- Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships across Race
Scholarship in the field that has come to be known as "whiteness studies" has focused primarily on whiteness as historical, cultural, or even discursive object, documenting the development of white identity, its social meaning, and its ongoing consequences for both white people and people of color. Counter to this documentary trend, Frances Kendall's Understanding White Privilege presents an assumed white reader with a work-book of sorts, a guide to accepting his or her own racial privilege and using that awareness to effect real change. Kendall is an activist, not an academic, so perhaps it should not be surprising that her book takes this more pragmatic approach, but Understanding White Privilege stands out in the field for precisely this reason. Despite the text's explicit address to a white reader, there is much here that will benefit people of color as well, particularly those teaching in predominantly white academic environments.
Indeed, Kendall's slim volume is the second to be included in Lee Anne Bell's Teaching/Learning Social Justice Series at Routledge, and it is, first and foremost, a pedagogical tool. As Kendall writes in the book's preface, "[This book] is written for individuals in organizations—colleges, universities, and corporations particularly—who grapple with race every day, as well as for those who believe they don't need to" (xi). The first chapter, "Beginning with Ourselves: The Importance of Doing Our Personal Work," uses Kendall's own experience of coming to terms with her whiteness to begin the book's discussion of white people's personal responsibility for acknowledging and working against the many privileges they accrue merely for being white. Kendall goes on, in chapter two, to detail the reasons why white people should undertake this work. Aptly titled "What's In It for Us?" this section is surprisingly forthright in suggesting that the nebulous goal of increasing institutional "diversity" is not enough of a motivation for white people to examine their privilege. Instead, Kendall argues that the "psychological, emotional, and spiritual" costs to white people themselves, although difficult to voice credibly, are what make such examination truly necessary.
Two subsequent chapters, perhaps the most teachable in the volume, explore what it means to be white and explain the concept of "white privilege" in significant detail; Kendall also devotes the entire fifth chapter to a discussion of "Barriers to Clarity," the internal and external roadblocks that prevent most white people from seeing their own whiteness and the privileges it garners for them. Here, as elsewhere, Kendall relies heavily on anecdote to make her points, with varied success. Two of the stories about Hurricane Katrina that she shares as examples of disparate white and black perspectives on the same events—the Associated Press captioning similar photos of stranded New Orleans residents in different ways according to race, whites "finding" food and supplies versus blacks "looting" them, and Barbara Bush's offensive comment that because Katrina survivors were "underprivileged anyway," [End Page 215] temporary shelter accommodations in the Houston Astrodome were "working very well for them"—were stories that had circulated via e-mail for months after the tragedy. Thus, readers who are already familiar with both incidents, a group that surely includes not only many blacks, but also some of the whites that this book hopes explicitly to reach, may find Kendall's use of them here repetitive. Ironically, Kendall is on surer ground when she draws upon her own experience, as in her insightful analysis of a family member's offhand comment about Katrina: "Weren't the white people smart to buy their houses on higher ground?" Kendall successfully unpacks her relative's assumptions about racial parity in real-estate opportunities, in the process highlighting how often such subtle reinforcement of white privilege goes unexamined. Similar examples of Kendall's striking ability to see and critique her own privilege and that of the people close to her abound in the first one hundred pages of this...