Over Colorado College’s spring break, a lengthy white supremacist diatribe, which specifically targeted Deans Mike Edmonds and Rochelle Mason, was sent through an encrypted email service to a large portion of the CC community. In the weeks since, many have remarked that events like this are not isolated incidents, but are disturbingly common manifestations of the white privilege that underlies our country and our school. But what exactly is this privilege? Both the author of that email and many in our community have either misinterpreted or distorted the idea of white privilege as some sort of anti-white battlecry. I’d like to use this space to try to describe how exactly our community fits into the system of racism and privilege.
The sociologist Allan G. Johnson gave a lecture on privilege at the University of Wisconsin in which talked at length about Monopoly. Monopoly, he says, basically requires that you temporarily become a monster. The game only ends when one person has slowly sucked every ounce of money and property from every other player. The game encourages you to be greedy, such that if you’re not greedily snatching up properties and forcing other players into unfair trades, then, as Johnson puts it, “you’re not playing the game correctly.”
It’s an innocuous example, but even a board game can change our behavior. When I seize a friend’s property, I might say sorry, but I’m also silently thinking, hell yes, you’ll be broke in five turns. It would be a downright evil thought if it weren’t within a game. But of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m inherently a greedy human being. Because when I’m not playing Monopoly, I’m not like this. The game brings out particular qualities in me; the rules of the game establish what Johnson calls a “path of least resistance.” And the path of least resistance in Monopoly is unadulterated greed, which you’ve got to stick to even as the teary-eyed ten-year-olds you’re playing against are handing you stacks of cash. If you don’t, you won’t survive the game.
Johnson has us consider white privilege as a sort of game—a game which, like Monopoly, presents us with a path of least resistance. What Johnson shows us is that, in our world, the path of least resistance is to accept and perpetuate white privilege.
The first aspect of white privilege that Johnson points to is that it is “white-dominated.” This means simply that as you look at the top tiers of any hierarchy in a society marked by white privilege, you’ll tend to see white people. And as you look at the lower tiers of the hierarchy, you’ll tend to see people of color. If you see someone of color in a position of control, you’ll notice it as an exception to the rule.
This is certainly true of CC. High-level administrative positions tend to be held by white people, and Deans Edmonds and Mason are exceptions to the rule. The author of the email targeted them precisely because their success threatens the continuance of white supremacy. That they have succeeded despite white privilege means we can be sure Edmonds and Mason had to be especially talented to get where they are—not the opposite, as the author claims. To recognize this, and to dismantle the racial patterns of power we’ve inherited, is to step off the path of least resistance.
Johnson says that a society in which white privilege operates will also be “white-identified.” This is to say that “white people are taken as the standard for human beings in general.” At CC, the white experience is taken to be the standard experience both numerically and culturally. The student body is nearly two thirds white, but the way we often portray CC makes it sound like the school is entirely white. Many of the school-advertised hallmarks of CC, like expensive ski trips, a rock climbing gym, our own music festivals, et cetera are historically white spaces.
We can see this white-identification clearly by looking at whose stories we choose to tell. The path of least resistance is, of course, to tell white people’s stories. And the vast majority of Cipher’s stories are, even in this issue, about white people. The system of white privilege has made white students feel entitled to tell their stories, so those are the stories we end up with. The path of least resistance here is to simply accept this fact, and keep telling the same stories.
How we choose to tell these stories is also important: stories by and about white people almost never refer to subjects’ or authors’ race. We don’t even think of them as stories about white people; we just think of them as stories. When there is an occasional story about someone of color, on the other hand, that fact is always mentioned, and almost always made integral to the story. This disparity doesn’t exist because white people’s race is irrelevant to their lives. The disparity exists because, as James Baldwin put it, “Being white means not having to think about it.” We can take a resistant path in this regard by thinking about it—by making explicit the ways race is a factor in stories about and/or by white people.
This system is a game we have all inherited, regardless of race, without anyone asking us for our permission. It’s a system in which we have to live, at least until we change it. So although to some degree it is inevitable that white people participate in the problem of white privilege, white people can also be part of the solution. For instance, the typical result of white privilege is that white people feel entitled to the power and attention that they’ve inherited, and threatened when that power and attention is challenged. But this doesn’t have to be the case: we can celebrate the fact that people of color are gaining power, and aid in shifting attention away from solely white stories.
Progress has already been made at CC. Seven years ago, 18% of CC students were people of color; this year, it’s almost 25 percent. The more students of color who are present, the more CC can resist white-domination. And, in part because of these changing numbers, white students’ experience at CC is becoming less central by the year. Some Cipher writers, for instance, have recently made a concerted effort to tell the kinds of stories that are usually silenced. (You can find a compilation of recent Cipher stories that address race and racism at ciphermagazine.com.)
This school and this magazine can and must do better. I’m confident that Cipher’s staff, and especially our newest editors, will.
Ethan Cutler, Editor-in-Chief