Something ugly has happened in Eastern Iowa.
Cornell College’s Black Awareness Cultural Organization (BACO) has been hosting a weeklong awareness campaign on individual differences. The campaign, called Privilege Week, was intended to unite the student body and community, but has endured racist comments on social media and vandalism of promotional materials.
Some continue to believe discussions of privilege are designed diminish personal achievement or amount to little more shaming of those who have historically benefited from privilege.
The idea that some members of society have additional roadblocks along a path to success is, of course, a reality we understand. But many of us are also raised to believe that “good” choices result in “good” outcomes, and that everyone has the same opportunities to make choices.
The latter is not always true and was something with which I struggled. The turning point for me was when, as a reporter, I was assigned to cover such a meeting and, therefore, needed to set my personal beliefs to the side as I listened.
“What we are really discussing is the ability to view the world through another person’s eyes, to see part of what they see and acknowledge what they experience,” one of the speakers said. Once that type of connection exists, it becomes much more difficult for individuals to engage others in ways that automatically exclude or reduce personal worth.
This is especially important because studies have shown that even when selecting friends people will gravitate toward those most culturally and genetically like themselves. This isn’t because we are all closet bigots, but because we generally want to feel comfortable. Having friends, neighbors and co-workers with similar backgrounds and experiences provides a perceived layer of comfort.
Outside of occasions when we purposefully put ourselves in new environments — which we typically refer to as “adventures” — we want to be surrounded by what we know and what we understand.
Unfortunately, this desire to seek out such comfort zones is often at the heart of prejudice.
A study completed in 2004 showed that even when all other factors are equal, employers are more likely to select candidates with non-ethnic names. For instance, employers are more likely to call James Johnson for an interview than they are to call Jamal Johnson, even when their experience is identical.
And, a 2011 study noted that people with easier to pronounce names are more likely to succeed and advance, and, in follow-up research, determined that companies with simpler names and ticker symbols performed better in the stock market.
But understanding this is the American status quo is merely the first step, and not justification for lashing out in guilt or shame.
Depending on the individual and the circumstance, each of us has privilege, but historically the gatekeepers to the systems most linked to success — education, employment and finance — have been male and Caucasian.
But let’s be clear: the fact we’ve inherited a system that trades on privilege at the expense of others is not our fault and not a reason to feel guilty.
But once aware, we do have a responsibility to positively contribute to the journey toward a more equitable society. One of the first steps on that journey is being able to listen without judgment and, hopefully, view a piece of the world through someone else’s eyes.
This was the type of interaction planned throughout the week at Cornell College; these were the discussions so threatening that fliers were ripped apart and racial slurs invoked.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Nov. 9, 2014.