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Privilege Paralysis on a College Campus

Teaching the movement to high schoolers gave this college student an opportunity to address her personal "privilege paralysis" and embrace her potential as an agent of change.

Editor's note: This piece was originally published in the Whitman College Pioneer on February 12, 2015.

While some new parents may be told that their child is at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes or obesity, their white babies don’t come with a document warning the parents of the potential for privilege paralysis. I began to understand this condition last year.

In April 2014, I attended a workshop on social entrepreneurship, in which a group of students tackled issues of aid and development work. The workshop facilitator was an upper-class white man in his 50s who, through his entrepreneurial work, helped women in the global south achieve financial independence. Our group found itself questioning his legitimacy as an agent of positive change; we thought it presumptuous of him to act as a “white knight” jetting down south to slay the dragon of poverty and “allow” these women to actualize their true potential. The facilitator acknowledged the imperial undertones of his position but cautioned us against letting privilege paralyze us.

“Privilege paralysis” describes the reticence of white people to engage in dialogue or activism surrounding contentious issues which may not affect them directly. This is a condition I have noticed here on campus and in my own mind. The culture at Whitman lacks a feeling of responsibility for activism. This isn’t exclusive to race issues, either. The environment, sexual violence, racial discrimination—these are all upsetting topics which incite frustration among Whitman students, so why don’t we do more? It’s not only a culture of apathy; it’s because a lot of us are scared we’re going to do it wrong.

Whitman Teaches the Movement offers one way to begin combating this trend. I taught a curriculum on farmworker rights activist Cesar Chavez to a group of first-years at College Place High School. We discussed a film entitled Viva La Causa, about the gross inequality farm workers faced in the '60s. The students all too easily drew parallels between events in the film and racist experiences in their own lives.

While it would be convenient to say the students were shocked and inspired by the lesson, I can speak more to my experience than theirs. I spent an hour with this group of 14-year-olds, but I’ve spent 20 years in my own head. While sitting in the classroom, I had an important realization about my own reason for participating in WTTM: the incredible power of youth. I signed up to train a new generation of activists, but while standing in front of 20 awkward, pubescent faces, I realized that I am an integral part of the current generation.

I can’t say the students’ minds were blown. It would be insincere and presumptuous to rave about the 65 minutes I spent in the classroom as a groundbreaking experience for those rowdy high schoolers; but what I can say is that I planted a seed in their minds and poured a little water on my own.

It took me until my third year at Whitman to begin “teaching the movement” because I assumed for two years that it wasn’t my place. As a white, middle-class student at a prestigious college, I found myself uncomfortable with my privilege. I felt it wasn’t O.K. for me to teach civil rights to younger students because I’m part of a class of people who have committed monumental crimes of oppression. Teaching the movement gave me an opportunity to address my personal privilege paralysis and embrace my potential as an agent of change.

I am not an expert on race, and discussing it still makes me uncomfortable because I know the social structure which grants me privilege takes it from the hands of others. But I understand the importance of talking about race. The opportunity to reverse my privilege paralysis came in the form of a series of pestering listserv emails from WTTM.

I don’t want to admonish those who dedicate their time at Whitman to issues of social injustice by claiming they aren’t doing enough. I’m arguing that those who experience discrimination directly, those involved in BSU, FUBU, FGWC and Latin@ Student Coalition, shouldn’t be the ones bearing all the burden of activism on Whitman’s campus.

Wills is a politics major at Whitman College.