I still remember when I first started reading about concepts like White privilege (the set of unearned racial privileges granted to White people in the United States) and Whiteness (the systematic racial inequality that advantages White populations socially, politically, and economically) in the early 1990s (Delgado & Stefanic, 1997).
One of the more memorable tenants of these concepts was that White privilege was “invisible.” Various metaphors were used, such as the common “invisible knapsack” (McIntosh, 1988) of White privilege where White people are able to reap the benefits of unearned racial privileges in social settings just because of the color of their skin (e.g., generally not being followed in a store, being able to buy “flesh-colored” band-aids, seeing people in power that looked like them, etc.).
Twenty years later, I still hear words like “invisibility” associated with the idea that White people have been systematically advantaged through both policy and practice in the United States. I suspect that words like invisibility are supposed to help White people from feeling so personally attacked, blamed, or responsible for racism. Yet, I have a growing discontent and concern with Whiteness being framed as invisible. It seems that problems are pretty easy to ignore if they can’t be seen. So, naming something like the systematic privilege of one racial/ethnic group over others “invisible” is way of effectively erasing structural racism and discrimination. But, I would venture to say that if I were to ask people in Communities of Color or White people who are more aware of racial issues about the possibility that they might be able to see some evidence of White privilege in education, I would get a long list of glaring racial inequalities that could be collapsed under the umbrella of Whiteness.
Considering Whiteness at the structural level, it is a systematic racial advantaging of White people. Thus, evidence of Whiteness would suggest that people are socially, politically, or economically advantaged based on skin color. In this spirit, let me name just a few of the more obvious pieces of evidence of Whiteness in higher education that I can see:
1. White students continue to enroll in college at a higher rate (i.e., percent of the population of college eligible White students vs. percent of the population of college eligible students of color) (NCES, 2009).
2. There continues to be a racial achievement gap that started in primary/secondary education and often continues into higher education, despite evidence that much of this gap may be attributed to the negative experiences that students of color have with stereotypes, racism, or discrimination (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006).
3. In states where race-based admissions (i.e., affirmative action) has been banned, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of students of color who are admitted to the most prestigious institutions (Brown & Hirschman, 2006).
4. For those students who enroll in college, the percentage of students of color who graduate is smaller than the percentage of White students (NCES, 2009).
5. Students of color continue to report feelings of isolation and alienation on White college campuses (Feagin, Vera, & Imani, 1996; Winkle-Wagner, 2009).
6. Students of color (and many faculty of color, for that matter) continue to report experiences with racism and discrimination on college campuses (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitgerald, & Bylsma, 2003).
7. White students can safely assume that most of their professors and administrators in college will look like them, at least at many predominantly White institutions.
8. At the faculty-level, White faculty can safely assume that the people voting on their tenure and promotion cases will probably look similar to them, at least at most predominantly White institutions.
This is just a cursory list that could (and probably should) be much longer. My point is to shed a little light on what is plainly obvious – we still have a problem with racial inequality in higher education. This problem can be labeled as an ongoing allegiance to “Whiteness,” an educational system that offers subtle and overt advantages to White populations over People of Color.
Those who are well intentioned advocates for justice must stop using the language of invisibility because it only works to erase problem of racial disparities from the public (and scholarly) mind. Those who are not-so-well-intentioned when it comes to issues of race should be confronted with the reality that it is no longer going to be comfortable to simply ignore inequalities that have the power to hurt our progress in education and in society. And maybe, those who always saw these things as plainly obvious could breathe just a little sigh of relief that at least they aren’t alone in seeing the monsters under our education system’s bed.
Brown, S.K. & Hirschman, C. (2006). The end of affirmative action in Washington state and its impact on the transition from high school to college. Sociology of Education, 79 (2), 106-130
Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, Al. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313(5791), 1307-1310.
Delgao, R. & Stefanic, J. (Eds.). (1997).Critical White studies: Looking behind the mirror. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Feagin, J. R., Vera, H., & Imani, N. (1996). The agony of education: Black students at White colleges and universities. New York: Routledge.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Working paper no. 189. Wellsley College, Wellsley, MA: Center for research on Women. Also available here.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), U.S. Department of Education (2009). Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Fall 2001, and Spring 2002 through Spring 2008. Accessed from http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/DataFiles.aspx
Solorzano, M., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial miscoagressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69(1/2), 60-73.
Swim, J.K., Hyers, L.L., Cohen, L.L., Fitgerald, D.C., & Bylsma, W.H. (2003). African American college students’ experiences with everyday racism: Characteristics of and responses to these incidents. Journal of Black Psychology, 29(1), 38-67.
Winkle-Wagner, R. (2009). The Unchosen Me: Race, gender, and identity among black women in college. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
About the Author
|Rachelle's articles on So Educated|
Her research explores sociological aspects of race and gender in higher education with a focus on the access and success of students of color in college. She is particularly interested in the college experiences of African American women. She is the author of The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity Among Black Women in College (2009, Johns Hopkins University Press), Cultural Capital: The uses and abuses of a key theoretical concept in educational research (2010, Jossey-Bass), the lead editor of Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice in Educational Research: Methods at the Margins (2009, Palgrave MacMillan), and a coeditor of Standing on the Outside Looking In: Underrepresented Students’ Experiences in Advanced Degree Programs (2009, Stylus Publishing).
Winkle-Wagner’s work also appears in The Review of Higher Education, The International Journal of Educational Development, The Negro Educational Review, and Teachers College Record.