Should Communities of Color Participate in Discussions on White Privilege?

This might seem to be a loaded question if you’re a supporter of racial and social justice causes. Of course communities of color should participate. Beyond this, you might even say it’s ironic to have a public discussion about race that includes experts and not invite one from a community of color that’s been most affected by the privilege or discrimination being discussed. But apparently not all progressives see it this way, as I found out during a recent incident.

I’d come across an e-mail announcement from a radio talk show host saying he was devoting his next show to a panel discussion of white privilege. One of the experts on the panel had written a paper that I’d admired and wanted to read again. Through an e-mail link I (thankfully) found the paper, but then noticed that three of the experts on the panel were white. The other was from the South Asian community.

As far as I could tell, all of the experts were credible knowledge sources for the panel topic. All of them deserved to be there. I was glad to see that someone from the South Asian community was represented. But I wondered why the panel didn’t also include an expert from a community of color that’s been most affected by white privilege, such as the black, Latino, or American Indian communities. After all, doesn’t white privilege result, at least in part, from a lack of diversity and inclusion; and isn’t it perpetuated when people aren’t intentional about including diverse points of view?

I wrote a very short e-mail to the host saying that I think he does good work, but asking whether he didn’t notice the irony about the panel. It was really just an observation that I assumed he’d overlooked or hadn’t noticed. Although I don’t know the host, he has a reputation for being progressive.

There are plenty of panel discussions about white privilege or race, and the makeup of this one wasn’t much of an issue in and of itself. But his response was. He fired back with an incendiary e-mail saying he was “pissed off” that discussions about race in this country were “necessarily the province of people of color and no others.” More disturbing, he said that “white racism is a white problem, not a black one [emphasis mine]. Or don't you get this?”

His response is disturbing on a number of levels. I won’t detail all of them here, but I want to address one:

Personally, I find erroneous, and even offensive, the notion that white racism isn’t a black problem. Blacks are seven times more likely to go to prison in their lifetime than whites and three-four times as likely to be unemployed or impoverished. White racism is surely their problem. It’s a problem for Latinos and American Indians, as well as for Southeast Asians, South Asians, and all communities, whether they’re of color or not.

I’m disturbed that his response perpetuates notions of white privilege and race I’ve seen elsewhere. So often, when communities of color ask why their representatives aren’t at the table, those at the table exaggerate the request into an angry demand to exclude whites or to be otherwise unworkable. This has been true, even of progressives.

I’m not accusing the host or others who act as he did of being racists. For all I know, this is an isolated incident and he hopefully doesn’t generally act this way. I think the discomfort that accompanies the process of change and making intentional choices seems threatening. I would like him and others to embrace this change.

Because, if we want to diminish white privilege and racism, don’t we need to share power and invite previously excluded communities to participate and lend their insight as much as we can?