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?
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.