The Limits of Talking About Privilege to Teenagers

Getting private-school kids outside of their bubbles is more valuable than introducing them to the elite academic subculture a few years early.

Keith Bedford / Reuters

In Manhattan, educators at several private schools have decided that one of the best ways to teach white kids about race is to have them discuss it with other white people. "At a few schools," the New York Times reports, "students and faculty members are starting white affinity groups, where they tackle issues of white privilege, often in all-white settings. The groups have sprung from an idea that whites should not rely on their black, Asian or Latino peers to educate them about racism and white dominance." Once again, elite subculture imitates a Portlandia sketch.

These sessions are part of a trend.

At the kinds of schools that labor mightily to secure unearned advantages for their students in the college admissions process, "faculty members and students are grappling with race and class in ways that may seem surprising to outsiders and deeply unsettling to some longtime insiders," Kyle Spencer reports beneath the headline, "At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege From the Inside."

The trend consists of schools "asking white students and faculty members to examine their own race and to dig deeply into how their presence affects life for everyone in their school communities, with a special emphasis on the meaning and repercussions of what has come to be called white privilege." At Friend's Seminary, for example, a "Day of Concern" entailed gathering students into small discussion groups where "the overarching theme of the day was identity, privilege and power." The ideas being taught have trickled down from the selective colleges many private schoolers aspire to attend. It's as if they're taking AP Identity Studies. Acknowledging their privilege seems to be what's required to pass.

* * *

The word "privilege" never crossed the lips of any teacher of mine.

But as early as kindergarten or first grade, I began to understand that I was a very lucky kid. First, I realized that not everyone had both parents and all their grandparents still alive. Then I learned about divorce and felt blessed that my family was all together. I grew up in Costa Mesa, California, where my parents and their neighbors seemed to live like the people on Family Ties, and went to a Catholic school in nearby Newport Beach, where many seemed to live like the people on The O.C.

I still remember when I first glimpsed beyond that bubble.

One autumn, when I was six or seven, my teacher announced that our class would help provide presents that Christmas for a family that couldn't afford them. We were told the names and ages of a single mother and her five or six children. It wasn't the first time that I'd been exposed to the concept of poverty, but knowing names of kids my age who wouldn't get Christmas presents made it real.

A year or two later, I went to Mexico for the first time. I'll never forget driving across the border into Tijuana (which was safe enough for anyone to do in those days), seeing the shanty towns clinging perilously to dirt hills visible from the highway, and realizing what my parents had meant when they said it was a poor country.

Between family vacations and trips that the Catholic Church sponsored to build houses for poor Mexican families, I knew a lot of kids growing up who most fully grasped their own privilege for the first time in the hours after they crossed our Southern border. And I knew a lot of kids who managed similar insights within Orange County. My Catholic high school required a substantial number of volunteer hours to graduate. Some people served the homeless at soup kitchens. Others worked at hospitals. Still others volunteered to help rich people at fancy dinners nominally held for charity. I fulfilled my requirement as a volunteer at a camp run by the Wheelchair Tennis Association and a counselor at Special Camp for Special Kids. That's when I realized what a privilege it is to be born with a healthy body.

Later still, while attending college in Claremont, California, I began thinking about race and policing as never before when I read the following about a nearby police killing:

Irvin Landrum Jr., 18, died Jan. 17, six days after he was shot three times in the neck, chest and ankle on a sidewalk in the quiet eastern Los Angeles County suburb. One of the officers involved told investigators the shooting was in self defense after Landrum pulled a .45-caliber pistol from his waistband and fired first.

But a subsequent investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department showed that the gun Landrum allegedly used was never fired and bore no fingerprints.

Some of my peers organized protests. I wondered, "Would he be alive if he were white?" My effort to report out what really happened as a very green campus journalist failed, but I remember slowly realizing how much more pressure there would've been to find the truth had the dead youth been a student at one of the Claremont Colleges, or had his parents had been wealthy or politically connected in town. That insight ultimately influenced stories I've tried to highlight as a journalist.

Looking back at my education, there are all sorts of things I wished I would've understood earlier and myriad ways that my educators could've done a better job. I could've been a better student too: more curious, more attuned to how much I didn't understand. But I know that I learned best via experiences and concrete examples, even though I could always parrot back abstract theory on anything.

* * *

Private-school kids in New York City ought to be taught how lucky they are. And they ought to be taught how racial bias continues to shape life in the United States. In their borough, Manhattan, a young white man can walk down the street unmolested by police in any neighborhood. If a young Hispanic or black man frequents certain streets in casual dress, he is likely to be shoved against a wall by an NYPD officer, and few will care if his Fourth Amendment rights were wantonly violated. Hard truths like that are best set forth by educators, not ignored or denied. But the description of how these kids are being taught leaves me conflicted.

The New York Times headlined its article, "At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege From the Inside." But the story doesn't describe people "challenging" unearned advantage so much as learning to discuss it, often with academic jargon that smuggles in a lot of contested claims via inadequately defined terms. When elite schools launch a campaign to end legacy preferences in college admissions, I'll believe that they're "challenge white privilege from the inside."

As it stands, the schools seem to have recognized that being conversant in "white privilege theory" will give their students tools they need to excel in some subcultures populated by graduates of elite colleges. As the article puts it, "educators charged with preparing students for life inside these schools, in college, and beyond maintain that anti-racist thinking is a 21st-century skill and that social competency requires a sophisticated understanding of how race works in America."

That passage is bursting with questionable assumptions.

For example, I am skeptical that something as impossibly complicated as "how race works in America" is accessible to Manhattan private school teachers, whatever "diversity consultant" lectures in their stead, or anyone, really. How do administrators measure the "sophistication" of men like Derrick Gay, the 39-year-old diversity consultant named in the article? Perhaps he happens to have an exquisitely sophisticated understanding of "how race works" in his time. But even if that is so, one wonders if youngsters more than two decades his junior face the same racial landscape. When I talk with people a quarter-century older than me about race, I often notice a gap in perceptions, experiences and assumptions.

These programs also seem to have a narrow notion of what constitutes "anti-racist thinking," a phrase that should encompass views from Ward Connerly on left. In any era, many competing ideological frameworks qualify as "anti-racist thinking." And substantial cooperation is possible among subscribers to most of them.

Finally, when it comes to building "social competency," one wonders, among whom?

These educationally privileged students will become exquisitely adept at invoking privilege to signal moral sophistication and guard their status among similarly acculturated peers. But I fear that they'll emerge from their formal schooling less able to coherently discuss race or privilege with anyone outside of their educational cohort, having been taught to deploy inaccessible buzzwords and abstract theory rather than plain language, discrete examples, and a focus on solutions.

Even if elite private schools could accurately identify the most qualified experts in racial sophistication—and even if those experts had a theory of race in America that accurately captured the realities of people decades their junior—I'd still be unconvinced that these kids are best served by insular, intellectual discussions. In their classrooms, everyone is privileged enough to attend the sort of elite school where privilege is taught to privileged children of the mostly privileged. The wisdom and insights that these kids can summon in group conversation is limited.

Meanwhile, New York City is right outside the classroom door.

If these teenagers are as smart as I imagine, they'd surely learn a lot more if they skipped lectures imperiously framed around trendy theories and spent the day playing dominoes with the old-timers on West 151st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, or seeking out this young man to share his experience of Stop and Frisk. Absent heavy-handed models of race in America, perhaps they'd reflect more on injustices they perceived rather than fitting them into molds made by their elders.

And if their subculture didn't put such a premium on verbally acknowledging privilege, as if doing so is a demonstration of virtue and the beginning of a more enlightened society, maybe they'd feel more pressure to actually help people who need it, or to identify specific injustices and at least attempt concrete steps to fix them. I pass homeless people almost every day. Sometimes I try to offer a little help. Far more often, I don't. But I've never had the feeling that they'd appreciate it if I said, "Hey man, just so you know, I know how much more privileged I am than you."

All sorts of Americans who haven't any inkling of privilege theory manage to do vital work fighting racism, racial bias, and prejudicial discrimination. Many of those people are driven by the ethos that the ultimate end goal is a colorblind society, where everyone is judged by the content of their character, and whether one's ancestry is African American or European American or Asian American makes no more difference than if one is of English, Dutch, or Italian ancestry today. The elites who reject color-blindness as an ideal have had the correct insight that its most simplistic iteration denies the valence race undeniably has in the real world. They're correct that it's naive to act as if we're close to achieving it.

But whereas people striving to eventually get to colorblindness believe that it's progress when whites don't internally feel or externally adopt whiteness as a primary tribal identity, the trend in parts of America's elite educational subculture is to embrace what might be called Anti-Racist White Tribalism, wherein whites start conceiving of their whiteness as their most important attribute.

"At the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, two white seniors started the Exploring Whiteness club in the fall, which now regularly attracts 15 students," the Times reports. "They were inspired by reading 'Waking Up White,' a memoir by Debby Irving, a self-proclaimed WASP from New England who discovered in her late 40s that many of the benefits her father had received in housing and education from the G.I. Bill had been denied to millions of African-American veterans."

If I could imagine a healthy America where elites encouraged whites to self-identify based on their racial identity, I wouldn't be bothered by these well-meaning kids and their reaction to what sounds like a wonderful book. The racism of the G.I. Bill and its echoes across generations is certainly something everyone should know.

But nothing in U.S. history leads me to believe that encouraging people to regard whiteness as the core of their identity will end well. Throughout our history, once-marginalized groups, among them Irish, Italians, Germans, Cajuns, Poles, Catholics, and Jews, have to varying degrees gained the privilege of deracination and its analogs. An Italian American living in Los Angeles today can emphasize her ancestry, ignore it, or any gradation, and her choice is validated.

That same privilege has been unjustly denied to other groups, especially blacks.

Tremendous inequities have resulted. Simplistic colorblindness is unequipped to grasp their legacy. But is the best way forward hyper-emphasis on everyone's racial or ethnic background, including artificially constructed majoritarian whiteness, on the bet that every identity group will cease succumbing to tribalism? Or should we strive for a future where all individuals can embrace or ignore their racial identity per their preference? Perhaps neither approach can ever fully succeed. But I'd argue that the former approach poses a much greater risk of balkanization, and is doomed insofar as "separate-but-equal" never actually works.

The latter approach—call it aspirational colorblindness—strikes me as a plausibly better alternative. I acknowledge both its pitfalls and the long odds against total success. But given the degree to which it is ignored within elite academic culture, you'd think it had been as rigorously discredited as geocentrism.

In the course of their educations, students in grade school, high school and beyond ought to be presented with unvarnished facts about life in the United States, including racism, sexism, and other bigotries that shape life here. They ought to be exposed to the concept of implicit bias; the harms done by stereotypes, generalizations, and prejudgment; thought-provoking works like Peggy McIntosh's influential essay on privilege; and also essays from the rich history of diverse thinkers who approach anti-racism from an individualist's perspective.

The object ought to be showing young people the world as fully, clearly and completely as possible, and familiarizing them with lots of competing frameworks for understanding it, so that they can grapple toward their own conclusions. They're all but guaranteed to disagree deeply among themselves, so they should be reminded that people of goodwill can share the goal of reducing racial bias, or any other unfairness that can be remedied, even when they're operating under different ur-theories of identity in America and how best to fight injustice.

Instead, I fear that students are being indoctrinated into one highly contested framework, and that those who reject it will erroneously conclude, "anti-racism isn't for me."

Pedagogy aside, these kids almost certainly don't need to spend any more time talking to classmates about what sets them apart from the world around them. They need to have as many experiences as possible outside the privileged halls of their schools, encountering New Yorkers of all backgrounds. They need to discover not just what makes them different, but what they share in common, and what they can learn from individuals who've taken different paths through life. I'd expect that after studying people closely enough, they'll conclude that group traits of most every kind are confounded by the wonderful singularity of humans.