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The order of merit. (point of view).

This semester, I'm teaching "Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender"--an especially provocative course title now that affirmative action has become fair game for anyone with a political hatchet. This course or its equivalent is a requirement for human-services majors at our community college. That means that, for some students, enrollment is not strictly voluntary, and that complicates the challenges of teaching a course whose content already tends to push people's hot buttons. Still, there's nothing else I'd rather be teaching--especially now.

This term, my students are having more trouble than students usually do in coming to terms with a basic course concept: white privilege--the idea that white, affluent, heterosexual males of Western European descent are privileged (i.e., systemically advantaged) in American society. Like so many Americans, these students are personally and deeply devoted to "the myth of meritocracy" as described in "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," an essay by Peggy McIntosh published in 2001 by Worth Publishers.

The core belief of this myth is that anyone can be whatever one wants to be, based solely on hard work and merit. This myth implicitly denies the existence of structural and systemic obstacles to "success," and blames those who are denied access for their failure to achieve it. Even students inclined to grant the existence of a history of discrimination (based, for example, on race) are also inclined to believe that the aspiration "we shall overcome" certainly by now means "we have overcome." My students do not see the irony inherent in white people being the ones to reach that conclusion. Neither does it strike them as dubious that they have reached this conclusion here in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the Union.

One reason my students have trouble identifying with the concept of "white privilege" is that many of them come from families that have spent their energies over generations just trying to stay above the federal poverty line. An associate's degree is their leg-up in life, if not to a four-year college, then at least to a less hardscrabble life. In general, social class (more than race or gender) is the access barrier for my students.

Still, the existence of class distinctions is difficult for Americans to grasp, having been raised to believe in an egalitarian ethos that denies the relevance of social class. We want desperately to believe that anyone at all can be president, despite growing evidence that only the wealthy can afford to even campaign.

And because so many of these students will have to overcome formidable obstacles to complete their degrees, they have little sympathy for the view that hard work doesn't necessarily signify for the achievement of the American dream. Most of my students hold full-time jobs in addition to going to school and raising children, a surprising number of which have disabilities of one kind or another. Many of them also find themselves caring for aging parents. Few of them own their own homes, and some of them are just one or two paychecks away from living on the streets. Under the circumstances, it's hard for my students to feel any too damned "privileged."

As a result, several of them have bought into the conservative ideology that affirmative action is really nothing more than reverse discrimination against white people, especially white males. These students come into the course honestly believing that white men are "losing" jobs to females and people of color. When asked how they would ever know that a job a white man wanted went to a woman or a person of color instead--and because of race and gender rather than merit and qualification--the students do little more than point to the very existence of women and people of color in the workplace, as if that in itself proved the inherent unfairness of affirmative action.

Yet I am quite confident that there is no mother's son enrolled in my course who has ever lost a job--or ever been denied access to one--because he was a white man. I am likewise confident that no white man has ever been denied admission to our community college based on his race or gender. But this belief in the abuse of white manhood by affirmative action is one of the most invincible components of popular ignorance. The fact that this ignorance is actively stoked and provoked at the highest levels of the land doesn't help, either. It is hard not to be astonished when the president of the United States, given everything else on his plate-of-state, feels compelled to weigh in on the admissions policies of the University of Michigan.

I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve for dealing with this seemingly intractable belief in workplace disadvantage for white males under affirmative action. One of the most effective is an exercise in which I ask students to take out a piece of paper and write "Agree" or "Disagree" to each of the following statements:

1. Anyone in America can be whatever he or she wants to be, provided he or she works hard enough for it, there are no systemic obstacles to success.

2. Affirmative action discriminates against white males.

Now, I have done this exercise with students enough times to be able to predict its results, so I don't ask people to embarrass themselves by raising their hands to signal whether they agree with both questions. I already know that a certain percentage of my students will agree to both. Next, I spring the trap on their own illogic, pointing out the contradiction of affirming that there are no systemic obstacles to success for those willing to work for what they want while also maintaining that affirmative action is a systemic obstacle to the success of white males. Every time I do this exercise, at least a handful of students looks as if I had just thrown cold water in their faces. For some, it is the beginning of a broader social awakening.

The technique worked as well as ever this semester, but somehow it hasn't given me as much satisfaction. It's in part because this president seems a tad too willing to send other people's children off to war. And I know that those children will come--as they always do--disproportionately from minority groups and from the ranks of those social classes for which recent commanders-in-chief have had neither empathy nor affinity. That is to say that our own students are and will be among those sent into harm's way.

I have at least one Marine in my class, and at least one veteran. I imagine there's probably also a reservist or two. My students in the military are among those who have been clinging hardest to the myth of meritocracy--that anyone at all can be president. And I suppose if they were to be asked tomorrow to go to Iraq to be gassed or nuked or shot at on their own country's behalf, that belief, however tattered, would be at least some comfort against the cold of a desert night.
PEGGY WHITENECK
INSTRUCTOR
COMMUNITY COLLEGE OF VERMONT-UPPER
VALLEY CAMPUS
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, VT.
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Title Annotation:affirmative action and reverse discrimination
Author:Whiteneck, Peggy
Publication:Community College Week
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 28, 2003
Words:1185
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