Guest Columnist

White privilege must be discussed

People walk past the Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
People walk past the Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

As two (white) professors at the University of Iowa College of Law, The Gazette’s Jan. 29 article “University of Iowa cancels ‘white privilege’ workshop following lawmaker concerns” is troubling both in substance and in presentation. It is troubling that the university would cancel much-needed workshops because of pressure from the Legislature and troubling that The Gazette article obscures the real issues in its coverage.

The Legislature exerts immense control over the state universities through its funding decisions. And an expression of concern about the white privilege workshop sadly, though understandably, was sufficient to sway administrators to cancel the workshop. To allow state government to determine what is taught and what isn’t — to shape the curriculum, even in small ways — violates fundamental tenets of academic freedom and institutional independence that are the heart of higher education.

The Gazette also never defines white privilege, which is generally understood as unearned privilege and benefits that white people enjoy simply because of the color of their skin. Given that much of the concern about the workshop appears to stem from a lack of understanding about what white privilege is and why it is relevant, a definition was long overdue. In fact, the article never explicitly identifies the “concerns” about the workshops. A quick read of the article leaves the vague and confusing impression that lawmakers and “right-wing publications” feared that the workshops were a place to foment division and white supremacy. Of course, the workshop aims to do exactly the opposite.

The place to have discussions about white privilege is a predominantly white institution in a predominantly white state. White privilege cannot be untangled from the explicit and implicit bias that permeates our history, our present, and our legal system. As law professors, we know that our students must reflect on and question white privilege, which is often their privilege as much as it is our privilege. They cannot understand clients, judges, or juries; cannot build relationships with vulnerable communities; cannot be effective advocates unless and until they grapple with these difficult questions of identity and role. All of us — white faculty, staff, and students, white legislators, white journalists, white Iowans — need to do the same work. And we should be doing it here, at a university with a history of being at the forefront on questions of race and gender in higher education.

• Daria Fisher Page and Alison Guernsey are clinical associate professors at the University of Iowa College of Law.

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