Home > "Compton Cookout", General, Statement > Dialoguing Across Difference and Privilege

Dialoguing Across Difference and Privilege

a letter from Elizabeth Sine, a PhD student in History at UCSD

Dear Allies, those I know and those I don’t (ie., whomever may read this):

Before and above all else, I want to thank the BSU, MEChA, and
everyone else who helped to ignite the movement taking place on our
campus, and who have helped to open up some real maneuvering room
within this university for all of us who want to transform it and to
make it a fully public institution. I write today not only in
celebration of the struggle we are currently engaged in, today, these
past few weeks, and—for many of us, in varying ways—for a long time
before that, but also with an eye toward the long haul we have ahead.
Like many have already noted, the diversity of coalitions and people
who have come together to support this movement, and to support the
demands laid out by the BSU, is remarkable. The effort to challenge
the racialized hierarchy that holds this institution together, and to
combat the ongoing process of the university’s privatization, has
brought together so many people, across lines of racial and cultural
difference, and across the ranks assigned to us by the university
system—undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff. I
want to address the question of how we might continue to build and
engage in meaningful dialogue and common struggle across lines of
difference, with particular attention to varying forms of privilege and
underprivilege attached to those differences. More specifically, I
want to raise some issues and questions for students committed to the
struggle for greater diversity in the university who are operating from
positions of privilege—white privilege or otherwise.

I think most who read this will recognize the institutional nature of
the racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia that the student movement aligns itself against. I think many recognize the uneven and
hierarchical nature of the distribution of power in our university
system, as well as the extent to which the ongoing corporatization of
UCSD in particular, and public education in general, threatens to
intensify already-existing inequalities and modes of oppression (with
a particularly menacing threat to underrepresented groups within our
community). And I think that it’s important to acknowledge, and to
become comfortable thinking and talking about, the implications of the
university’s hierarchical structure for internal relations within our
movement—what it means to engage in struggle, in a coalition as
diverse as ours, against an institution that has been designed to
privilege some at the expense of others.

Indeed, it is vital for all of us to understand that the problems of
racism and inequality are collective, and that every person here has
an important role to play in the struggle against the denial of human
dignity and for institutional change. At the same time, the
institutions of privilege and inequality that exist on this campus and
in our society mean that we all approach this struggle from different
vantage points and from a playing field that has never been even.
And so, trust to exist among us and for the full strength or our
collective action to be realized, I think we have to take fully into
account the varying forms of privilege that come attached to our to
our socioeconomic status, our racial and ethnic identifications, our
gender and sexual practices, and whatever other factors affect our
social position and relationship to each other. In fact, I would go
even further to say that those among us whom this university has been
designed to benefit bear a responsibility to think critically about,
and to disinvest from, our own social advantages (beginning with a
recognition that those advantages are not a pure result of our own
hard work).

Surely, there are many among us who have been thinking about working
through these issues for a long time. But I think it’s worth putting
on the table for serious reflection and discussion in this critical
moment in which new forms of solidarity are taking shape and when
there is so much at stake. We have to be comfortable acknowledging
the ways in which some one who is racialized as white (such as myself)
cannot ever really understand the experience of racial oppression,
even as we participate in the struggle against it. And so, for such
individuals, the struggle against institutional racism must begin with
a disinvestment from whiteness, from the advantages of middle-class
upbringing—from whatever other advantages have been tied to the social positions we were born into.

So, what does this mean in practice? What does it take to disinvest
from privilege—from white privilege, or class privilege, male
privilege, or the privileges attached to normative sexual practices
and identities? Of course, there is no simple or singular answer to
these questions. But there may be a couple of starting points to
build on.

To begin with, as I’ve already been suggesting, I think it will be
difficult to move forward without making transparent the ways in which
various forms of privilege operate across lines of difference within
our coalition. Whether this occurs on the level of personal
reflection, in the realm of political thinking, in our informal
discussions with each other, I think it’s important that the issue is
brought out into the open.

Secondly, we must bring into a practice a politics of listening. It
is way too easy, especially given the individualism promoted by our
social institutions, to become absorbed in the way this struggle looks
from a particular and personalized vantage point. The danger of this
kind of individualist tendency is that it threatens our solidarity by
blinding us to the ways in which multiple struggles are intersecting
and overlapping in this movement, even as they all ultimately
challenge inequality and corporatization in the university. Listening
and taking seriously each other’s needs and concerns will not only
help to strengthen our solidarity and our movement but will help us to
avoid reproducing the kinds of hierarchies that we are struggling to
transform.

The disparities of power that shape relations across race, class,
gender, and sexuality do not have to persist. But I believe that they
can’t be dismantled without our open acknowledgment of them, our
critical and careful reflection on them, and a deliberate effort to
extricate ourselves from them and to bring into practice a different
kind of social relations that prioritizes the dignity of every one
here, in ways that UCSD’s administrative power structure has not.
Laying bare and discussing openly the hierarchies of privilege that
shape our university—and the social, political, and economic
institutions that dominates it—will be uncomfortable for some, but I
can guarantee it’s a lot less uncomfortable than enduring first-hand
the kind of isolation, marginalization, and oppression that many
students on our campus have been experiencing for a long time. And it
is necessary to move forward together toward taking back our
university.

In solidarity,
Elizabeth Sine
Graduate Student
U.S. History

And I undersign myself.
Thank you for this work, Elizabeth.
Cutler Edwards
Graduate Student
U.S. History

Other resources for white allies from around the web:

And for people of color who want to support white allies:

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  1. March 3, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I appreciate and commend all those who are Allies and want to be “Allies.”

    I use the term “Ally” for understanding sake…because even the word suggests some kind of separation from the issues at large…as if “it’s not really my problem, but I want to help and support.”

    I urge those who are still unclear about their connection to not only read up on all the links in this post in order to get a sense of understanding, but more importantly Participate in understanding. I feel the most effective way to understand is to EXPERIENCE understanding.

    I keep reading about how the BSU and MeCha are taking Action together…and it feels like everyone one else is still having “discussions.” People are tired of “discussing.”

    If you really want to jump in, build understanding and participate in the Action…keep up with what BSU and MeCha are doing. Attend “their” events, absorb the energy, and then you will be (and feel) connected…more than just an “ally,” but as a Participant in the Movement. Think about the few token members in each Organization or Community…they are outsiders who forget they are “outsiders” because they have been “accepted” as part of the Community. These members share ownership of Community’s concerns and growth…no special Teach-in, discussion or dialogue needed to educate these token members…they just move with the Community and grow with it.

    The more Non-Black and Non-Brown students participating in “Black and Brown activities,” the stronger the sense of Solidarity, Cohesion and Community against Injustice.

    The “Ally” work takes place when you educate your peers and get them on board with participating in these events and activities. It’s one thing to continue having discussion and dialogue…but seriously, this isn’t about trying to convince “others” to understand. You do not need “their” support or validation to do what’s in your heart. Don’t just be an “Ally,” be a Member.

    I’ll close this by wishing everyone the best on their Finals, Studies, Work and other ongoing obligations. Definitely handle your responsibilities…failing to do so is the worst thing that can happen. We need everyone to stay strong, support each other and come out triumphantly through this struggle…not just this Quarter, or Academic Year, or even just your time as an Undergrad. Own the Struggle of Life as a fellow Human Being.

    “Let us march on ’til Victory is won.”

    Viet Mai
    Educator, Artist, UCSD Alumn

  2. Va Padilla
    March 3, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Mr. Mai,

    Your words are always such an inspiration to me.

    I can only hope others will be just as inspired.

    We always have to remember that we can only control so much.

    You are always in my thoughts.

    Peace and love,

    You’re fellow Chicana/whitegirl—-Hey I’m a mutt!

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