Ah yes, white privilege. It’s characterized by many things, primarily its lack of acknowledgement. Yet every so often it makes an appearance, and for Bowdoin that appearance came around a month ago. On September 20, the Orient published an editorial outlining how the writings of white males from the ages of 18 to 22 were dominating the Opinion section. In response, the editors called for a greater range of voices, so as to make the section a better reflection of “the diversity of perspectives, activities and personalities we see on campus.” Three weeks later, Drew Van Kuiken ’17 wrote a column in response. And so the world saw privilege.
While admitting to the homogeneity of the Opinion pages, Van Kuiken asks, “Why did the Orient feel desperate enough to ask for literally any writer not fitting my exact description to come write? As a white man aged 18 to 22, do I feel a cultural obligation to share my opinions with you? My dad certainly never told me that a white male’s duty includes shoving my opinion in everyone else’s face.”
If it were fathers who exclusively bestowed this duty upon their sons, Van Kuiken would have a point. The problem is that we exist both within and without our homes. White fathers need not tell their white sons of their particular obligation to discuss the issues because there is no need to.
Society already makes sure that every white male implicitly understands this obligation. How? White males are privileged in their near-to-exclusive featuring as figures of authority in print, on television and around us in our daily realities. We, the consumers of these media, internalize this and so believe in the innate authority of a white male’s argument and the need for its publication. So, white privilege is both a structural and an individual phenomenon, the former propelling the latter. Therefore, even when the individual is silent, the structures continue to exist and frame our society through their existence.
While this idea of innate authority should exist with regards to the opinions of people of all races, these mediums’ exclusion of other voices has served to teach anyone outside this boundary of male whiteness to understand our own duties as very different. We are taught to speak only in issues pertaining to our identities. Our duty is particularized as opposed to the universality of the white man’s duty. And we only discuss this after reading a little Peggy McIntosh. But let’s move on.
Van Kuiken then writes of his acceptance of the premise of the Orient’s argument, and outlines how he went on to speak to Reyada Atanasio ’17—who he describes as “an African-American student”—and asked her to write. Despite his insistence, she declined and so he concludes “the onus has fallen on me to provide a new perspective.” This is probably a good time to mention that all of us non white-males came together to elect Atanasio as our representative. But really though—while everyone loves to speak of a post-racial world, the idea of a person of color responding as representative of the thoughts of a race, or rather multiple races, is racism embodied. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man would be turning in his grave. Atanasio might as well be the Invisible Woman, as in the context of Van Kuiken’s argument she needn’t have a name since she figures simply as the “other” who sanctions him, the white savior, to adhere to his duty. His description of her spells it out: “an African-American student.” Nothing more, nothing less.
You might ask, “but isn’t that exactly what the Orient asked for? Diversity for the sake of diversity?” No. Diversity is required because diverse origins lead to varied experiences within our society. Much to our shame, these experiences have been, and continue to be, racialized. Experiences dictate perceptions, and there are certain experiences within both the United States and the world that will be obscured if we are to always rely on an analysis of them that is born out of privilege.
Van Kuiken concludes that the domination of the Opinion section by white males is not “a bad thing. My attempt to find a new writer actually showed me that. The search for diversity can often be a noble cause, but, beyond that, I take issue with the logic of the Orient in their editorial [as] to say my opinion too closely mirrors any of my fellow opinion columnists largely discounts both their upbringing and mine.”
Van Kuiken is right—diversity exists within races, both with regards to genetics and perspectives, and so yes, the opinions of people within one race “don’t come from a mythical guidebook restricted to certain races and ages,” as he writes. Yet history is not just a footnote or equality simply “noble.” The pervasive male whiteness of the Opinion pages does not stand alone but rather builds on the sadly still-present white male monopolization of both discourse and understanding. While whiteness is not homogenous, white privilege is. This privilege is clear in not having to face institutional racism in access to housing subsidies, college grants, financial institutions, or civil rights. It allows a white person to universalize his own experiences. It restricts society’s ability to understand its flaws, and projects a false image of meritocracy upon a nation built on institutional racism.
As a social and an individual construction, white privilege can only be consigned to the past if both of these facets are engaged with. Individuals alone hold little power, but together they can form a collective to ensure that discourse is not dominated by one race and that other races’ expressions are not constrained solely to questions of identity. So all this is not to say white people must relinquish their voice, it is that their voice must stand alongside the voices of people of all colors and constructions. And in order to do that, we—all of society—must break the stranglehold of whiteness, wherever it may be.
“Yes, yes,” I hear some of you say. “In theory this is all true, but what does this mean in practice? Better yet, what does this mean in this exact debate?” To take apart white privilege in this immediate context requires two related things.
The first is that the Orient must follow through in its efforts at recruiting writers of a more diverse background, whether in regards to race or gender. An editorial is one thing, but actively soliciting written pieces from underrepresented viewpoints is another. The second is that those who hold these viewpoints and experiences must also step forward. If you feel unrepresented by an action, opinion, or an experience, then make your thoughts known—otherwise they will be lost to the world. Mine were until Van Kuiken spoke.
Zohran Mamdani is a member of the Class of 2014.