Letter to the Editor: Unpacking privilege

By Katherine Barnes '20

Tags editorial letter to the editor

Systemic issues can only be solved through introspection by the most fortunate

Dear Spectator Editorial Staff, 

Although many people will recognize this as an almost repetitive sentiment, my resignation email from Student Assembly has a bigger focus than just representation. As I read over last week’s Student Assembly minutes, however, two things became clear: our student representatives misunderstood the broader implications of the letter, and many became defensive rather than receptive in response to the issues I raised (aren’t our representatives supposed to lead by example?) Not only would I like to clarify some of my statements, as I did not receive the opportunity to do at the Student Assembly meeting, but I would also like to drive home why the issues in Student Assembly are a micro-representation of the culture on this campus.

I stand by the comments I made in my email. There is, however, something I would like to clarify. During last week’s meeting, many student representatives countered my argument that “the vast majority of members are white, straight, cis, upper-class men,” by stating that 11 out of the 30 members are white men. While my assumption that these white men are also straight, cis, and upper class may be wrong, many people on campus perceive that Student Assembly is controlled by white males. This is because the majority of the conversation in Student Assembly meetings is dominated by those 11 people. 

A variety of studies have proven that white men dominate conversations; a simple Google search has pages and pages of articles and studies discussing this. Yes, Student Assembly has representative diversity when examining the ratio on campus as a whole, but in appearance only. When white men make up more than a third of all conversations, they override the voices of other representatives by infringing on their space to speak. This creates a hostile environment. Moreover, not only do white men fill conversational space with their predominant voices, but they also take up physical space in the way they sit and how they rudely shut others down. It creates a power dynamic that makes people who are not white and/or male feel uncomfortable and/or anxious about speaking up. The most important part of the matter is that people are being silenced. This issue goes beyond Student Assembly and should be considered a campus-wide problem. 

There are a wide array of examples, both in Student Assembly and in the wider scope of my interactions on this campus, that speak to how white male predominance plays out in ways other than blatant sexism, racism, transphobia, etc. There are, of course, the examples that I listed in my resignation email. There are many more, however; the white, upper class woman who told me that I was only on campus because POSSE, my scholarship program, is a way for Hamilton to get diversity and that I did not deserve to be on campus because I did not earn it; the times other white people on this campus have turned away from me when they find out I am poor; when I heard  a table of white men in Commons laughing over a racist joke; the students who have been sexually assaulted and poorly recieved by the administration. The list goes on and on. The fact that I have been discriminated against as a white person is a perfect example of the pervasive elitism and discrimination of all kinds on this campus. These are just the things that I have experienced—the stories I have heard from my trans/non-binary and POC friends are much worse and far more frequent. 

Many students have written pieces about the problem of exclusivity in Student Assembly, Tour Guides and Greek Life on campus. While it is encouraging to see students acknowledging these problems, as well as others like transgender issues and sexual assault, the conversations and articles have yet to be blunt and honest about what the issue actually is. Robert DiAngelo’s White Fragility explores how white people, because of their privilege, protect themselves from what she calls “racial stress” and often react in extreme ways when confronted with these realities. She explores why this is and what this means for race relations in the United States. Reading this, it becomes obvious what the issue is on this campus: white privilege. 

The diversity requirements Hamilton is developing may be a step in the right direction, but will not change the culture on campus, and, in my opinion, neither will conversation. Last week’s Student Assembly meeting is a perfect example; people get very defensive and unreceptive to criticism of any sort. It is yet to be seen if continued dialogue and the ensuing changes the organization wants to make will actually do anything to change the problem of exclusivity on campus. 

While many of us may identify as liberal-minded and can recognize the issues of race playing out explosively on the national and international stages, it is difficult to explore these implicit biases within ourselves. As a white cis person, I recognize  that I have certain privileges; I am ready and willing to unpack these privileges and understand how they play out in my relationships and in the grand scheme of society (I have been actively working on this for quite some time, even as I have identities such as being a woman that are oppressive.) This campus needs a way for white students, cis students, male students, etc. to begin to build the skills to recognize and acknowledge their privileges. This is not easy, nor is it realistic to think that every privileged person on this campus will be prepared or open to this idea. Even so, although it is not possible for people to be rid of their privilege or biases, it is possible for people to learn, to unpack these things and to be aware of how their actions can affect marginalized people. 

We can talk about these issues as a campus until we are all blue in the face. Nothing will change until privileged students on this campus are given the tools to examine their position in organizations, on campus and in society. I am excited that Student Assembly, for the most part, took my letter seriously and that many on campus understand that this is not unique to one specific organization. Hamilton’s diversity requirement will help start the process, but I do not think a one-and-done method will truly be able to solve any of the problems surrounding privilege and oppression on this campus.  



Katherine Barnes ’20

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