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Confronting privilege, race and gender

Allan G. Johnson

Author Allan Johnson says says privilege is at the heart of the nation’s problems with race and gender. Johnson, who is the author of "Privilege, Power and Difference," will give a public presentation on “Unraveling the Knot of Race” on Thursday, September 19th, at 5:30 p.m. His talk in the Multicultural Room at Trimpe Hall is co-sponsored by Western’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Everyone Counts Learning Community.

Johnson says "privilege" is any unearned advantage people receive just because they belong to a dominant group in society. He says examples of "white privilege" in the U.S. include favorable treatment of people identified as "white" in areas like employment that is not given to people who are not.

According to Johnson, many white Americans are oblivious to the advantage society gives them. He offers the everyday act of walking down the street as an example. Whites are much less likely to be stopped by police than minorities are, but Johnson says white people aren't aware of their advantage because they aren't subjected to "stop and frisk". He says that's a daily reality for non-whites who, unsurprisingly, are much more aware of the different way their white neighbors are treated.

Credit Allan G. Johnson
Allan G. Johnson

Johnson admits that selling the concept of unearned advantage can be tough, especially to poor whites. Because of their daily struggles, many aren't receptive to suggestions that they are given advantages not enjoyed by blacks and other minorities. But Johnson says people of color not only face the same class-based problems confronting poor whites, they also have to deal with racial discrimination.

Although raising awareness of privilege is important, Johnson says it is only the first step toward greater social and economic equality. John quotes 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "Power does not yield except by demand". Johnson says the only way to overcome privilege is to change society, not individuals. And he says that requires organization of the kind that powered the Civil Rights, gay rights, and women's rights movements.

Johnson says there is very little public discussion of the relationship between privlege and discrimination. He disparages the often-heard word "diversity", saying it is often employed as a fig-leaf to avoid frank discussion of the issue. Johnson says he says he sees little evidence that such a discussion will take place anytime soon. Instead of focusing on "diversity", Johnson says the nation needs to start talking about equity, privilege, and oppression.

Andy Robins has been WMUK's News Director since 1998 and a broadcast journalist for over 24 years. He joined WMUK's staff in 1985. Under his direction, WMUK has received numerous awards for news reporting.