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Teaching White Privilege

December 16, 2008

Divided by Race

In my Religion 101 course I teach Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Emerson and Smith begin the book by making a distinction between racism (overtly racist ideas and discrimination) and racialization (a society is racialized when race matters for access to jobs, wealth, education, etc.); they go on to argue that although American evangelicals are opposed to racism, they unwittingly contribute to racialization in America by ignoring its causes.

Emerson and Smith point out that evangelical ideology emphasizes individual free will and interpersonal relationships and that evangelicals interpret social problems in light of these. As a result, if minorities aren’t getting ahead in society, evangelicals believe that it is because 1) other individuals are (as individuals) discriminating against minorities, 2) minorities (as individuals) lack proper motivation to get ahead (the lazy-butt theory, as Emerson and Smith call it), or 3) minorities lack the sorts of interpersonal relationships that are a condition of possibility of success. Emerson and Smith persuasively argue that all three of these explanations for disparities between whites and blacks in America ignore the structural conditions that affect minorities. Because they ignore structural conditions that contribute to racialization, evangelicals unwittingly permit/reproduce those structural conditions.

The solutions evangelicals do provide for racial disparity also stem from their conceptual toolbox: individuals need to stop being racist (presumably by converting to Christianity), individual minorities need to work harder, or individuals need to have better or friendlier interpersonal relationships (which one of my students called the “hug-it-out” solution).


Prior to teaching this book, I cover Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, as it sheds light on how and why evangelicals self-segregate along racial lines. I explain to the students that Emerson and Smith are right when they say that people like to be with people who are like themselves, or, in Bourdieu’s terms, that people like to be with people of the same habitus. People often look with suspicion on those with a different habitus, as those others will have different ways of speaking, different mannerisms, different manners, different life goals, and different ideas about what is normal (including clothing styles, hair styles, and so on). When one group dominates access to jobs, wealth, education, etc., that group’s habitus will often contribute to what they count as meritorious, which will serve against the interests of minorities with a different habitus. This can function against the interests of minorities without any racist intentions of the dominant group; as Emerson and Smith point out, our society can be “racialized” without anyone being overtly racist.

The Classroom Exercise

To illustrate these issues I choose several individuals from my class to participate on teams that will run a “relay race” with hurdles. I don’t have real hurdles–I use post-it notes to symbolize hurdles. I line the teams up at the front of the class and designate one group as the dominant group and the other as the minority group.

In front of both teams I set out three or four hurdles that all individuals will face in life, including things like: getting sick, adapting to changing technology, and death. Then I point out that the minority team will face additional hurdles that the majority group will not. (Many of these I lift directly from Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege.) I suggest things like:

  1. Minorities are less likely to have their skin color, hairstyles, clothing styles, accents, diction, tastes in music, tastes in food, interpersonal mannerisms, or favorite holidays taken for granted as “normal.”
  2. Minorities are more likely to need to conform to what the dominant group sees as “normal” as a condition of upward mobility.
  3. Minorities are more likely to have their race/ethnicity be associated with negative connotations by those in the dominant group.
  4. Minorities are less likely to have access to the social networks that are necessary to get jobs.

I read off a list of about 20 or 30 additional “hurdles” or “barriers” that minorities will face in life, and then ask the class a series of questions:

  1. If the groups have the same level of motivation and prepare equally for the race, who will win? (The dominant team.)
  2. Did the dominant team set up those extra barriers? (No.)
  3. Does the dominant team think they’re intrinsically superior to the minority team? (No.)
  4. Did the dominant team intend to discriminate against the minority team? (No.)
  5. Will the dominant team nevertheless benefit from the disproportionate number of barriers? (Yes.)

I return to Emerson and Smith’s distinction between racism and racialization. Individuals in the dominant group need not have any overt racist views or have any ill will toward those in the dominant group, yet they may benefit from a racialized society. The racial divisions may be maintained–as well as the disproportionate access to jobs, wealth, and education–without anyone in the dominant group intending this result.

Evangelicals largely ignore the disparity in the field of play, insofar as their conceptual toolbox forces them to focus on individual motivation and interpersonal friendships: neither of these foci will bring into relief the additional barriers minorities experience on the racetrack. In addition, focusing on motivation and friendships will not help evangelicals provide adequate solutions. Even when minority groups are as motivated as or more motivated than the dominant group, it is unlikely that they will come out ahead. Second, individuals in the dominant group can be really nice to minorities (just as the dominant team was friendly with the minority team), but that won’t help the minority groups win the race. The “hug-it-out” plan won’t do anything to help the minority team get ahead. I point out to students that the faculty at my college is overwhelmingly white and the cleaning staff is overwhelmingly black, but that even if I wave hello and have a friendly chat about their kids every morning, that won’t change anything.

The Result

The purpose of this exercise is to show students how racial divisions can be reproduced without anyone intending to reproduce them and without anyone having overt racist views. The white students in my class tend to scratch their heads and mull it over; some of them seem to understand it. One white student said later in the course that he began to notice that at his place of employment white customers tend to shy away from minority salespersons and migrate toward white salespersons. The minority students keep quiet when we discuss this in class–but I seem them nodding their heads, and they give me looks that say “right on.” I’ve had some minorities come to me during my office hours and say that they really apprecated this part of the course. They’ve claimed that it was helpful to be given the concepts to understand more precisely what they see happen everyday.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Henry permalink
    December 18, 2008 11:36 am

    The book divided by faith appears to be an interesting one and I will need pick that one up. Since I haven’t read the book I can’t comment to much on your analysis of it.
    As a counselor (who has minority clients) and as a community college history teacher I view this idea of “white privilege/white studies” with some measure of distrust. History has shown us numerous times what happens when one particular ethnic groups inists that another group has {it} all. And, it need not matter if the perceived {in} group is large or relatitvely small.


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