Ryan J. Suto's Blog

26 November 2010

Whiteness: A Bundle of Privileges

This post discusses the scholarship of race in the field of public relations. It begins with the concept of whiteness and how to think of the concept. It then flows to practical outcomes of that concept and the future of such issues. 
Whiteness indeed is invisible to those who exist within it. (Edwards, 2010; p. 206) And for this reason, many young whites don’t understand the important social advantages they are given. Many people in the professional world today grew up in majority white communities, and went to majority white high schools and colleges. In some instances, these institutions aren’t simply white, they are blindingly white. Here, I will consider whiteness a bundle of privileges. At any given time people may have all, some, or none of these privileges. What makes these privileges important is their invisibility to those who have them (Edwards, 2010).
For these reasons, one shouldn’t be surprised that during discussions about race, the ‘white innocence’ defense is often raised. For those inside ‘whiteness’, the white innocence defense sounds like this: ‘to end issues of race, let’s simply treat everyone equally now, and everything will be fair’. To those who have realized the existence of this whiteness, such a defense sounds like this: ‘for centuries people who happen to look like me have set up institutional structures and social norms which implicitly benefit me, and of which I take advantage. While such benefits aren’t afforded to you, I didn’t create those structures, so sorry.’ As Edwards writes, “Recognizing whiteness means recognizing its effects and the unearned advantage it represents” (p. 207).
Another reaction by those within whiteness that goes hand-in-hand with white innocence is what is often called ‘pretextuality’. This is the simple act of setting ‘color-blind’ criteria for admissions or hiring purposes. The problem here is that people within whiteness don’t realize that most criteria used are skewed toward white applicants. Edwards discussed the discourse of merit here (pp. 210-213). Some issues here are more economic, while others are more cultural. While these biases do affect low income white applicants, there is a disproportionate effect on non-whites.
            Economic issues begin with pre-school programs. Children who learn basic social concepts such as sharing and educational concepts such as their letters and numbers before beginning their compulsory education are advantaged over others. Also, placement in elite private schools or well funded public schools helps to drive these differences.
Extracurricular activities can also be part of this discourse. They can cost money, require parental participation, require transportation, or sometimes simply require time. If a parent must work two jobs, and cannot bring a child to scout meetings, or cannot pay for youth sports, or must rely on the older child to care for the younger children after school each day, the children effected will not appear ‘well rounded’ in applications to colleges.
Moreover, SAT prep courses, ACT prep courses, campus visits, and even college admission consulting firms are available to those who are able and willing to pay for these services. The discrimination here is clear against those who live paycheck to paycheck. The issue of ever-increasing cost of education serves only to chill those who must face debt larger than the yearly income of anyone they know.
Culturally, many communities don’t value education. Simply put, money gets you food and shelter, a job gets you money, and school takes time and money away from a job and thus food and shelter. While one might say, ‘education can get you a better job with more money’, the reality is that food is needed today. The rent is needed tomorrow. Thinking about going to college is often simply too abstract to think about when one fears that if they quit their job, they have nothing left. In addition to that, it is discouraging if you wish to work in fields such as public relations, law or business, and you know no one doing that kind of work. Further, in many non-white communities, simply studying and caring about school may represent ‘acting white’ and be grounds for teasing, bullying, and harassment (Obama, 2004). Additionally it has been shown that admissions tests such as the SAT favor white applicants by making Euro-centric references and assumptions in their questions (Santelices & Wilson, 2010).
The reflexive question is this: how many privileges from the bundle do whites in public relations have?
Affirmative Action
Regarding affirmative action, I would agree with the points made in class that few people of our generation have consciously or actively engaged in overt discriminatory practices which have led to the subjugation of non-whites. However, it is important to note that many take advantage of the above-mentioned privileges of being white. Like running with the wind at one’s back, being white aligns one’s cultural goals, values, and mores with those that are accepted and furthered as worthy for the whole of society.
Edwards argues that for non-whites who have attended prestigious schools (such as Newhouse) or have political or elite connections share cultural capital with their white peers, and may not feel that race is an important identity for them (pg. 215). Essentially, Edwards is saying that non-whites who are able to reap the benefits of society traditionally reserved for white, effectively become white themselves. This discussion is about how many privileges in the bundle one has. How many must one have to be considered in whiteness? How many would put someone outside of whiteness?
To some extent, I agree with Edwards. A white prospective student or employee may have come from a family which does not value education, which is poor, which could be either urban or rural. At the same time, a non-white can come from well-off families who emphasize education, and come from suburbia. This is a possibility, and it needs to be admitted. However, it is not a majority of the time. Many schools and companies seek socioeconomic diversity just as much as they seek racial and gender diversity. A point worth noting here, however, is physical characteristics. The simple act of being a different color is instantly visually noticeable and unchangeable. Social class needn’t be worn on the sleeve, and can be altered. That, I feel, is an important distinction to make here. The color of white skin itself is a privilege in that bundle.
Race in Public Relations and the Future
Simply put, nothing said in the chapters about the current state of race in public relations cannot be said about race in fields such as business, law, math, science, or medicine. Although the point regarding the timing of the development of public relations is well taken, the advancement of non-whites in the fields mentioned above has been similarly woeful (Edwards, 2010). The first step toward improving the state of race in not only public relations, but other fields, is discussion of why racial differences are important. An organization simply cannot assume that their employees have come from diverse enough backgrounds to understand the privileges of whiteness. There needs to be a genuine understanding of why diversity is important for serving publics, especially if the publics themselves are diverse (Waymer, 2010). One may ask, ‘where does it end? When do we need to stop considering diversity when hiring or in admissions?’ This simple answer is never. Colleges, Universities, small companies, large corporations, the government, and even high schools have a legitimate interest in exposing their members and institutional structure to a wide array of world view. As such, factors that may affect one world view should be put on the table when the time to make decisions arises. Factors such as age, prior life experiences, social economic background, country of origin, religion, political ideology, education, interests, ethnicity, culture, and yes race should be honestly considered. In fact, many, if not all, of these already appear on most applications. Like any tool, this information can be used maliciously or benevolently, but if an organization honestly wishes for a wide array of creative discourse and the best output, it will use this information to be inclusive, and to counteract the biases of society and history, albeit in some small way.
            Whiteness is a bundle of privileges. However, in our modern day, there is no dichotomy between ‘whiteness’ and ‘non-whiteness’. It would be more accurate to view this concept as a spectrum. On one end, the power and prestige of educational elitism, political inclusiveness, material wealth, social ‘normality’ and acceptance is occupied primarily by whites of the upper-class. On the other end, the shut doors of political invisibility, minimal job prospects, poverty, social un-acceptance, and educational failure is occupied primarily by non-whites of the lower-class. While most of us are somewhere in the middle, we must be cognizant of the structural difficulties for those from the latter category. Although America has a traditional discourse encouraging individuals to ‘pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps’, we must realize that in order to do so, one must be able to afford bootstraps in the first place.

Edwards, L. (2010) “Race” in public relations. In R. L.Heath (Ed.), The SAGE handbook of public relations (pp. 205-221). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Obama, B. "2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address" 2004 Democratic National Convention. Boston. 27 July 2004.
Santelices, M.V., & Wilson, M. (2010). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(4), 160-134.
Waymer, D. (2010) Does public relations scholarship have a place in race? In R. L.Heath (Ed.), The SAGE handbook of public relations (pp. 205-221). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


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  4. I think a lot of the problems you described in your paper have less to do with race and more to do with culture/society. It's the values that a culture holds that allows them to succeed, and I think culture can cross racial boundaries (if not, then certainly the values held by a culture can). I submit that what holds somebody back is not their skin color, but the social mores and values to which their culture subscribes (ultimately I think it's the individual's own choices rather than their society that hold them back, but we're being sociological here so I'll play along because it does have SOME merit).

    I also do not think the discrimination is entirely race-based. The Irish, Italians, Jews, Russians, you-name-it were all once discriminated against when they came to this country. To overcome it, they assimilated into the culture and began to succeed. Yes, I'm aware those are all caucasians, but like I said, this is more about culture than race. I think all of this diversity stuff that we're constantly fed does a lot more to highlight people's differences than what we have in common. Diversity is nice and fun to explore, but we're all Americans and should share common values.

    (continued...had to use 2 comments)

  5. Furthermore, Asians are non-white, but they share some of the values as "white america" (for lack of a better term) and as such are almost always at the top of their classes and excel in their professional lives. There's an interesting article about this topic here: http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/03/obamas_anger.html. I think this quote is particularly interesting when discussing this subject: "They did however have strong families, a strong work ethic, and the "Audacity of Hope." Within a generation, with little or no knowledge of English, the Vietnamese had achieved dominance in the fishing industry there and their children were already achieving the top SAT scores in the state."

    I think to be fair, you have to examine what values each culture holds that allow it to succeed rather than what we think might be holding another culture back. Like you said in your paper, when non-whites succeed is when they "act white". Perhaps it's not something inherent in the white race, but rather a system of values that whites have found to work well. I think Bill Cosby has been (undeservedly) chastised for making roughly the same point.

    Anyway, that's my very, VERY abridged two cents on this issue (we could talk about this stuff for days). I know I left quite a few loose ends with some of my comments that I just don't feel like taking the time to flesh out, so please, be gentle with your response, lol. Let me know what you think of that article, I found it pretty interesting.

  6. I think your basic argument comes down to this, "I also do not think the discrimination is entirely race-based. The Irish, Italians, Jews, Russians, you-name-it were all once discriminated against when they came to this country.” I’ll agree with you here. The ‘whiteness’ about which I wrote above is conceived quite well as cultural, not racial. As the article has pointed out, Asians have, in general, succeeded in socioeconomic and educational terms in the U.S. You continued, “To overcome it, they assimilated into the culture and began to succeed." Again, I may have to agree.

    Here, the question becomes, ‘into what did they assimilate?’ I think this goes back to my discussion of merit. Are the measures and values of merit within cultural ‘whiteness’ objective? This is important. For example, many in the northern states consider the southern accent to sound unintelligent. That’s a subjective bias; someone can be the most intelligent person in the world, but have a southern accent. Is the ability to do calculus a bias? Well, if the job is an engineer, that’s certainly an objective bias (I’m not yet convinced the SAT is objective). An engineer needs to know calculus. However, it’s not part of the job that an engineer can’t wear his pants around his knees, or can’t wear a tank top. But, if someone walks into a job interview like that, they’re dead on arrival. I posit that much of what we consider meritious is simply culturally subjective values.

    Next, if it is so that much of our merit is subjective, do we have the right to expect others to conform to our subjective values in order to succeed? The article makes the point that Asians in general have embraced the American values of merit, and indeed are succeeding. But just because some groups have submitted to Euro-centric values of merit doesn’t mean it’s given that all groups should or will. I think that the philosophy of America itself must have room for groups to succeed without having to reject who they are to satisfy the subjective values of the dominant coalition. I do agree, however, that there are objective measures, like calculus to an engineer, that can and must be used to measure merit. However, to be a true meritocracy in line with the philosophy of America itself, there must be equal access to obtain that merit. If someone has that access and cannot or does not gain objective merit, others will succeed instead.

    I do believe in the competitive market for education, jobs, and success. But, like any other fair competition, the competitors must start with equal conditions and the points must be awarded objectively. Until we can say that, there are issues to be addressed.