Addressing White Privilege in Independent Schools

Spring 2009

By Greg Blackburn and Tim Wise

Over the last several years, independent schools have begun to move beyond discussions of racial diversity and multiculturalism, and into weightier considerations of the race and class inequities that continue to plague our nation. As part of this process, many independent schools have initiated conversations about white privilege and the way it operates within the independent school environment. It is hoped that, by raising awareness about white privilege and institutional racism, our schools will redouble their commitments to creating equitable educational experiences for all students, faculty, staff, and parents.

Yet, because discussions of privilege and inequity can prove contentious, objections are often raised. Some believe there is no such thing as white privilege, and that conversations about such topics are “liberal” propaganda. Others acknowledge the existence of white privilege but contend that discussing it only leads to greater division. Such persons suggest we avoid the matter of privilege in favor of a continued focus on diversity and “appreciation for difference.” Others are new to the conversation and are often confused as to what is meant by white privilege in the first place. 

It is with these objections and concerns in mind that we offer the following set of frequently asked questions about white privilege, and answers to those questions. It is our hope that, by providing this resource, the conversation about white privilege can continue, even when the participants in that dialogue don’t always agree. By coming to better appreciate the seriousness of the issue, even persons with different ideological positions should be able to engage in respectful discussion, and then agree to work together toward the creation of more equitable and inclusive independent school environments. 

What is white privilege?

White privilege is any advantage, head start, opportunity, or protection from systemic mistreatment, which whites generally have, but people of color do not have.

Our family worked hard for what we have. Why should whites be blamed or criticized for being successful?

Discussing white privilege is not about blame or criticism. It’s about making sure we understand the factors that contribute to racial inequality. Hard work has been part of the reason why individuals have succeeded, but unearned privilege has also been part of the explanation. Just as many whites have worked hard, so have millions of people of color, and yet, because of discriminatory barriers and fewer connections, they have been less able than whites to access, among other things, elite educational opportunities.

Even when parents work hard to provide for their children, once those children take advantage of the opportunities provided, they benefit from someone else’s effort. So, unless one believes we “deserve” our families, the transmission of intergenerational advantage, even if initially secured by hard work, has not been earned by many young whites attending independent schools today. This is especially true since white families often accumulated their professional credentials and wealth in a system that restricted the ability of people of color to do the same. Whites have worked hard, but have also been favored in employment, housing, and schools.

Finally, many privileges enjoyed by whites aren’t things that can be earned, but instead are benefits that come to whites merely by virtue of being white in a mostly white space. Whites in independent schools typically have the privilege of feeling as though they belong. They can feel confident that their presence won’t be questioned or presumed to be the result of someone rigging the game on their behalf. This is true even for children whose parents or grandparents attended the same school. Rarely do legacies (who are overwhelmingly white) have to worry about people thinking they don’t belong in a prestigious school, or that standards were lowered for them. Even when a legacy’s academic credentials are unimpressive, it is rarely suggested that he or she doesn’t belong. On the other hand, students of color often confront the assumption that they were only admitted to a selective school because standards were lowered to foster diversity.

White students also have the privilege of not having to overcome racial stereotypes in the classroom, while students of color often feel as though they have to work especially hard to disprove negative assumptions made about members of their group. Among the stereotypes that students of color often feel the need to disprove are beliefs that they are less intelligent and less hard working than white students, or only good at certain things — like sports for black kids, or math and science for Asian students.

Aren’t you confusing race and class? Yes, independent schools are places of economic privilege, but why bring race into it?

Independent schools are often rooted in a history of racism and white privilege. Some were only formed after public school integration began, specifically by those who didn’t want their children going to school with African Americans. Other schools have been around much longer, and were clearly established — often as reflected in their early mission statements, and certainly in the way they functioned — for the education of wealthy, Christian, and explicitly white children. For persons of color who are considering such schools for their children, worries about whether their kids will be fully accepted are real and understandable. For whites, not having to worry about how a school’s history, traditions, and origins might feel alienating to them and affect their ability to truly fit in, is another example of privilege.

Even independent schools with progressive educational philosophies tend to have mostly white boards. What’s more, their policies, practices, and procedures have been implemented by mostly white leadership on behalf of mostly white students and families. Although these persons may have the best of intentions, rarely will they have been required to consider the unique needs of (and pressures experienced by) families of color in their schools.

Research has found that students of color in mostly white schools, regardless of their family’s economic status, experience a “burden of representation” not generally experienced by whites. This burden refers to the way in which black and brown students feel the need to succeed, not only for their own sake, but also for others of color coming after them. Such students often feel as though failure or underperformance on their part may reinforce stigmatizing group stereotypes and negatively impact others from their group. Even affluent students of color in independent schools contend with these stereotypes, in ways that white students typically will not. Often, students of color are presumed to be poor and on financial aid (and therefore somehow less deserving), even when they are neither poor nor receiving much, if any, financial assistance. Likewise, they may be presumed less capable, and thereby experience anxieties about proving their abilities to others. These anxieties can have profoundly negative consequences for academic success, as well as physical and emotional well-being. Not having to worry about overcoming stereotypes in class is a substantial privilege for white students.

Finally, students of color have the pressure of trying to fit in within two different worlds: forced into an emotional and psychological tug-of-war between the need to fit in and succeed in the dominant culture, on the one hand (which independent schools are often very good at preparing them to do), and maintaining a feeling of connection to their racial or cultural group, on the other (something to which our schools have often given little thought). That white students typically do not experience this conflict is yet another way in which white privilege exists in independent schools, separate and apart from economics.

Nowadays, our mission statements include sections on diversity, and teachers and administrators are committed to inclusion. So how can white privilege still be a problem?

Yes, schools may now have diversity clauses as part of their mission statements, but is the school’s commitment to diversity fully “operationalized” throughout the institution? Does it play a role in the establishment of policies, practices, and procedures? Are hiring and admission decisions made with an eye toward maximizing diversity and equity? Are candidates for admission, faculty positions, or administrative jobs screened not only on the basis of traditionally understood qualifications, but also on their commitment to the mission of the school, including its focus on diversity and equity? If so, how is this done? If not, why is it not done? And how can a school be truly committed to these principles while doing little to prioritize them in their daily operations? If diversity becomes just a buzzword or a nice aspirational goal — but one that doesn’t require us to rethink existing conceptions of qualifications, standards of excellence, or what constitutes a “good school” — white privilege will be maintained.

As for teachers and administrators, how deep is their commitment to diversity and equity? When candidates are evaluated for jobs, or students are evaluated for admission, do these teachers and administrators evaluate them with traditional tools alone — which often view accomplishment in a vacuum and ignore the person’s access to opportunity or lack thereof — or do they use a more holistic conception of merit that considers what candidates have accomplished or how they have performed relative to prior access? If schools make hiring or admissions decisions on the basis of test scores, years of experience, or experience teaching in a school like the one to which the applicant is applying, they may inadvertently reinforce white privilege. Such schools would favor whites simply because whites would have had more opportunities to teach in such places, and for longer than persons of color; or because white students would have had more exposure to the kinds of materials found on standardized tests, relative to students of color. Their evaluations might then have little to do with merit, would perpetuate white privilege, and actually undermine the diversity component of the school’s mission.

Traditional evaluation tools reward the advantaged for having had more opportunity to begin with. Though a candidate of color may have slightly less experience or a somewhat lower test score than a white candidate, it may be that, relative to that person’s starting point, the person of color’s achievements are actually more impressive and indicate perseverance and potential that would translate to success in an independent school. A true commitment to diversity and equity takes this into account throughout the institutional process. 

But we’re already bending over backwards to recruit students of color and provide them financial aid, we’ve made our curricula multicultural, and we have all kinds of diversity programs. Hasn’t the pendulum swung too far to the other side?

If it seems as if schools are “bending over backwards” for students of color, this is only because for so long schools did almost nothing to recruit such students or to make the curricula more inclusive. Given where we come from, any attention to these issues may seem like a lot. But rest assured, it is whites who continue to receive privilege in independent schools. Schools typically have far more white children who are legacies or come from other well-connected families, or who are siblings of previously admitted children, than they have students of color. Yet, rarely is it suggested that schools are bending over backwards for these persons, as if to imply that something is untoward about their presence.

It is actually rare for independent schools to deliberately recruit or seek their students of color. But when such actions are taken, there are several good reasons for the practice. First, because of the history of racism, families of color will be less likely than white families to have prior connections to independent schools. As such, they may not be aware of the steps involved in applying, or know which forms to fill out, or how to set up a school visit or evaluation for their child. Having less familiarity with the process can be intimidating, and dissuade families of color from pursuing independent school options for their children. This would then deprive our schools of many incredible children who would contribute much to our institutions. By engaging in deliberate recruitment, independent schools can provide families of color with the same information, knowledge and confidence that our white families so often already have.

Secondly, unless independent schools send a clear signal about our desire for and commitment to diversity, families of color might be hesitant to enroll their children. Knowing that their child would be significantly underrepresented is a source of anxiety for many families of color. Deliberately seeking out students of color only seems like “bending over backwards” because such efforts are not needed to recruit a healthy number of whites. But this is due to privilege: specifically, the privilege of being able to take for granted that you belong in a particular place and will be seen as belonging there by others.

As for financial aid, it is often assumed that such aid is mostly for students of color, and that most students of color receive substantial assistance. But this idea is often false and rooted in outdated stereotypes. When independent schools began to racially diversify, it is true that the children of color entering the institutions were often from economically marginalized families. However, when compared to prior generations, today there is a much larger cohort of financially comfortable families of color who are sending their children to independent schools, and there are also many more cash-strapped whites doing so, and receiving financial aid. Yet the stereotype about who receives financial aid remains in place.

Having said that, why is the provision of generous financial aid to deserving students of color a problem? The premise of this complaint — or characterizing such aid as “bending over backwards” — seems to be that students of color from low-income backgrounds don’t really deserve to be in independent schools. But shouldn’t schools seek to educate highly capable students from all kinds of backgrounds, irrespective of financial need? Indeed, one could even argue that students of color from lower-income backgrounds who strive and achieve, despite not having had the advantages so common to many white students, might actually be more deserving of admission than those who have had a wealth of opportunity since birth.

As for curricula, despite some changes, the overwhelming majority of the material studied in school — from literature to history to art and music — continues to be that of European or “white” origin. The reason multicultural education efforts may seem preferential to people of color is due to white privilege: in this case, the privilege of not having to see your group’s narrative, or the pre-existing curricula, as a racially-specific one. Whites have never had to think about the literature, art or history we studied as white, even though for the most part they were. When your group’s experiences are considered the norm, they don’t have to be racially labeled. So we don’t have an official “White History Month,” even though most every month functions as though it were.

As for programming, though such events are often valuable, they can sometimes be little more than celebrations of the food and holidays of racial and cultural “others” — hardly the kind of efforts that erase the privileging of the dominant group. Learning about Diwali, Chinese New Year, or Kwanzaa doesn’t challenge the dominance of whites within our schools. In fact, because these celebrations sometimes allow students and families to view the traditions of non-whites as “exotic,” they may (absent a discussion of power and privilege) serve to reinforce the privileging of whites, whose traditions are deemed normal and mainstream, as opposed to the strange and fascinating rituals of “others.”

Doesn’t talking about white privilege reinforce division by making whites feel guilty and people of color feel like victims? Shouldn’t we be color-blind, instead of focusing on divisive subjects like this?

Racial division existed long before conversations about those divisions began. Blaming the conversations for the problem they seek to address is like blaming the speedometer in your car for the speeding ticket you just received.

Ultimately, this question presumes that, if we don’t bring up the subject of racism and white privilege, people of color won’t think about it and tension will be avoided. But people of color know that racism and white privilege are real and damaging factors in their lives. Sadly, it is whites who often deny the problem and refuse to speak of it. This refusal to engage is a source of much of the tension between whites and folks of color. By avoiding the discussion, those of us who are white give the impression that we either don’t care about the life experiences of people of color, or worse, that we simply don’t believe people of color when they claim to have been harmed by racism.

And far from seeking to instill guilt, these conversations can point whites in the direction of greater alliance with people of color, by engaging all stakeholders in the creation of more equitable structures. A school that embraces color-blindness merely blinds itself to the consequences of color, making it harder to ultimately address those consequences and create equity. If schools strive not to notice color — the very category that triggered unequal treatment and unearned privilege to begin with — how are they to then engage members of the community in a discussion about color-based injustice?

One way to foster healthy discussions about these subjects is to create affinity group structures, whereby people of color provide support to one another, and whites striving to be antiracist allies do the same. Although affinity groups are structured as intra-racial groupings, over time they can spark productive interracial dialogue as well because some of the conversation-stopping and tension-creating comments that might otherwise be made in mixed company can be tackled first in a less tense and more secure environment.

Won’t too much emphasis on diversity or changing the curriculum water down our academic standards? Colleges want students who can do high-level work. Isn’t this additional stuff extraneous?

Colleges want prepared students, to be sure. But, increasingly, they consider the ability of students to succeed and thrive in diverse and equitable environments part of what it means to be prepared. Institutions of higher education are preparing their students for the real world, in which most people are poor, non-white, non-Christian, and don’t speak English. To think that equity and diversity are extraneous is the ultimate white privilege and conceit: Only those in the dominant group could think themselves sufficiently educated even as they remain largely ignorant of the cultures, histories, or literature of others.

It is also white privilege to think that the existing standards — simply because they have long worked for some — were truly demanding, and that diversity and equity efforts would amount to lowering them. In fact, standards are regularly altered to reflect the times in which we live. Until a half-century ago, few elite schools taught any American authors; by and large, only British literature was considered worthy of being taught. Now we would consider many American writers, poets, and playwrights as central to the canon. Why should we view the inclusion of persons of color within that canon any differently? There is no objective scale, after all, by which their work can be deemed inferior. Only privilege and racism would lead one to assume that diversity sacrifices excellence.

Similarly, if admission or hiring standards have previously rewarded those who had more opportunity from the start, then by no means can they be considered objective or valid. Altering the criteria used to select students or faculty does not amount to lowering standards so much as recalibrating our interpretation of what it means to be qualified in a global and interconnected environment and within institutions whose mission statements increasingly prioritize diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Ultimately, undoing systems of inequality and privilege is everyone’s business. In order to live up to the more lofty parts of our schools’ missions, and to fulfill the obligation to equal opportunity in which our nation professes to believe, white privilege must be addressed and ultimately rooted out of our institutions. Addressing these privileges will not be easy. Many of them are longstanding and those who benefit from them have grown accustomed to the way things are. But the way things are must change. We do none of our children any favors by educating them in spaces of profound racial inequity.

Greg Blackburn

Greg Blackburn is head of The Caedmon School (New York), and can be reached at [email protected].

Tim Wise

Tim Wise is an independent school parent and author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. He can be reached at [email protected], or through his website,