Is White Guilt the Answer to Racism?

June 21, 2012  |  

Generally, I’m down for anything that makes a white person have some sort of introspection on race, but I’m genuinely a bit torn on this new University of Minnesota effort known as the “Un-Fair Campaign.” Running with the tagline, “it’s hard to see racism when you’re white,” the goal of the effort is to get Caucasians to do just that: see racism. And so phrases and questions like “is white skin fair skin” and “we’re lucky we don’t get followed by security when we go to the store” are splattered on the faces of white men and women to force white people to realize that they often overlook true instances of racism because they don’t understand their own privilege.

It’s a novel idea and highly progressive considering it originated in one of the whitest cities in America: Duluth, MN, where 90% of its population identifies as white. But can this movement truly spark change or just controversy? When I first saw the campaign posters my mind immediately drifted to the idea of light-skinned guilt and how this effort is quite similar in theory.  From my perspective, there is no sense in trying to make someone feel guilty for being born a certain complexion, race, ethnicity, or nationality when that’s completely out of their control. Granted if you’re a lighter skinned minority, you’re still a minority and certainly not equal to a white person in terms of society’s view, but there are instances when that melanin deficit plays into one’s favor—just listen to any rap song today—however the person in the privileged seat isn’t responsible for that inherent privilege. This why questions like, “is white skin fair skin” are not fair themselves. The issue here isn’t the skin, it’s how you allow that skin to serve and position you throughout life.

What’s interesting is how this campaign wants to force white people to see racism but then makes the practice an external being, by telling observers, if you see racism speak up. I don’t know that white people (speaking generally here) have so much of an issue recognizing racism when it’s exercised by other people, I think a far more effective method would be to challenge people to recognize their own racist behaviors—assuming they have them. That’s really the only way change can come about because racism is built on ideals and truly it’s not enough to just think, am I suspicious of black people or do I think they should be followed around in stores, it’s why do I think that way and how do I implement practices that reinforce my own privilege, like not hiring black people or voting for legislation that disadvantages them. One of the posters does touch on this idea by pointing out on a white man, “what you do is worse. You give me better jobs, better pay, better treatment and a better chance all because of the color of my skin and you don’t even realize it.” This is the type of confrontational message that can spark change, otherwise you’re just reminding white people of all the reasons why it’s good to in fact be white and then trying to make them feel bad about it. That’s probably not going to work.

There is an assumptive nature about the campaign still that is hard to overlook. It assumes one, that white people don’t recognize their privilege, and two, that they’re all responsible for the system of institutional racism because of their inherent whiteness, which isn’t totally fair. In addition to being oblivious to one’s privilege, there are also people who are fully aware of it and who see no problem with having the luck of the draw so to speak in terms of their race and I think those are the people who are far more dangerous because they’re more inclined to use that power as their God given right to keep the privilege going, but that’s a mindset no poster or billboard can fix.

The University of Minnesota-Duluth is certainly ruffling some feathers with this campaign, which could be due to the sheer fact that it makes people uncomfortable because it forces them to look at all the ways they’ve been given the upper hand, but its accusatory nature also runs the risk of alienating the very audience it was intended for and accomplishing nothing in the end.

Check out a couple promo videos from the campaign below. What do you think about this whole effort?



Brande Victorian is the news and operations editor for Follow her on twitter @Be_Vic.

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