HOW WHITE PEOPLE SILENCE DEBATE

2015-06-24 16:49

I was in a conference recently with one of my colleagues (she’s black) at the University of Pretoria and the discussion in this other lecture room was about inequality in South Africa. Of the 45 people in that lecture room including the chair of the discussion, we were the only two who were not white and we were seated at the back.

These white students there appeared as some kind of an intellectual elite: highly educated, bright, and, for the most part, very liberal people. As the discussion unfolded, it became increasingly clear that, if the two of us don’t mention the race question in this discussion about inequality, no one will. These white students were not conscious enough to the fact that race - their race - was an integral aspect of every conversation they were having.

When my colleague raised the issue into the dialogue, these white students felt accused of being “racist.” In this instance, “silencing” took place when the planners were not clear that race was present at the conference even if no people of color attended; the white participants didn’t include the reality of others in their plan; and, when the issue was raised by my colleague, she was made to feel that she was the one who was “causing trouble.”

“Silencing” my colleague took place again when one of the white students stood up and defended his case on the issue we raised. He was basically saying that “there’s no need to use race to solve inequality”. My fellow colleague did not reply to him, not because she agreed with the nonsense he was saying but she kept quiet to avoid appearing as a person who’s making the discussion and the entire conference “difficult”.

In other words, the debate was subconsciously silenced and they thought she agreed with their logic. That’s the invisible structural social power of white privilege – silencing debates quietly.

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