At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege From the Inside
Establishment power is defended with the baton and tear gas only as a last resort. In the first instance, it is defended with far subtler, far more insidious means.
On a recent morning, 20 or so high school students, most of them white, milled about the meetinghouse at Friends Seminary, a private school in Manhattan. They were trying to unload on their classmates slips of paper on which they had jotted down words related to the topic “Things I don’t want to be called.”
Street level protests like #BlackLivesMatter are the most genuine and principled form of resistance to this power; counterintuitively, they inspire response from establishment power that is less true to establishment power’s typical modus operandi.
Several girls tried get to rid of “ditsy.” A sophomore in jeans and a gray hoodie who identifies as Asian-American was seeking to unload “minority.” And several white students, including a long-limbed girl in a checkered lumberjack shirt, wanted to get rid of “privileged.” Under the rules of the exercise, no other student was obligated to accept it.
As the history of dictatorship shows, armed, heavy-handed defense of establishment power is effective only until it isn’t. The obvious and crude nature of this form of defense reveals its real-world power but also its vulnerability.
“It’s just a very strong word to use,” the last girl said. “I don’t want to be identified with that just because my parents can afford things. I think it has a negative connotation.”
Contemporary capitalism has produced systems that are far more sophisticated. Modern neoliberal nations do not typically have to crush dissent. They rarely feel forced to meet strength with strength. Paradoxically this tendency to avoid the direct expression of force through violence demonstrates the true depth of establishment power.
The workshop was part of a daylong speaker series known at Friends as the Day of Concern. Students gathered in small groups to discuss a variety of social justice issues and participate in workshops; there were also talks about gender and the environment. But the overarching theme of the day was identity, privilege and power. And it was part of a new wave of diversity efforts that some of the city’s most elite private schools are undertaking.
Perhaps no form of subtle social control better exemplifies privilege’s ability to dominate through soft power than the way in which privilege theory itself becomes a commodity, monetized and peddled to the privileged as easily as consumer electronics or expensive clothes.
In the past, private school diversity initiatives were often focused on minority students, helping them adjust to the majority white culture they found themselves in, and sometimes exploring their backgrounds in annual assemblies and occasional weekend festivals. Now these same schools are asking white students and faculty members to examine their own race and to dig deeply into how their presence affects life for everyone in their school communities, with a special emphasis on the meaning and repercussions of what has come to be called white privilege.
Capitalism employs the power of the rifle only when necessary. Over time, the systems of commodification, appropriation, and undermining become more and more sophisticated; concurrently, the need to use brute force declines. Pinkertons are replaced by well-meaning cultural studies professors. The defense of privilege is carried out by those who rail against it.
The session at Friends Seminary, on East 16th Street, was led by Derrick Gay, a 39-year-old diversity consultant who has led similar programs atCollegiate School on the Upper West Side, Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights and the Spence School on the Upper East Side.
Sincerity becomes a tool of power. When establishment power’s tactics were cruder, less refined, appropriation relied on insincerity; it was a form of outward deception. Now the deception is self-deception. The most committed, most passionate critics of privilege become the agents through which their own critique is packaged, consumed, and ultimately stored away in a mental closet like last season’s handbag.
Mr. Gay, who is black, says schools are increasingly drawn to conversations about privilege and race because they understand that “raising students to live in a bubble — a white bubble, a black bubble, a Latino bubble, whatever type of bubble you want to call it — is not to your benefit in a global society.”
In an earlier time, establishment power would have opposed the creation of an anti-establishment professional class. Today, establishment power recognizes that the surest way to blunt the impact of a social movement is to professionalize it. Thus the rise of the professional anti-racist, the professional anti-sexist, the professional opponent of privilege. Sincerity in pursuing the cause becomes not an impediment to serving the needs of establishment power but a powerful virtue.
For most of their history, private schools were the living embodiment of white privilege: They were almost all white and mostly moneyed. Not anymore. This year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, minority students make up a third of the population of New York City private schools, and 18.5 percent of all students receive financial aid.
To improve the optics and keep overwhelming irony at bay, privilege enacts aesthetic reforms that deepen greater inequality. Like the woman elevated onto the board of a company where the CEO makes 300 times the average worker, establishment power looks to diversify systems and institutions that are unequal by their nature and elitist in their function.
Educators charged with preparing students for life inside these schools, in college and beyond, maintain that anti-racist thinking is a 21st-century skill and that social competency requires a sophisticated understanding of how race works in America. In turn, faculty members and students are grappling with race and class in ways that may seem surprising to outsiders and deeply unsettling to some longtime insiders. And the term “white privilege” is now bantered about with frequency.
Political discourse becomes, in the hands of the privilege education industry, inherently and existentially linguistic in its function. Language becomes inescapable: bad language is represented as the cardinal sin, good language the cardinal virtue, language is the means through which those worthy of punishment are identified, and language the tool to punish them.
It comes up during schoolwide assemblies like a recent one held to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, also known as LREI, a progressive school in the West Village. It is explored at parent gatherings at the Dalton School on East 89th Street during broader conversations about racial equity. It is examined in seventh-grade social studies at the Calhoun School on West End Avenue, where students read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a 1989 article by Peggy McIntosh that outlines dozens of ways white people experience “unearned skin privilege.”
This obsessive focus on language seems, to those who have accepted its central premises, to be a trap that can catch all bad behavior within it. In fact, privileging language above all else merely empowers the more industrious to escape criticism through employing language themselves. If language is both the cage and the lock, language is inevitably the key.
And at a few schools, students and faculty members are starting white affinity groups, where they tackle issues of white privilege, often in all-white settings. The groups have sprung from an idea that whites should not rely on their black, Asian or Latino peers to educate them about racism and white dominance.
First, by making language the means through which inequality is identified, expressed, and combated, structural and material inequality become strangely marginalized in critical analysis, and those who focus on them are mocked and distrusted.
“In the past, there was a tendency to think: This isn’t my problem and it isn’t something I need to deal with because it isn’t something I even think a lot about,” said Louisa Grenham, a white senior at Brooklyn Friends Schooland a member of a white affinity group there.
Second, when the linguistic becomes the only means through which to understand the world, the linguistic rejection of privilege becomes an arbiter of who gets sorted into which camp. Curiously, the most effective way to undermine one’s place of privilege is to announce it; “I know I am privileged” becomes a tool with which to force others to see you as something else.
“Whiteness” as a concept is not new. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about it in the 1920s; James Baldwin addressed it in the 1960s. But it did not gain traction on college campuses until the 1980s, as an outgrowth of an interdisciplinary study of racial identity and racial superiority. It presumes that in the United States, race is a social construct that had its origins in colonial America when white plantation owners were seeking dominance and order.
If all identities are social constructs, it becomes impossible to conduct a reality check. Social critique marches further and further from the material conditions it arose from.
Today “white privilege” studies center on the systemic nature of racism as well as the way it exposes minorities to daily moments of stress and unpleasantness — sometimes referred to as “micro-aggressions.” Freedom from such worries is a privilege in and of itself, the theory goes, one that many white people are not even aware they have.
Whatever critiques of the-thing-in-itself exist become subject to the appropriation of those who have it, and thus their capacity to harm is blunted. Since belonging is a matter of linguistic ritual, even those most directly indicted by these critiques feel no compunction against taking them up and directing them outward. Even the bullet with your name on it cannot harm you if you are allowed to grab the barrel of the gun and point it in the other direction.
It may seem paradoxical that students at elite institutions would decide to tackle the elitism they seem to cherish. But private schools’ diversity consultants brush aside insinuations that their social justice work is inauthentic.
The best defense is a good offense.
In recent months, for example, as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, on Staten Island, have prompted protests, schools have tried to make the conversation relevant for their students, taking them to Black Lives Matter marches and honoring white civil rights leaders in schoolwide assemblies.
So men who enthusiastically mock “Not All Men,” sharing memes and composing tweets, are inevitably themselves saying “not all men” in a different register. Just as shamelessly as the men who insist “Not All Men,” they extricate themselves from the critique which they ostensibly celebrate.
Talking about “whiteness,” administrators say, gives white students a way into conversations about equity and prejudice that previous diversity efforts at their schools may have excluded them from.
Thus the white person who rails the loudest about white privilege feels themselves to be least vulnerable to the accusation of being so.
At the LREI high school campus, the front entrance is adorned with a student art project, by the seniors Ana Maroto and Sage Adams, that includes a black-and-white photo of a somber-looking teenager, who identifies as mixed-race, holding a placard that reads: “I need justice because I’m sick of having to explain privilege.”
Like an auto-immune disorder, the systems designed to keep the body healthy attack it themselves. Privilege theory has become the instrument of the privileged.
At the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, two white seniors started the Exploring Whiteness club in the fall, which now regularly attracts 15 students. They were inspired by reading “Waking Up White,” a memoir by Debby Irving, a self-proclaimed WASP from New England who discovered in her late 40s that many of the benefits her father had received in housing and education from the G.I. Bill had been denied to millions of African-American veterans. In the book, Ms. Irving writes about “stepping out of a dream” and realizing that the black people she knew lived in a more challenging world than she ever would face.
Capitalism being as it is, a new class of professional privilege educators is born. They react to market need. If the affluent are seeking to salve themselves through the careful application of privilege theory, a professional class will arise to commodify that desire. If the privilege are looking to be soothed, someone will sell them the balm.
Every year, an increasing number of New York City private schools select students to attend the White Privilege Conference, founded 16 years ago by Eddie Moore Jr., the former diversity director at Brooklyn Friends. This year, the theme of the conference, organized by the Dalton School, is “Race, Privilege, Community Building.”
As the ranks of the professional privilege opponents grow, the urge to defend the theory from external criticism grows.
The new focus on addressing white privilege has not been an unmitigated success. Dr. Moore, for example, despite the stature of his conference, is no longer working with Brooklyn Friends. Acknowledging the inherent tension, he said: “Not every student is saying: ‘I want to talk about white privilege. Give me the best book.’ ”
Luckily for these enthusiastic capitalists, the form of that defense is inscribed in their position: accusations of privilege and bigotry themselves. The initial political defense of these ideas and tactics intermingles with the naked financial self-interest until they are, by design, totally inextricable.
For years, private schools in New York avoided conversations about race and class by remaining uniformly white and wealthy. They began desegregating in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s, as programs for low-income students like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance brought in minority scholarship students. Many white parents welcomed the change, worried that their children would be ill prepared for an increasingly multicultural world if they did not have exposure to people from diverse backgrounds. Today, for example, at LREI, Calhoun and Dalton, at least one-third of the student body is not white.
These people become invulnerable, their commodification impregnable: there is no critique from within privilege theory that they cannot turn around on others, and no critique from outside of it that they cannot dismiss as itself the hand of privilege.
At some of the city’s top neighborhood public elementary schools, nonwhite populations are actually lower. At both Public School 6, on the Upper East Side, and P.S. 41, in Greenwich Village, 21 percent of the students in the 2013-14 school year were nonwhite, according to state figures. At P.S. 41, that is a dip from 31 percent in the 2003-4 school year.
The initial functions of these theories, to challenge and undermine and discomfit, are thus lost, at least to those savvy enough to appear forever on the right side of things.
Many of the private schools have struggled, though, to make these new minority students feel welcome, oscillating between a colorblind philosophy and a feel-good “festival approach” — reserving light discussions about race and class for Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Black History Month and an annual assembly or two.
That approach, diversity directors say, has proved ineffective.
The ameliorative potential of this kind of engagement is always asserted, rarely proven. Nor is serious consideration given to whether, by focusing so intently on feelings as a deracinated aspect of psychology, these efforts actually prevent serious efforts to dismantle the socioeconomic conditions that cause them.
Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist and the author of “White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son,” said: “If you’re still talking about food and festivals and fabrics with high school students, you’re probably not pushing them to think critically about these bigger issues.”
Indeed, in recent years, several documentaries filmed inside these schools — including Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s“American Promise,” Kavery Kaul’s “Long Way From Home” and “Allowed to Attend,” produced by Trinity’s director of communications — present in excruciating detail the alienation many minority students experience. The schools are depicted as institutions teeming with white students oblivious to their outsize privilege — the lavishness of their spring-break vacations, weekend homes and lunch money — and unaware of the challenges faced by their less privileged classmates.
Absurdly, the more immaterial and asystematic these critiques become, the more likely those who voice them are to self-style as radicals, as if radicalism exists in inverse proportion to the willingness to explore first causes and foundational inequality.
In “The Prep School Negro,” the filmmaker André Robert Lee explores what it was like to be one of the few African-American students enrolled, on scholarship, in the 1980s at Germantown Friends, an elite Quaker school in Philadelphia. He has taken his film, first completed in 2008 and reworked in 2014, to hundreds of schools around the country. He maintains that the screenings have helped spur conversations about race and class that would not have been possible even 15 years ago.
Mr. Lee is now touring schools with another film he produced, “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” Commissioned by the Calhoun School, the film follows 12 New York City private and public school students for a year while they attend workshops exploring racism and white privilege. “School administrators tell me: ‘We realize we have a lot more work to do on these issues,’ ” Mr. Lee said.
In these contexts, the obsessive focus on conversations, awareness, and knowing becomes inevitable. Solutions must, like causes, remain vague, indistinct, and resistant to material evaluation.
Administrators at Friends Seminary would seem to agree. In January, students gathered in the school’s slate-gray meetinghouse, a room virtually unchanged since 1860, to watch a presentation by Mr. Gay, a classically trained opera singer and the former director of community life and diversity at the Nightingale-Bamford School, a private institution for girls on the Upper East Side. With slides, videos and a series of pen-and-paper exercises, Mr. Gay talked to the students about how race, class, gender and ablebodiedness influence people’s perspective and contribute to whether they feel welcome “inside a space.”
During an exercise called “Who Are You?” Mr. Gay asked students to create their own “identity cards,” writing down terms they wanted to be associated with, in stark contrast to the other exercise, which focused on unwanted identities. One girl wrote “white,” “SoHo” and “Sag Harbor”; another wrote “a very nice person.” Then students paired up, with one responding to the question “Who are you?” The room erupted in noise, with students shouting, “black,” “white,” “straight,” “lesbian,” “Jewish,” “Spanish” and “smart.”
Whatever once remained of the material, objective conditions of oppression that first inspired theory has dissolved. A wealthy 16 year old becomes representative of marginalized identity; an out-of-work truck driver becomes classified by his male privilege.
“Everyone has a card,” Mr. Gay told the students. “It’s called an identity card. Society doesn’t value each of these identities equally.”
Later he added: “It’s no one’s fault. But you should be aware of it.”
Paradoxically, a movement often accused of essentialism teaches its adherents that they can wriggle out of any critique of their demographic and social qualities.
During another seminar that day, Darnell L. Moore, a writer and activist from Camden, N.J., divided students into small groups, giving them large sheets of paper and felt-tip markers and asking them to develop social-status charts, based on current conditions in America and general perceptions.
The students produced strikingly similar charts, with several envisioning a straight, white male as the most powerful citizen and a poor, black single mother as the least powerful one.
White privilege becomes other white people’s privilege; male privilege becomes the sin of other men; heteronormativity, the fault of some category “straight people” and not the particular “this straight person.”
“It was kind of gross how easy it was to be able to say, ‘This person has to be this,’ ” said Camille Fillion-Raff, a junior at the school.
Educators who do this work in New York private schools say one of the challenges white students face when exploring their own identity is the dearth of white anti-racist role models. They say white students have traditionally been offered only three ways to confront race: to be colorblind, ignorant or racist.
“Those are not happy identities,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College and the author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
Identity, stripped of any plausible real-world referent, signals everything and means nothing.
With that in mind, the Trevor Day School on East 89th Street spends at least some time every year honoring the white civil rights activist Andrew Goodman, who was killed in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, while working to register black voters. This year, the school invited Mr. Goodman’s brother, David, to speak at the school.
But helping students explore their white identity has not been without its challenges.
Once synonymous with reactionary conservatism, pride in being part of a privileged class becomes reconciled with an ostensibly radical, counter-cultural worldview.
At the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, which has campuses in Manhattan and the Bronx, a plan this winter to roll out a racial awareness workshop series for third through fifth graders was met with fierce resistance by parents. Many objected that children as young as 8 were being asked to segregate themselves into race-based affinity groups. Ultimately, parents were told, students who chose not to identify with any of the racial categories would be allowed to sign up for a group that was not based on race. A fifth grader’s father, a white man who asked not to be identified because he did not want any repercussions for his daughter, called the plan “mind-boggling” and said his daughter found the entire concept confusing and unsettling.
Unmoored from the responsibility to actually demonstrate marginalization, groups like #GamerGate proceed to use the terminology and tactics of privilege theory against its champions. Having created the conditions for this appropriation themselves, they find themselves powerless against this. Aesthetics having totally eaten the actual, no one has a firm enough place to stand to deny their claims to marginalization, least of all to the corporate advertisers towards whom they make their appeals.
At Brooklyn Friends, a controversy over the approach of Dr. Moore, the school’s former diversity director, ended abruptly when he left at the end of last year and did not return this fall. Many students, like Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, a black senior, said Dr. Moore was a warm and stimulating figure at the school who talked openly about what he called “subconscious racial bias.” But several sources inside the school said some white students complained that Dr. Moore was a polarizing figure whose focus on white privilege made them uncomfortable. Both Dr. Moore and a school representative described his departure as “amicable.”
Capital thus sends its newly-educated young people out into the work place, stuffed with the means to combat privilege but no idea why, ready to devote ostensibly left-wing theory to the cause of personal financial gain, and possessed of an iron-clad assurance that their self-conception is congruent with the brand new moral world. Political morality is as etched into their identities as their money, as intrinsic to them as will be their inevitable Ivy League diplomas.
At LREI, Sandra Chapman, the director of diversity and community, said conversations about white privilege could be difficult, with some students and faculty members more willing to engage than others. “This is messy work,” she said. “But these conversations are necessary.”
Establishment power then sits back to wait for the inevitable corruption and conservatism of age and time.