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A white oppressor? Who me?

By Wendy McElroy
web posted October 10, 2005

Your daughter is enrolled at a major university that has well-defined policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race. She decides to attend a campus event. The organizers forbid her entry because of her skin color: white.

Under concerted pressure from the Student Government Association, which prohibits racial discrimination at school-sponsored events, the organizers grudgingly admit your daughter. But they make a point of publicly humiliating her from the podium for the color of her skin.

On Sept. 25, the Women's Studies and Graduate Consortium at Northeastern University in Boston held a public on-campus meeting called "Breaking Bread: Women of Color Dialogue." White women were barred.

The SGA demanded that no student be denied entry to a public, on-campus event because of skin color. This was not merely a moral stand but also a demand that the university-sponsored event comply with the university's non-discrimination policy. (Exclusion on the basis of gender seems to have raised no comment.)

Rather than cancel the event, Dr. Robin Chandler — director of women's studies and an organizer of the event — cracked the door wide enough for white women to walk through. Only one attended — a senator from the SGA. Her presence was obviously meant to make the point that students cannot be excluded from campus events due to race.

In NU, Northeastern's student newspaper, Chandler described her response to allowing a white woman to attend.

"I welcomed her anyway, in addition to telling the audience to conduct themselves with integrity even though the presence of a white woman was unwelcome," she said.

Chandler continued, "I think it's a shame that one or two white students based on white privilege, a lack of awareness of racial issues and a lack of generosity of spirit complained to the office of the provost and were able, because they were white, to gain admission to the morning session that I was forced to open up."

At a university-funded event some while back, Chandler gave a closing speech that was followed by speeches from spectators, who were encouraged to come on-stage to "share their thoughts about diversity and oppression."

I'd like to take Professor Chandler up on the offer to share my thoughts.

First of all, in what dictionary did Chandler look up the word "welcome?" And since when has protesting discrimination demonstrated a "lack of awareness of racial issues" and a "lack of generosity of spirit?"

Before deteriorating into an uncharacteristic rant, however, I should clarify where I stand on the "race question." For most of my life, I have been neither proud nor ashamed of being white — although I rather enjoy being Irish. My race is not something I achieved; it is a circumstance of birth over which I had no control. I judge people, including myself, on the content of their character and their actions.

My family through marriage includes blacks, Hispanics, and plain vanilla sorts like me. Race is simply not an issue.

Nevertheless, I've heard the charge of "white privilege" so often that I've numbed to its meaning and implications. That is a mistake. The accusation is too often a racial attack, and those who hurl it are too often oppressors in sheep's clothing.

Chandler's remarks broke through my numbness. Why? My three nieces are university age or close to it. One is black; two are blonde and fair-skinned. Chandler would have broken up a family along racial lines rather than let them attend a public event together. And she would have labeled anyone who protested as a "racist," a recipient of white privilege.

"White privilege": the phrase has different meanings depending on the context, but most often the accusation rests on historical analysis.

Namely, due to the great historical wrong of slavery — a wrong that no one denies — whites are said to have sins to expiate.

For most white people, however, history frowns upon this interpretation. Again, I use my family as an example.

In 1865, when slavery ended in America, my ancestors were on ships fleeing the famine and political oppression in Ireland. A third of the passengers died in transit; many more perished from privation in a foreign land.

The family on my husband's side fled Cuba as Castro made his power grab. Their children literally had to maneuver through explosions on the streets of Havana in order to attend school.

These are not people of privilege. They have no connection to or responsibility for the oppression that was slavery.

There are no laws that grant my blonde-haired nieces any privilege due to skin color. Such laws have been methodically removed from the legal system for decades now.

Nevertheless, attendees said they would feel "threatened … if white women were present." White women, they claimed, could not understand issues like prostitution and truancy. As a white woman who has lived on the street, I disagree.

The preceding sentence contains the worst impact of Chandler's racial policies: "as a white woman." While writing this column, I've thought of myself as a racial category and I've wanted to vigorously defend being white. It is difficult to be part of the only race for whom racial pride is a social taboo.

This is the ultimate result of people who want to open or close a public door based solely on skin color. They force you to think in racial categories, and that process can become a slippery slope into racism. It is a slide I refuse to make.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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