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Perspectives: The Role of Privilege in Diversity Education

I am a White heterosexual male who works in a diversity education office.  My presence as a person who retains several privileged cultural identities (privilege defined as acquiring rewards based on ascribed statuses and not merit) working in a diversity education office at an institution of higher education is a fact that seems counter-intuitive to many.

Offices that enhance diversity on campus serve traditionally under-represented students who are more likely to trust and utilize an office staffed by professionals who can relate to their backgrounds and experiences. Diversity offices also assume leadership for providing diversity education, and, while the importance of hiring professionals from traditionally oppressed groups is intuitive, I feel it is most beneficial to supplement that staff with people from privileged backgrounds so these offices may better reach and educate privileged students. Depending on the office goals and institutional priorities, here are some ways people with privileged cultural backgrounds can benefit diversity work on campuses:

Ability to incorporate privileged students. It is rare for privileged students, especially White students, to voluntarily attend multicultural events. When I first began working in multicultural affairs, I represented our office at resource fairs during orientation. When I was present, about half of the students who approached the table were White, often asking if White students could get involved. I always told them their Whiteness does not translate into a cultural void. Having a professional who shares the cultural background of privileged students challenges traditional conceptions of culture and sends the message that they are welcome.

Ability to model allyship. Many privileged students express frustration with diversity workshops because of past experiences of being told what not to do without any direction on steps they can take to be allies. Content on allyship is vital, as well as modeling allyship in my daily interactions on campus. Being visible and transparent about my own personal diversity education journey helps privileged students understand the importance of researching different cultural traditions instead of relying on others to be their personal tutors. My presence challenges privileged students to think about thoughts and actions that are rooted in cultural ignorance and to attend different cultural events and student organization meetings.

In a world with rampant racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia and faith discrimination, it is important that under-represented students have positive and healthy cultural interactions with people who retain cultural privilege. These interactions help under-represented students develop healthy expectations from people of privilege as modeling cultural acceptance and humility, serving as active bystanders to discrimination, and advocates for cultural equality. Low expectations from privileged groups and historically oppressed groups allow oppression to continue to exist.

Ability to challenge covert oppression. Discriminatory comments, ranging from subtly homophobic to blatantly racist jokes, tend to be shared with other privileged people and only when other privileged people are around, under the premise that they are not being truly discriminatory. This is how the cultural lens of privilege can distort views of what is or is not discriminatory, allowing space for discriminatory comments to be shared in a private sphere where it is seen as socially acceptable. This perceived reality leaves privileged people as the sole audience for these opportunities to challenge oppressive thoughts and actions.

One way to exterminate the “isms” is to draw them out of their cognitive hiding spots. Further, when a person of privilege challenges another person of privilege they face lessened and fewer forms of resistance. When privileged people challenge others on their discriminatory ways, the conversation can begin from a place of perceived equal footing, which allows the challenger to probe deeper into the thought process and challenge the root of the offending act. Afterward, the offending person may walk away feeling slightly embarrassed, or perhaps even frustrated, but the conversation is not immediately invalidated, which can be credited to the common cultural identities that are shared between the challenged and the challenger. 

Ability to process privilege. When I first learned about privilege and oppression, I had many questions but few people I felt comfortable talking with. It was powerful for my personal transformation to have a mentor who shared my cultural background. This allowed me to confide my feelings and shameful ownership of ways I knowingly and unknowingly perpetuated oppression without being excused for my actions. It was not a lecture but rather it was a shared understanding from someone who had faced the same struggle and still wrestled with it. Providing the space and opportunities to ask ignorant questions, confess acts of oppression and process feelings with someone who shares their struggle is a necessary part of privileged cultural identity development.

Hiring professionals with privileged cultural backgrounds is not the only way for these things to happen, but in order to further the progress of multicultural awareness, acceptance and humility, we should consider leveraging an often-untapped resource in the struggle to end oppression. 

– D. Scott Tharp is the associate director of the Office of Diversity Education at DePaul University. 

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