Aquinas hosts panel on white privilege


Emma Wonsil introduces members of the Aquinas community at a panel on understanding white privilege.

Story by Bridget Gibley, Staff Writer
Photo Courtesy of Kasha Sanor

On Dec. 5, 2016, the Philosophy and Theology Departments, the Jane Hibbard Idema Women’s Studies Center, and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion came together to sponsor an event entitled, “Who Matters? Understanding White Privilege through Narrative.”

The event was a panel in which members of the Aquinas community — Dr. Amy Dunham Strand of the Women’s Studies Department, Allie Markland of Residence Life, and Danielle Smith, the president of Voices Inspiring Black Students Everywhere (VIBE) — spoke about their personal experiences with white privilege.

The event was introduced by Emma Wonsil, a senior at Aquinas. She spoke about how, especially since this summer, racial injustice issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, have been a main discussion point in her family and community, and in the U.S. in general. However, she noticed that at Aquinas, no one was talking about them.

She wondered why this community was not having these conversations, and found herself asking, “What are we doing as an institution to defend human dignity?”

Discussion is necessary for social change, so Wonsil and Kascha Sanor, also a senior, set out to start a discussion about race and white privilege. The panel served as a place for members of the Aquinas community to share their own narratives concerning white privilege.

Each panelist told stories about how they experience white privilege on a daily basis, how they came to an awareness of white privilege, etc. They also spoke about why these conversations are necessary.

“Understanding my own privilege makes racism my problem… It makes me part of the story of racism,” said Dr. Dunham Strand.

Today’s world is full of racial injustice. As Dr. Dunham Strand said, referencing Peggy McIntosh, racism is a system of inequality and its corollary, privilege. White privilege — societal benefits that are unearned, given simply because of the whiteness of skin color — is the other side of the spectrum that also includes racism and oppression. Ignoring this privilege does not do anyone any good.

“As a white person, I perpetuate racism,” said Allie Markland, “…I don’t have to be actively pursuing that to benefit daily.”

Danielle Smith talked about the benefits that could come from better understanding white privilege, a main one being the ability to be a better ally. She explained how white people who are racist would listen more to white people than to people of color pointing out that racism.

“When you’re a white person and you see racism and speak up, that says something,” she said. “Speak up. You know what’s wrong. Say something.”

Markland and Dr. Pilkington each emphasized the importance of conversations like this. The Aquinas community is “very nice,” which fits into a larger “West Michigan nice,” as Dr. Pilkington put it. This niceness often makes people shy away from difficult issues. The panelists agreed that these tough conversations need to happen, even if we’re scared of not being thought of as “nice.”

Smith mentioned this as well, in answering an audience question about how she brings up these issues without playing into the harmful stereotype of the “angry black woman.” She said if she seems angry, it is only because she has to keep fighting to prove that she has worked as hard and is worth as much as a white person.

“Yes, I’m going to bring up race in everything, because it is in everything.” She commented.

All of the panelists, and Dr. Pilkington, agreed that conversation is necessary for productive change to occur. This sentiment was echoed by audience members, as well.

Olivia Smith, a sophomore, put it this way: “As a white-majority college, it is easy to ignore/forget about how easy we have it compared to minorities… I think it’s especially important to ask questions and learn about what having white privilege means when Aquinas students are in the position that we are.”

As Emma Wonsil pointed out, Aquinas’ campus is 82% white. With these demographics, Aquinas students face a real issue: a lack of understanding of diversity issues. Having these discussions is a good way to begin to understand our own white privilege and what we can do to be allies for those without that privilege.

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