Guest Commentary

Discussion about ‘privilege’ is more than just white noise

Vincent C. Flewellen, chief diversity officer at Webster University
Vincent C. Flewellen, chief diversity officer at Webster University

During the past two weeks, Webster University has been criticized by online conservative news sites, the readers of those sites and The Kansas City Star’s editorial board. They were upset about a single sentence in an NBC News story in December that said Webster University was considering hosting a program that encourages white people to discuss “white privilege.”

The program is just one of multiple venues offered at Webster University that provides students, faculty and staff opportunities to explore identity and the role it plays in society. Webster’s multi-faceted array of programs, guest speakers and special events explore diversity through numerous lenses, including ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, belief, class, mobility and background. This month we will host our fourth annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference, which offers a broad swath of related topics through a series of lectures, panels and performances. We also have separate events for Black History Month, Chinese New Year and an upcoming lecture from a leader in the transgender community.

These efforts are among the reasons Webster has been a national academic leader for diversity and inclusion for more than a century, earning accolades from magazines, college ranking sites and community organizations.

We do this because as an academic institution we are charged to question assumptions and facilitate dialogue to explore all areas of study, from the sciences to the humanities. We challenge ourselves to formulate new ideas, identify inequalities or logical disparities and look for opportunities to create better outcomes for all members of our community. Sometimes we are successful, other times we are not. Over the test of time, this system of exploration has improved our understanding of the universe and the human condition.

This is how we learn, better ourselves and improve our communities.

The program that irritated so many — Witnessing Whiteness — is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Shelly Tochluk. The program essentially is a book club designed to help people with predominantly European roots explore “white privilege” and honestly share and work through feelings free of judgement. The program has been successfully hosted by numerous other universities and churches with overwhelmingly positive results.

It’s important to discuss the meaning of “privilege,” a term that acknowledges that some identities receive more benefits from the social system while other identities are deprived of equity. While “white privilege” is the term most often associated with the discussion, “privilege” has broader meaning beyond skin color. Some sexual orientations, belief systems, physical abilities and genders also receive unearned benefits. For example, if you are a straight white male Christian with no disabilities, it’s easier to get a job, buy a home, qualify for a loan and find leniency in the criminal justice system; however, if you change one of those descriptors – white to black or straight to gay for example – society becomes much more difficult to traverse.

If we ignore privilege, we blind ourselves to seeing the root causes and inequities inherent in many issues and end up implementing misguided solutions that often exacerbate the problems. Just a few of the national topics that come to mind include immigration, prison overcrowding and educational attainment.

By becoming critical of a university that wants to explore venues in which to discuss these issues, we become no better than those who accused Galileo of heresy for observing that the earth revolved around the sun. We restrict intellectual progress and end up accelerating greater divisions in our society, which leads us away from a more perfect union.

Vincent C. Flewellen is the chief diversity officer at Webster University. He has nearly two decades of experience working with educational institutions on the topics of diversity and inclusion.

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