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White Privilege and Andragogy

There is a topic central to the work of racial equity which has caused people to either turn toward the work of equity or to turn away from the work of equity.  That topic is white privilege.  Upon hearing the premise of white privilege many people respond with a “eureka” moment of understanding while many others turn their faces away in offense.  If we are to make progress in the work of racial equity, learning what white privilege is and how to effectively communicate it will be helpful.

White privilege is a broad topic that covers many aspects of social and economic benefits that are disproportionality afforded to white people over people of color.  Dovetailing with this, white fragility is the discomfort or defensiveness many white people feel when confronted by this reality.  

It is hard for a person with a leaking roof and bare plywood floors to feel privileged

While teaching ethics in rural Alabama, many of my white students responded to the concept of white privilege with hesitancy.  Many students who came in from rural settings faced very real and difficult hardships that their families have faced for generations.  They feel forgotten by the world and disqualified from the wider conversation regarding social equity.  After all, it is hard for a person with a leaking roof and bare plywood floors to feel privileged even if there are parts of their lives that do experience the benefits of white privilege.  On the other hand, there were students from more suburban settings who often felt like white privilege was a personal attack on them because of their upbringing, which was outside of their control.  Both of these experiences are real and they both bring with them organic resistance to accepting the reality of white privilege.  This resistance is often diagnosed today as white fragility in social justice circles and has its own challenges.  

Either way they see a lose-lose situation

Many people feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding white privilege and white fragility.  Folks often feel like they must accept the fact that they are privileged because of their whiteness, even if they have difficult lives or they must accept that their resistance is a sign of their fragility, and a sign of subconscious racial bias.  Either way they see a lose-lose situation; they must accept that they are the benefactors of a racist system or they must accept that they are racist themselves for resisting this idea.  There is little room to simply be non-racist and many white people feel as though the educated class of socially woke people have created a trap between privilege and fragility both of which allow scolding from above. 

Que the entry of andragogy. Andragogy is an approach to adult learning that has powerful effects upon people and how they learn.  It approaches learning from the life experience of the learner so that they have something to anchor new information onto.  The application of andragogy to education about white privilege actively considers that many people bring with them experiences of when this concept was used to manipulate or belittle them.  

From this point we dove into the case study on racial profiling. 

To be clear, there is strong evidence of the existence of white privilege regardless of socio-economic standing.  An instructor who holds the perspective of “My expertise is more important than your experience” will likely teach in a way that subtly shames people for resisting the idea of white privilege.  This sets up a posture of, “Oh! So, you don’t believe in white privilege… That’s just a sign of your fragility.  You need to educate yourself.”  

On the other hand, an instructor who applies andragogy would approach from the perspective of, “Your experience is what is important, and hopefully my expertise can create a better experience for you moving forward.”   This creates an atmosphere of, “How have you experienced this in the past?  Maybe we can shed some more light on the topic and see it from a different angle.”  

During a university class one afternoon, we were going to do a case study on racial profiling by law enforcement.   I asked the class to spend five minutes remembering a time when a stranger had assumed something unfair about them and write down the occasion on an index card.  After the time was up, I asked them to turn the card over and spend six minutes writing how it made them feel in the moment and then how it has made them feel in the time since.  I prefaced the activity by informing them that they would be swapping cards within assigned groups.  After the six minutes were over, I asked them to swap cards and to then set them aside.  From this point we dove into the case study on racial profiling.  

The veil of privilege had been pierced in such a way that invited them into empathy

Near the end of class I asked everyone to pick up the card they had been given, read it, and then take one minute each and relate how the frustrations and feelings expressed by their partners related to those in the case study.  As team after team shared, there was palpable anticipation in the room.  Lightbulbs were going off as white students were able to connect the feelings of powerlessness, humiliation, and fear communicated in the case study to moments in their lives when someone had made them feel small, humiliated, and afraid.  The veil of privilege had been pierced in such a way that invited them into empathy with those affected by racial profiling rather than highlight their lack of understanding regarding their own privilege.  Andragogy creates room for people to grow because it has the capacity to invite them into empathy.

The reality remains unchanged though; there is an unjust distribution of societal benefits that holistically favors white people over minorities and education about white privilege can help to correct this.  Creating openness to these concepts will benefit society. Many people who have had the bible used to manipulate them will resist faith, not because they hate God, but because they resist the weapon that harmed them.  In the same way people who have had white privilege used to manipulate them will resist it, not because they are racist, but because they resist a concept that has caused them harm.

Applying andragogy to the instruction of white privilege can help anchor the instruction in the life experience of the learner.  It has the potential to remove the hostility that many white people associate with white privilege and create opportunities for growth, and from this growth, it creates opportunities to change our world for the better.



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