#HLSUntaped: White Privilege: This Both Is and Is Not About You

I understand and empathize with the frustration that Bill Barlow is apparently feeling right now. It is hard, I know, to be told that you benefit from a system of racial privilege that may seem far removed from your own individual actions or life story. It is harder still to be told that your actions or words shore up white supremacy, a phrase that invokes burning crosses and white hoods. But let me make a genuine plea in the face of that frustration: listen to your colleagues of color, and try to understand what you’re being told.

When someone tells you that you are exhibiting white privilege or supporting white supremacy, you have been criticized, true, but the person who told you this has given you an opportunity to become a better ally and an active participant in struggle. They let you know that, from their perspective, your actions are incongruent with what they hope are your shared values of anti-racism. Ignore that perspective at your own peril because doing so puts you in the position of missing out on something vital to the way you live your life from that moment forward. You are on notice that you are not doing and being the best person and ally you can.

White supremacy and white privilege are ways of describing aspects of a system of racial oppression that has many faces. To say that a person is exhibiting white privilege is not a personal insult; it’s expressing a factual statement about the way the social world is organized. You may think that this factual statement is false with respect to you generally or false with respect to particular things you’ve said or done, but it’s not the kind of thing you should brush off as mere attack. Take it as an opportunity to reckon with your own role in perpetuating systems of injustice and your own limitations in understanding how those systems work.

Read the work of some critical race theorists. Read psychologists on implicit bias, philosophers on epistemic injustice, and historians on the legacy of racism in our country. Interpret these criticisms using the principle of charity, and assume that you have missed something before dismissing your interlocutor. Isn’t the common criticism of student protestors that they get offended easily and fail to engage in tough discussion? Because that’s precisely what a person who bristles at these terms does.

You’ve asked others to engage with you. I implore you not to be offended if you find yourself criticized in those conversations. This isn’t about you and your feelings. It’s about black and brown people being killed in our streets with near impunity, crossed out on our walls, and ignored in our class discussions. These are not aberrations from general conditions of justice, but are rather constant reminders that we live in an unjust world of our own creation. On the other hand, it is about you, and all of us white folks, because it’s long past time that we take an active role in the difficult task of dismantling racism. It’s also about Harvard Law School because we, for better or worse, play a role in structuring society through law, policy, and education. Let’s make it better by, among other things, making ourselves better.