A chance to discuss privilege

Last week I trekked to Griffin Hall to watch a fight. In classic Williams style, this battle was to be waged in a stately lecture hall and had promised (via an all-campus email) to take the form of a “respectful community dialogue.” But thanks to campus gossip and an anonymous poster campaign, this event had been hyped up as a duel between two warring factions: the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Queer Student Union (QSU). The casus belli was the upcoming concert by Chance the Rapper. According to my informal sources on all things Williams, some members of QSU took issue with one of Chance’s lyrics (“slap-happy f****t slapper”), while some members of the BSU argued that Chance was being mischaracterized as homophobic and aggressive because he is a black man.

So last Thursday night I hurried into Griffin 3 expecting to see Team Oprah on one side, Team Ellen on the other, with Team Michael Sam standing awkwardly in the middle. But the Morley Circle Brawl I was promised never materialized. Instead, the QSU and BSU joined forces and reframed the Chance the Rapper conversation as an issue of privilege inequality at Williams. Privilege, defined as “unearned advantages manifested through economic, social and cultural capital,” is a recurring topic in WGSS classes and MinCo meetings, though it is often unfamiliar to the greater Williams community. The BSU and QSU alliance stemmed an awareness of privilege (or lack thereof) and served to transform a MinCo problem into a campus-wide issue.

MinCo groups have a history of conflict (constantly feuding over funding, perceived influence and physical space), but the power of this conversation was that they weren’t conflicting. Since BSU and QSU chose not to take any official position on the Chance the Rapper issue, Thursday’s event featured myriad opinions rather than a debate between two.

Individual students (speaking for themselves, not their organizations) called out various groups on this campus for taking advantage of their privilege – ACE, athletes, administrators. Among the incendiary claims of colonialism and hegemony, one idea was clear – Ephs are generally unaware of their own privilege.

It is natural that those with privilege are unaware that they have it. As a rough analogy, consider ‘health privilege’ – when you are healthy, do you take time to appreciate breathing through your nose without coughing or being able to exercise without chugging DayQuil? Conversely, being sick makes us appreciate all of those small miracles of our physiology and Rite Aid’s pharmacology.

Just as no one should be faulted for being born without privilege, individuals at Williams should not be faulted for being born with privilege. What Ephs should be held accountable for is being aware of their privilege and recognizing how their opinions and experiences are shaped by it. Privilege is not unique to MinCo or to Williams, but rather it pervades all of society. (Astonishingly) Williams’ purple bubble is not impermeable to societal issues. On the contrary, Williams’ academic and residential life provides ample opportunity to grapple with those issues. But the first step in doing so requires us to recognize our own privilege.

The purpose of recognizing privilege is not to blame specific individuals for the plight of others but to understand the limits of our empathy, to become aware of the biases of our own experiences. To truly ‘embrace diversity,’ we need to recognize privilege.

This process can be difficult and oftentimes awkward, but that should not deter us from grappling with our own privilege. In fact, the Chance the Rapper event featured a variety of such moments. A particularly awkward one occurred towards the end of the discussion, when an African American female student apologized to a white male student for making him feel uncomfortable.

Immediately following her apology, a concentrated cacophony erupted from a group of African American students shouting, “You shouldn’t have to apologize to him!” Then, silence filled the hall. Bodies shifted in their seats, eyes widened and furtive glances shot across the room. At that moment, everyone in attendance was forced to consider whether the interaction that had just happened was, in fact, a manifestation of privilege. That is what the process of recognizing privilege sounds like: sincere discussion interrupted by awkward moments of reflection and critical examination.

Regardless of the content of the statements or the apology, regardless of whether privilege did affect that conversation, being aware of privilege enabled everyone in that room to view an event through the lens of an important power dynamic. No, I am not advocating that we berate individuals for having privilege, nor do I think that we should always discuss privilege. But I do think that all Ephs, regardless of their race or gender or athletic prowess, should look at their own lives through that lens of privilege more often.

Sivahn Barsade ’14 is a political economy and psychology double major from Wynnewood, Penn. She lives in Poker Flats.