As a member of a community that prides itself on being at the forefront of the progressive, intellectual movement and someone who recognizes the real harms of socio-economic privilege, I feel compelled to respond to the article "‘Privilege' does not exist to White Penn professors — and they keep 'trying it'" by James Fisher. My compulsion is furthered by wanting to prevent a straw man of the true liberal spirit that points at and objects to socio-economic privilege, and to that end, I'd like to raise two questions.
Firstly, were the author’s descriptions of the traumatic experiences he had actually instances of showcased white privilege? Conveniently enough, to answer this question, we can refer to what the author intended as a demonstrative anecdote: "He would show images of slaves on plantations and even allow students to say ignorant comments in class." This sentence serves wonderfully to distill the author’s understanding of the problem and his actual expectations and allows us to push past the surface a little bit.
The first part of the sentence seems to refer to a certain insensitivity that the author attributes to the professor for showing said images. I fail to understand how the author can simultaneously demand both a heightened education of the masses regarding historical oppression of black people and immunity from such images in the classroom of a premier university. This is, of course, not to undermine the possibility that such images could be provocative or traumatic to some, due to personal backgrounds, experiences or emotional states — but is that not an unavoidable cost of making everyone more cognizant of the brutal reality of our past, for what it was?
The second part of the sentence, however, is more worrisome to me — mainly because of its increased prevalence as an opinion. The author argues that the professor’s claim that "allowing everyone to express their opinion makes for a safe space" is a standing example of privilege — where the emotions of the historically oppressed are not accounted for. To this, I have two responses.
Firstly, the author’s claim is a gross misrepresentation of the average student, who is, in fact, happy to participate in relevant socio-political discussions and does not plead any emotional fragility that supposedly accompanies belonging to such backgrounds. Of course, it is another thing to be facing downright insulting or racist comments — but even in these cases, I’m willing to wager that the average student, though taken aback, would like to make that an educational moment.
Secondly, this attitude defeats the objective of creating an "educational safe space" where students can feel free to make mistakes and learn by doing so. The danger of the author's claim extends beyond creating a lack of diversity in opinion in a university. Even from within a self-righteous bubble, it defeats the grander object of eradicating said ignorance systematically through discourse.
This leads to the second broader question to be addressed. What is a useful way of looking at an expectation to have a safe space in a setting that primarily seeks to educate our youth? My stance on this matter is that we need to recognize a goal of making our students ready to face the world where trigger warnings don’t pop up midair every time before a racially insensitive statement is going to be uttered. And the best way to achieve this, is to replicate the real world to some extent — by creating settings where students aren’t promised that their protective bubbles won't be burst and are prepared to handle such conversations with or without an opinion.
The general Penn community, I believe, is well-aware of what white privilege actually looks like — this is the subject of many a class and discussion, and many fight it on their way to Penn. I would however like to point out the worrisome trend of a "new privilege"’ that the original article shows exists — the privilege to say "I don’t want to be exposed to these sorts of comments or topics, these sorts of spaces and these sorts of people because I might be emotionally affected or traumatized."
Privilege is the freedom to claim entitlement or have possession of something that most or other people do not have — and a claim to this brand of "safe space," is a privilege. The general masses that are systemically discriminated against and pay the full price of existent white privilege do not have that liberty. Now, perhaps we at Penn can afford to grant some of that privilege in the interest of maintaining emotional stability in a setting where there are a tremendous number of factors that seek to undermine it — but that cannot come at the price of creating important educational opportunities.
Moreover, by misguidedly applying the principle, we face a grave danger of both being self-defeating and allowing some of the privileged to cry victim simply because they need to tip-toe around everything — a popular sentiment of "overt political correctness" that has great recent political influence. So as much as I sympathize with the generally large set of challenges that life at Penn can pose, on this count, I do not exercise any privilege in saying "deal with it."
SRIRAM SRIDHARAN is a College senior from Chennai, India, studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and philosophy. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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