University News

Panelists check ‘white privilege’ in dialogue on race

Administrators, faculty members discuss whiteness and the racism faced by people of color

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2014

Shane Lloyd, assistant director for first-year and sophomore programs at the Brown Center for Students of Color, moderated the panel alongside Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center.

A panel of seven white administrators and faculty members spoke about white privilege in a panel discussion titled “Race, Accountability and Allyship” to a full List 120 Wednesday night.

The teach-in was the first event in the Transformative Conversations@Brown Project, an initiative devoted to creating campus dialogue following the Ray Kelly protest last year.

The event was moderated by Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and assistant dean of the College, and Shane Lloyd, assistant director for first-year and sophomore programs at the Brown Center for Students of Color.

“This conversation was about getting administrators on the record about where they’re at,” Hannah Duncan ’15, who helped organize the panel along with Kalie Boyne ’16, told The Herald.

“We created this event because after the Ray Kelly incident, Transformative Conversations has been empowered to take on these issues,” Duncan said. “We want to make this issue of racial justice an institutional priority.”

In their opening statements, panelists spoke about their ethnic backgrounds, their experiences growing up and their thoughts on white privilege.

Michael Kennedy, professor of sociology and international studies, said sociology was relevant to discussions of racism because the discipline deals with issues related to power and inequality.

Reflecting on his “quite white” hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Kennedy said universities are similarly white. “There is no way to think about the good university without thinking about the whiteness of universities,” Kennedy said.

Sociologists have looked at how some forms of racism can be color-blind or based on structural factors, he said.

“There is no question that in America, white privilege finds power even in an era with a black president,” Kennedy said to snaps from the audience.

When Kennedy moved to Brown from the University of Michigan, he thought Brown would be better at accommodating diversity, but that was not the case, he said.

“I never had at Michigan someone come up to me and say, ‘I don’t think I belong here,’” he said. “I have had way too many colleagues and friends of colleagues come up to me and say, ‘I don’t think I belong here,’ and when I heard those expressions, I didn’t think I belonged here either, because I want everyone to belong here, and that’s why I’m on this panel.”

Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn said discussions of feminism and racism are connected.

She became involved in protests for abortion rights, against nuclear power and for divestment from apartheid-era South Africa when she was younger. “Feminism gave me words to understand my experience, and I began to see both my relationship between oppression as a woman and my privilege as a white middle-class heterosexual woman,” she said.

Ken Miller ’70 P’02, professor of biology, said he grew up in Rahway, New Jersey — a town with a population that was 30 percent black.

When he came to Brown as a first-year in 1966, “this was the whitest place I had ever seen,” he said, adding that there were only two black students in the class of 1970.

Barrett Hazeltine, professor emeritus of engineering, spoke about teaching in what is now the Third World Transition Program, adding that it was important for all students to “feel welcome” at Brown.

Hazeltine said it was necessary to help students of color form a sense of community and feel like they belong here. “I worry that we don’t do enough of that now,” he said.

Dawn King, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, said race is a recurring theme in environmental studies, as readings from certain time periods are all by “dead white guys,” who were the only ones with the privilege to be published at the time.

Moreover, the focus on traditional green environmentalism based on conservation over urban environmentalism highlights what King called the “missing perspective” of people of color in the field.

Growing up in a trailer and living off food stamps, King said she did not at first believe in white privilege, but she said she came to realize she was nonetheless privileged because of her skin color.

“I never have to think about my whiteness, and that’s the whole point,” King said.

Dean of the College Maud Mandel said as a historian she studies differences between cultures, adding that since “race is socially constructed and that can change over time, (issues of racism) can be fixed — and that gives me optimism when I think about the future.”

Mandel said it is not enough to only increase the diversity of the student body and faculty. “What we’ve never really asked is how the institution should change.”

Richard Bungiro PhD’99, senior lecturer in molecular microbiology and immunology, said the Ebola epidemic has racial overtones, with many people expressing more concern for Americans who contract the disease than for the thousands of Africans who have died in the current outbreak.

Lloyd said he was both nervous and excited for the panel discussion. He said there were only three gilded frames with pictures of black men on campus, which he said reflected “white institutional presence.”

“Whiteness is not invisible, and it also does not necessarily need to be normalized,” he added.

Lloyd said the discussion could be a space for white students to have difficult discussions about racism: “Where do they go to have a conversation to interrogate their identity?”

In response to a question from the moderators about spaces where the panelists discuss race, Miller said he talked about race with students, including a black graduate student who requested not to go to the lab at midnight for an experiment. Miller said he did not understand at first, but the student told Miller he knew he would be stopped by the police and asked for his ID along the way.

When the moderators asked about holding colleagues accountable, Klawunn said, “In order for us to be successful, a lot of people who are not here need to be here.”

After the panelists spoke, Cohee and Lloyd opened the discussion for a few questions from the audience. The questions touched on topics such as incorporating discussions of white privilege into the classroom and bringing such conversations out of academia to other people.

In response to a student question, Miller said, “White privilege is real. Anyone who doesn’t realize it exists doesn’t have their eyes open.” But, he added, the term “white privilege” can sometimes prompt backlash from white people, and discussions should focus more on extending privilege to all people regardless of race.

The panel elicited mixed feedback from students in the audience after the event ended.

“I thought it was insufficient,” Jamie Marsicano ’15.5 told The Herald. “The whole time was spent acknowledging that white privilege exists. When students’ questions asked about what to do to deal with it, it was mostly rejected by panelists.”

Emilio Leanza ’15 said he found Kennedy’s remarks the “most insightful” on the panel. “He connected white privilege as an institutional factor that needs to be addressed through institutional means.”

“Also, it was nice to see white people feeling uncomfortable for once,” Leanza added.

3 Comments

  1. TheRationale says:

    I find it odd that the people of color who think this whole conversation around “white privilege” is counterproductive are deftly swept aside by many a white academic.

  2. Tom Bale '63 says:

    Too bad the University did not video tape this panel discussion for all to see. As Margaret Klawunn stated, “A lot of people who are not here need to be here.” White privilege is a concept that suggests both a burden and an opportunity. If I do have an advantage of power over people of color at all levels of our society, I also have an opportunity to act to make our society more tolerant and inclusive, as Ken Miller states, to extend privilege to all people regardless of race. I am not as discouraged as Michael Kennedy is about Brown’s ability to accommodate diversity, as deeply flawed as this University has been since its beginning. One snapshot of recent events on campus reveals an exhibit on Microaggressions and Microaffirmations that teaches all of us with the best of intentions that we can be caught by prevailing racism even if subtle. The camera zooms in on our President Paxson stating at the dedication to the Slavery Monumet that “the reason this memorial is in such a prominent spot on our campus is that…we need to commit fully to the act of remembrance.” Isn’t that what this discussion is all about, making conscious what has been an unconscious barrier in our society? The panel members are to be praised for stepping forth to reveal their ideas and personal experiences.

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