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    Race in the university: white privilege

    The phrase “white privilege” has become a buzzword in the national race dialogue. When injustice is given a name, it becomes more likely to be relevant. Although this has been one effect of the label, another has been the fashioning of privilege into a partisan issue. 

    One side argues it hardly exists, that all is within the realm of individual responsibility, and the other side argues that it is ingrained in the structures of our society. How can people who haven’t been disadvantaged understand their privilege as a complex part of society and more than a vague excusatory term?

    I began to understand privilege — what it is and what kinds I hold — through the literature of writers who have created a vocabulary and provided a context for complicated discussions of race. I found myself better able to empathize with people who understand the world based on a range of experiences entirely different from my own. 

    Two authors in particular, Roxane Gay and Gish Jen, have helped me think about how the comforts and opportunities that I’ve enjoyed in my life have not been the direct result of things that I’ve done to earn them. They’ve shown me how to acknowledge this fact without embarrassment, to understand that there are disadvantages that I just don’t have to face. The study of literature has helped me see how arbitrary factors like gender, race and sexual preference come with their own slew of unfair social implications. 

    Roxane Gay, a black woman whose parents emigrated from Haiti, would at first seem to hold little privilege in this society. But, in her essay “Peculiar Benefits,” she acknowledges both the unfair advantages and disadvantages that she’s experienced. 

    Gay first became aware of her privilege during a trip to her parents’ homeland where she saw desperate inequality firsthand. Gay’s essay helped me realize that acknowledging privilege is not an act of guiltily admitting that life’s been easy. 

    She leads by example, and in so doing shows how discussions of privilege can be matters of observation and acknowledgment, not  contests of self-justification. Gay encourages the development of a discourse on race where we appreciate the limits of our own subjectivity. 

    Taking a slightly different approach, Gish Jen fictionalizes privilege in her short story “House, House, Home.” Jen shows that privilege isn’t chosen — it’s something that must be realized and addressed. 

    The protagonist of the story, who, like Jen, is the child of Chinese immigrants, struggles with the fact that social exclusion lies outside of her control. In contrast, another character, a white man, claims that he’s chosen to be an outsider, refusing to acknowledge that the ability to reject his social position is itself a form of privilege. Jen’s characters come together in their fictional context to illustrate the differences between two people in disparate positions of privilege and the difficulty of admitting that being a social insider or an outsider is not a matter of individual choice.

    Literature has provided me with a vocabulary and a context for thinking about privilege and its functions in society — and I am incredibly privileged to have been able to learn through books instead of experiencing those disadvantages first-hand, as many other Clemson students have had to do. Writers like Gay and Jen have brought me to a better understanding of social inequality. 

    After having studied their work, I feel a greater responsibility to speak up against exclusionary systems, practices and ideologies that unfairly benefit a select few. If you struggle to understand why your classmates are protesting outside of Sikes Hall, why there are students who feel a desperate need to be heard, I recommend picking up books by these authors and others, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, to be challenged and moved.

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