the last remark makes clear. They seem to ignore or fail to appreciate what Mclntosh refers to “unearned power conferred systemically” or that dominant group privilege is not only unearned advantage but also advantage that confers dominance. What does it mean when scholars write that privilege is the flip side of oppression?13 What does McIntosh mean by “conferring dominance”?

Cognitive understanding does not guarantee that students will apply such understanding to their own experiences of the world, as Alice Mclntyre14 and others have markedly documented. Resistance to acknowledging one’s complicity in sustaining systems of oppression and lack of understanding, however, often become intertwined. Indeed, resistance and lack of understanding work hand-in-hand to maintain the invisibility that is the sine qua non of white privilege. Dominant affiliated group members will not be able to appreciate how the marginalized are discriminated against nor will they be able to acknowledge their complicity in sustaining such systems, I submit, without an understanding of how privilege and oppression are systemically interrelated and mutually reinforcing. In particular, the ways in which unearned assets continuously confer dominance through the process of shaping identities of “difference” must be unambiguously delineated.

There are scores of illustrations of how privilege and oppression are mutually reinforcing. Tim Wise maintains,

(T)hat which keeps people of color off-balance in a racist society is that which keeps whites in control: a truism that must be discussed if whites are to understand our responsibility to work for change. Each thing with which “they” have to contend as they navigate the waters of American life is one less thing whites have to sweat: and thatmakeseverything easier, from fmdingjobs, to getting loans, to attending college.15

While the connection between privilege and oppression that Wise articulates is undoubtedly correct, it is regrettably too focused on the individual and not sufficiently affirmative for my students to see the systemic connection. Often my students will simply maintain that all whites need to do is to ensure that all people have these privileges. These students agree that these advantages should not be privileges, but, rather, should be rights that everyone should have or that should be based for everyone upon merit. Laudable as this response seems, it often functions to allow my students to avoid any complicity regarding their own role in sustaining systems of oppression and diverts attention from challenging whiteness. Some students see their privilege and complicity in the times when they stand passively by while friends, colleagues and/or family make overtly racist remarks. Again, this response is progressive but it can also divert one’s attention from exploring more deeply how one’s own privilege connects one to systems of oppression. It is as if all my students think they need to do is confront these overt racists and they will have been purged of their privilege and their complicity in sustaining systems of oppression.

bell hooks and others explain16 most good, white, liberal people understand racism as something that is voluntary, intentional and perpetrated by horrible others. Because they do not see themselves as prejudiced, they are, thus, afforded the privilege of not having to recognize the ways in which they contribute to maintaining systems of oppression. This avoidance of complicity is not completely thwarted by merely exposing them to how they benefit from systemic white privilege. It is crucial that educators communicate an understanding of how systemic privilege sustains systemic oppression in the very construction and perpetuation of a “they.” It is important that educators who implement white privilege pedagogy, and who want to forestall or at least diminish their white student’s resistance towards the acknowledgement of complicity, take seriously the complex nature of such privilege and how such privilege creates and sustains systems of oppression.

Rendering the Invisible Visible: What Remains Invisible?

My white students are often struck by the invisibility of their privilege, especially when these privileges are exposed through a reading of Mclntosh’s list. They realize that clerks do not following them around when they go into a store, police officers do not hassle them without cause, apartment owners do not deny their application when they want to rent in white neighborhood and can afford to live there. This “aha” moment, in which what they take for granted is uncovered, is often extremely exhilarating. My white students take pleasure in the belief that they have undergone a learning experience and have exposed the invisible. In fact, this type of visibility and exposure has a false, but powerful, emancipatory effect that may bring a halt to the necessity for ongoing learning. Moreover, such “aha” moments risk promoting a confessional mode that fixates white students as the center of attention or draws out discursive tactics that serve to absolve one from complicity.17 Indeed, this type of visibility promotes evasions of complicity by encouraging a sense that one “gets it,” that one already understands white privilege, forestalling the need to further interrogate the systemic nature of such “exposed” privilege. What still remains invisible to my students? What are the crucial features of dominant group privilege that are eclipsed by this sense of “getting it”? The metaphor of visibility and invisibility appears to work at two levels. One may “see” how one is privileged and yet “not see” the connection between privilege and complicity in systems of oppression.

Paula Rothenberg notes that the invisibility of dominant group privilege is not merely an act of individual ignore-ance. Rather, this invisibility is “culturally encouraged.”18 Such privilege is systematically sanctioned in institutional policy and legislation and so one place to look for the connection between privilege and oppression is in these policies and laws. Another way to make the connection explicit is to focus on cultural representations and to demonstrate how, as invisible, dominant group privilege is connected to the construction of racial identities. While those who enjoy privilege may or may not, in fact, consciously think they, as individuals, merit what they take for granted, it is central to the power of invisible privilege to foster the illusion that those who do not enjoy such advantages, do not only because of their lack of superior intelligence, their lack of hard work and, in short, because “they” do not deserve it. To fully comprehend the systemic dimensions of privilege and oppression, we must examine how privilege functions to shape “others” without which the concept of “privilege” does not make much sense.

Expanding on Bailey’s Expanding on Frye

The invisibility of privilege is culturally encouraged when dominant group members are systematically taught to see themselves as individuals, not as members of a group, and to view privileges as distinct entities that are effects of individual merit. In order to explicate the systemic nature of dominant group privilege, Alison Bailey19 expands upon the “birdcage metaphor” developed by Marilyn Frye20 to explain the structural characteristic of the concept “oppression.”

One of the reasons that dominant group members fail to see and appreciate what oppression is, according to Frye, involves this culturally sanctioned lens through which dominant group members view their world and the world of others. Such a lens encourages a “seeing” that is focused both on the individual and on individual events and experiences. Rather than seeing how events fall into a pattern of interlocking forces that affect entire groups of people, dominant group members see events, attitudes and actions from a predominantly individualistic perspective. Frye encourages dominant group members instead to,

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire… it is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment.21

When the effects of the birdcage are viewed microscopically, one wire at a time, they appear to be problems of the individual not products of systemic injustice. Dominant group members need to be prodded into taking a macroscopic view of oppression. Because they do not suffer materially from the interlocking effects of such systems, because they do not experience institutional and cultural oppression, it is easy for them to avoid viewing the world macroscopically. In fact, they can choose to ignore oppression altogether; they have the option to decide whether to struggle against it or not.

In contrast, the interlocking effects of such oppressive systems create double binds forthose inside the cage. Inhabitants of the cage are faced daily with situations in which their choices are reduced to few and all of their options expose them to penalty and censure. These situations are not eccentric or idiosyncratic, nor are they accidental or avoidable. Rather these situations are shaped and formed by and through a network of barriers and forces that restrict the movement of the inhabitant of the cage and imprison him or her.

To capture this sense of systemic suffering rather than individual suffering, Frye distinguishes between harm and oppression. Dominant group members may suffer and experience harms, but as dominant group members cannot experience oppression because there is no complex system whose only options are double binds. The lives of people who experience oppression, on the contrary, are embraced with double binds so that every path that can conceivably take them to success is blocked, sometimes by concealed “glass ceilings.” In the Rage of the Privileged Class,22 Ellis Cose documents the subtle forms of prejudice that the increasing members of the black middle class must still endure despite their great achievements. Cornel West, in the preface to his celebrated book, Race Matters,23 recounts how waiting for a taxi in a distinguished suit and tie, he still gets passed over by the driver who picks up the white customer.

Frye also notes that oppression is experienced by individuals but not because they are individuals but because they are members of a group. The inhabitant of the cage, as Frye states, is not an individual but a member of a social group. Thus, to recognize a person as oppressed is to acknowledge that the suffering experienced is due solely to the fact that the individual is a member of an oppressed group.

To illustrate her point about systemic oppression, Frye offers as an example the oft-heard complaint by some men that they are oppressed too because of their inability to cry. Although men suffer from a social proscription against crying, they are not oppressed because there is no network of barriers or forces that says crying and not crying are unacceptable. I am not surprised when my students often object that men’s inability to cry does put them in a double bind, insisting that when men do not allow themselves to be emotionally expressive, they suffer psychologically. “They are damn if they do, damned if they don’t,” as one white student adamantly insisted. It is imperative, therefore, to underscore that oppression is not only about being in a particular double bind but in double binds that are part of a network of barriers or forces that leads to the social devaluation of the individual seen as a member of a particular social group. When heterosexual, white men are excluded from benefiting from programs designated for minorities they are not oppressed, although they clearly may suffer harm. They are not oppressed, first of all, because they are rarely optionless. Often, they are eligible for a variety of other existing benefits or options. As Bailey points out, one avenue is closed for them, but not all. They may feel this is unfair but they are not oppressed in Frye’s sense of the word. Moreover, these men are not oppressed because their exclusion from certain programs or their failure to obtain a particular job does not contribute to the devaluation of their social group, and by implication, their character. No one thinks, “that white man did not deserve the job anyways.” More common is to hear cries of reverse discrimination.

Thus, an important characteristic of oppression is that the network of barriers and forces that constrain the inhabitant of the birdcage not only restrict his/her movement but also, and this is an extremely significant point, contribute to their diminished status in society and to the devalued social position of their social group. The birdcage keeps people and groups of people down – their voices are devalued and their experiences dismissed. Moreover, the system of oppression contributes to making and keeping a particular group “Other.” Even if men as a group suffer because of their inability to cry, their social status is not thereby diminished. On the contrary, men who do not cry are perceived in the social imaginary as strong and are in various ways rewarded for that perceived strength.

Systemic Privilege as seen from Outside the Birdcage

In order to draw attention to systemic privilege as unearned assets that are conferred systematically and that confer dominance, Bailey builds on the distinction that Frye uses to distinguish systemic oppression from mere harm and suffering. Bailey differentiates between privilege and advantage and she reasons, analogous to Frye’s argument about oppression and harm, that while all privilege is advantageous, not all advantage is privilege. What distinguishes oppression from harm and privilege from advantage is the systematically conferred nature of the former in each pair. If we want to know if some harm is oppression we must see whether that harm fits into a network of forces and barriers that constrain particular groups of people. Similarly, if we want to know if a particular advantage is a privilege we must see whether it works to enable the privileged group from avoiding such forces and barriers. But as Bailey promptly recognizes this is to assume a too simplistic understanding of privilege because privilege is not always about immunities but can also be something positive like additional perks. These perks are so connected to each other that they form a network of interrelated advantages, what Bailey calls the “wild card” quality of privilege. By this she means that systemic privilege has a “broad currency”24 granting positive benefits that are effective even in locales above and beyond their immediate comfort zones.

Attempting to flesh out how privilege plays a role in keeping the complex system of dominance in place, Bailey points to four features of systemic privilege:

(1) privilege is unearned and conferred systematically

(2) privilege is granted to individuals not simply as aresult of individuals but primarily because they are members of dominant groups (that is, having privilege does not depend on the intention of those who are its beneficiaries)

(3) most privilege is invisible to those who have it (it is, therefore, not even consciously perceived as a benefit)

(4) and privilege has a “wild card” quality

In order to explicate this “wild card” quality, Bailey distinguishes between negative and positive dimensions of privileges. Negative privileges involve the absence of barriers but positive privileges entail bonus-like perks that cannot be explained in terms of immunities alone.

This is an extremely important point and illustrates where the analogy with the birdcage metaphor breaks down. The birdcage metaphor illustrates systematic barriers that the oppressed experience and illuminates the protections from such barriers that the privileged enjoy. The metaphor, however, does not adequately point to additional perks that are bestowed upon the privileged as being outside of the birdcage. Actually, this metaphor is also misleading because it gives the impression that dominant group members can be outside of the birdcage rather than an inherent component in what keeps the birdcage standing. Bailey refers to the additional perks that the privileged enjoy as the “wild card” quality of systemic privilege.

The “wild card” quality of white privilege is illustrated in Phillip’ s recollection noted above. As Phillip begins to apprehend, white privilege affords him, but not his friend of color, a “widespread and unthinking positive reaction to me.”25 Audrey Thompson articulates this phenomenon when she writes,

White liberal framings, while less likely to demonize people of color, often treat nonwhites as “interested parties,” so that white actions stand out as those of disinterested, citizen-minded individuals. Within the terms of such a moral economy, the political acts of people of color are not especially meaningful as moral action because they are seen as natural; white actions, however, count as “extras” – in Kantian language, they are supererogatory. Chicana/os, for example, are assumed to just naturally take an interest in Chicana/o issues and can even be blamed a little for doing so, since their interest betrays a lack of neutrality, a failure to be universal and disinterested in outlook. Whites, by contrast, are lauded for learning anything about Chicana/os, let alone taking a stand on their behalf. Anglos who learn Spanish get extra credit, whereas Chicana/os who speak English and Spanish get negative credit for the Spanish and second-best credit for the English.26

To be white in America, as Bailey argues, “is to have a culturally valued identity”27 Bailey refers to this as reputational interest and respectful credulity. She points out that reputational interest served as the defense for Homer Plessy in Plessy vs. Ferguson. Homer Plessy’s lawyer contended that as a light-skinned man of European and African descent Plessy was denied “the reputation of being white” when he was denied a seat in the white passenger railway car. It was not that Homer Plessy was denied access to the best seats on the train but, rather, that he was denied the positive respect that being allowed to sit in those seats bestows. This type of privilege interacts with other privileges and leads to a credibility, respect and dignity that marginalized group members are deprived of.

Systemic Privilege and the Construction of “Difference”

In order for whiteness to place itself in a position of “superiority,” it would have to construct pervasive depictions of non-whites as “inferior.” When privilege is understood as systemic and, as Peggy Mclntosh tells us, confers dominance, the “wild card” dimension of privilege comes to the foreground. It becomes easier, then, to see one of the ways in which systemic privilege contributes to the perpetuation (even the construction) of systems of oppression. When invisible, reputational privilege is seen as individual merit implying that those who do not obtain such privilege do not deserve such respect and dignity. In a move reminiscent of “blaming the victim,” lack of reputational privilege constructs groups that are different from the groups normalized as dominant as “different” and “deviant.” In fact, privilege is dependent upon some people being denied such advantages. As long as systemic privilege is not recognized as “privilege,” dominant group members are culturally encouraged to see such advantages as what is individually merited, while at the same time framing groups who are denied advantages through a deficit model. In particular, the “wild card” quality of white privilege constructs us/them binaries that create inferior social status for those who because of their supposed inferiority do not enjoy such respect or credibility.

White privilege, in other words, helps to discursively racialize identities in polar opposition to the dominant group enjoying such privilege. Peter McLaren astutely maintains,

People do not discriminate against groups because they are different; rather the act of discrimination itself constructs categories of difference that hierarchically locate people as “superior” or “inferior” and then universalizes and naturalizes such differences.28

Such differentiation is constructed as we often come to comprehend what something is only by measuring what it is not. When the invisibility of systemic privilege is culturally encouraged, it functions to help create these differentiations. Privilege is central to the generation of we/them designations. This is in part what McIntosh means, I believe, when she writes,

My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work forme…. In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made inconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated.29

And, again, McIntosh describes the daily subtle messages that are conveyed by privilege,

I received daily signals and indications that my people counted and that others either didn’t exist ormust be trying, not very successfully, to be like people of my own race.30

Privilege is more than just being on the other side of the birdcage; privilege contributes to the perpetuation of the birdcage, as well as to who will be its inhabitants.

Whiteness is not a fixed nor biological category but a culturally constructed one and for individual white people whiteness often intersects with other axes of dominance and oppression. As Joe Kincheloe succinctly puts it, “There are many ways to be white. . . .”31 Although systems of privilege and oppression are interlocking, all people ascribed whiteness will benefit in some way from white privilege. This is not to imply that they will all be able to access or utilize these privileges in the same way or to the same degree. Nonetheless, until my white students acknowledge how privilege keeps systems of dominance in place, they will be more likely to reject any complicity in unjust systems of oppression.


Critical whiteness pedagogy that focuses on white privilege with the aim of encouraging white students to interrogate whiteness must give more attention to privilege conferred systemically and to the ways in which privilege confers dominance. This means, as Levine-Rasky cautions, that those who advocate for white privilege pedagogy in schools of education must make explicit the historical, social and political arrangements between groups and must avoid highlighting the individual as a sole locus for analysis. What Phillip seems to recognize is that the ways in which he is recognized “as good” is not independent of the social location he possess. Phillip begins to comprehend how in regarding him as morally admirable, it was easier for his friend to be seen as, at least, morally insignificant and, at most, morally unworthy. All this, without any intent on Phillip’s part.

The implications of such an analysis of privilege make evident that privilege is not something that one can just decide to abolish, abandon or just give up. It is just another expression of privilege to think that one can part with or divest oneself from one’s dominant social location and what it bestows on one. The structural examination of privilege highlights that it is not just enough to want to correct injustice; dominant group members must constantly interrogate their moral deliberations and actions for exclusions and inclusions. On the other hand, such an understanding of one’s complicity in systemic oppression should not encourage immobilizing guilt, a topic I have discussed elsewhere.32 What a structural analysis of privilege underscores for social justice educators is that before discussion about how to performatively challenge systems of privilege is initiated, white students must be made cognizant about how the privilege they take for granted confers dominance and contributes in the construction of “Others.”

In this paper, I argued for a more in-depth type of white privilege pedagogy implying that what my students required to understand what Phillip understands was just more information. However, exposing them to new knowledge is not sufficient when white privilege works in hidden ways to camouflage itself. Certain obstacles obstruct understanding structural privilege and contribute to denials of complicity. These obstacles are a function of the certainty that white privilege encourages and must first be recognized and countered. To offset this certainty, the following three ideas are constructive:

Uncertainty Concerning What Anti-Racism Looks Like and How It Is Actively Undertaken

In her critique of the critical pedagogy movement, Elizabeth Ellsworth addresses what she refers to as “a pedagogy of the unknowable” and makes explicit the dangers of “knowing.”

For me, what has become more frightening than the unknown or the unknowable are social, political, and educational projects that predicate and legitimate their actions on the kind of knowing that underlies current definitions of critical pedagogy.31

Critical whiteness pedagogy and, specifically white privilege pedagogy, must not assume that what it means to be an anti-racist white person is known at this time. Audrey Thompson advocates that anti-racist educators take up an emergent approach to change.

Where, indeed, are we now? My assumption had been that, while we were at some intermediate point in our journey towards anti-racist understanding, we definitely were on our way. I still want to think this. But when we start congratulating ourselves on how far along we are, it’s easy to stop thinking of ourselves as on a journey and start thinking of ourselves as having arrived. Not only have we not arrived but we can’t know, either in a pragmatic or in a visionary sense, what the end of the journey looks like. What will come to count as anti-racist will change as we take on new lived possibilities. Progressive whites do know about some things that are racist, yet it is doubtful whether we have much of an idea as to what, a century from now, will appear most shocking about race relations today. Still less can we claim to know about things that are not racist or that specifically undo racism and make room for something new, something “post-racism.”34

This is not to say, as Thompson points out, that teachers do not know things that can facilitate white students’ interrogation of whiteness. However, educators (and students, as well) must not proceed under the assumption that they know exactly what anti-racism is.

The emergent approach to change that Thompson advocates is one in which what it means to be an anti-racist white person is not assumed once and for all. It follows that social justice educators must not assume that all one needs to help students be anti-racist is get students to acknowledge their privilege. To do so promotes an endpoint that encourages a self-congratulatory perspective on oneself “as a good white anti-racist.” Christine Clark coins the term “anti-racist racist,” and specifically maintains that as such one should “always feel conflicted, full of contradictions, never as though I have ‘arrived.”’35

Continued Vigilance

In addition, social justice educators must be aware of another type of “wild card” involving whiteness/white privilege and its ability to keep itself hidden. Whiteness has the tendency to continually find ways of neutralizing and concealing itself, especially to people who receive its benefits. White people must be open and constantly alert for the redeposition of whiteness.

In her critique of white feminism, Elizabeth Spelman36 argues that white feminists need something comparable to what manufacturers refer to as the “antiredeposition” ingredient of detergents. Such a property prevents the dirt removed from one area of the wash from being redeposited more generally on the entire load. As of yet, there is no such antiredeposition ingredient for whiteness. The more whiteness is exposed and the more white people acknowledge where their privilege lies, the more readily whiteness just finds other places to hide. Therefore, there must be a continual vigilance about privilege and the ways in which systemic privilege sustains oppression. And since the epistemology of privilege is to distort, obscure, and limit knowledge and perception, this is work that the privileged cannot do on their own. The starting point for such a pedagogy of the unknowable is to begin to listen to those whose experiences are an outcome of oppression.

Rearticulating Being White – Being Good

Thompson also notes that decentering whiteness means,

… relinquishing our cherished notions of morality: how we understand fairness, how we understand what it means to be a good person, how we understand what it means to be generous or tolerant or a good listener.37

Indeed, white complicity in sustaining systems of oppression, a complicity that, for those who benefit from the system, is neither chosen nor easy to see, is often obscured by the same moral discourse that should function to expose such complicity. In other words, the moral agency that social justice educators draw upon in order to raise an awareness of systemic oppression and the role that privileged people play in sustaining such systems camouflage the very complicity educators aim to expose. Conceptions of moral agency and moral responsibility will require radical change in order to advance the type of awareness that does not allow whites to ignore the connections between privilege and oppression.

Acknowledging white privilege, Alice McIntyre tells us, is not the same as critically examining how and why whiteness continues to exist.38 It is not enough to teach white students to recognize how they are privileged by their race. Confessing white privilege does not redeem white people from their complicity in systems of power and oppression, and teaching about white privilege should not encourage denials of complicity. Social justice educators who employ white privilege pedagogy must also promote an understanding of the impact privilege has on the lives of marginalized groups and must be aimed at an incessant disruption and challenging of whiteness. Such objectives will foster a more responsible type of social justice education.


1 Kathy Hytten & John Warren, Engaging Whiteness: How Racial Power Gets Reified in Education, Qualitative Studies in Education 16, no. 1, (2003) p. 87.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Joe Kincheloe, Steinberg, S., Rodriguez, N. & Chennault, R, eds, White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

5 Michael W. Apple. Forward. In Joe L. Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg, Nelson M. Rodriguez, & Ronald E. Chennault, eds. White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. (New York: St. Martin’s Press) ix-xiii.

6 GloriaLadson-Billings, Preparing Teachers for Diverse Student Populations: A Critical Race Theory Perspective, Review of Research in Education, 24, pp. 211-247.

7 Kincheloe, Joe & Shirley Steinberg (1998). Addressing the Crisis of Whiteness: Reconfiguring White Identity in a Pedagogy of Whiteness. In Joe L. Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg, Nelson M. Rodriguez, & Ronald E. Chennault, eds. (1998). White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. (New York: St. Martin’s Press) p. 4.

8 Rodriguez, Nelson M. (1999). Introduction. In Nelson Rodriguez & Leila Villavrede, ed., Dismantling White Privilege .’Pedagogy, Politics, and Whiteness. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing) p. 4.

9 Cynthia Levine-Rasky, Framing Whiteness: Working Through the Tensions in Introducing Whiteness to Educators, Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 3, no.3, 2000, pp. 271-292.

10 Ibid, p. 274.

11 Peggy Mclntosh, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies, in Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic, eds., Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997) pp. 291-299.

12 Ibid., p. 291.

13 See Paula S. Rothenberg, Introduction, in Paula S. Rothenberg, ed., White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism (New York: Worth Publishers, 2002) p. 1. (“White privilege is the other side of racism.”)

14 Alice Mclntryre, Making Meaning of Whiteness: Exploring Racial Identity with White Teachers (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997); Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis. MN: University of Minesota Press, 1993); Dreama Moon, White Encultrualism and Bourgeois Ideology: The Discursive Production of ‘Good (White) Girls,’ in T.K. Nakayama & J.N. Martin, eds., Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity (Thousand Islands, CA: Sage, 1999) pp. 177-197; Kathy Hytten & John Warren, “Engaging Whiteness.”

15 Tim Wise, Membership Has Its Privileges; Thoughts on Acknowledging and Challenging Whiteness, in Paula S. Rothenberg, ed., White Privilege, p. 107.

16 bell hooks, overcoming white supremacy: a comment, in her Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black(Boston:South End Press, 1989)p. 113; Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race. (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Louise Derman-Sparks & Carol Brunson Phillips, The Dynamics of Racism. In Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach, New York: Teachers College Press, 1997

17 Alice Mclntyre, Making Meaning of Whiteness.

18 Paula S. Rothenberg, Introduction, White Privilege, p. 2.

19 AlisonBailey, Privilege: Expanding on Marilyn Frye’s ‘Oppression,’ Journal of Social Philosophy, Winter, 1998, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 104-119.

20 Marilyn Frye, Oppression, in her The Politics of Reality (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1983) pp. 1-16.

21 Ibid., pp. 5-6.

22 Ellis Cose, The Rage of the Privileged Class: Why are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care? (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

23 Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

24 Alison Bailey, Privilege, p. 114.

25 Kathy Hytten & John Warren, Engaging Whiteness, p. 87.

26 Audrey Thompson, Tiffany, Friend of People of Color: White Investments in Antiracism, Qualitative Studies in Education, 2003, vol. 16, no. l,p. 18.

27 Alison Bailey, Privilege, p. 116.

28 Peter McLaren, Unthinking Whiteness, Rethinking Democracy: Or Farewell to the Blond Beast; Towards a Revolutionary Multiculturalism. Educational Foundations, 1997,11/ 2, pp. 5-40.

29 Peggy McIntosh, While Privilege, p. 295.

30 Ibid.

31 Joe Kincheloe, The Struggle to Define and Reinvent Whiteness: A Pedagogical Analysis, College Literature vol. 26. no. 3 (Fall 1999), pp. 162-194.

32 Barbara Applebaum, Social Justice Education, Moral Agency, and the Subject of Resistance, Educational Theory, 2004, vol. 54, no. 1, in press.

33 Elizabeth Ellsworth, Why Doesn’t this Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy, Harvard Educational Review, August 1989, vol. 59, no. 3, pp. 320.

34 Audrey Thompson, Tiffany, p. 20.

35 Christine Clark, The Secret: White Lies are Never Little, in Christine Clark & James O’Donnell, eds., Becoming and Unbecoming White: Owning and Disowning a Racial Identity, 1999, p. 92, emphasis mine.

36 Elizabeth Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).

37 Audrey Thompson, Tiffany, p. 16.

38 Alice Mclntyre, Making Meaning of Whiteness, p. 84

Barbara Applebaum iis a professor with the School of Education at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.

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