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Community Colloquy | ‘White privilege and everyday life‘

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Discussion around white privilege can be a minefield these days, as people grapple with what it is, if they believe they are beneficiaries of it, and how it may be used to combat or advance racism.

White privilege will be the topic at the next “Community Colloquy,” sponsored by the Senior Center. The series features speakers who present on a diverse array of subjects. At the next event on Thursday, June 16, at 7 p.m., psychologists Judith Skillings and Frederick “Pete” Peterson will discuss what white privilege is and isn’t, and clarify what microaggressions mean.

The discussion will be followed by an opportunity for the audience to ask questions.

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“We do groups for white folks to do self study, to look at their white privilege and how they are managing it,” Skillings said.

Skillings and Peterson, who are both white, believe that these conversations need to come from other white people.

“It’s sure as hell is not the job of the BIPOC community anymore than I would feel like I owed it to talk to some sexist pig, to listen to his b******t, and try to straighten him out,” Skillings said.

The colloquy follows a series of Zoom meetings on white privilege that Skillings and Peterson recently co-facilitated.

“One point we have to make clear is we’re not just talking about it and doing the hand wringing, ‘ain’t it awful kind of stuff,’ but we encourage everyone in the Zoom classes that we’ve done to create a plan for better management of white privilege,” Peterson said.

Skillings elaborated: “The point I want to make is trying to help people see the way whites inadvertently cause pain to others unconsciously, and the reason why they want to sit down, take a deep breath and ask, ‘are you managing your white privilege in the world?’ You can’t not have white privilege if you’ve got white skin; are you managing it in a way that is consistent with your values? That’s the work that Pete and I do.”

Skillings, a retired psychologist, earnesd a Psy.D. from Wright State University. She is one of the early nationally recognized trailblazers who conducted initial research of the clinical effects of racism as it relates to white privilege. Peterson, also a graduate of Wright State’s school of professional psychology, is a colleague of Skillings and works as a psychologist with Community Health Centers of Greater Dayton. He is an educator and writer whose research involves sex and gender.

Peterson and Skillings have known each other for decades.

“We grew up as kids of the ’60s, influenced by all the assassinations and the turbulence, the long summer of riots, confounded by the contradiction of white folks who say they want to be well intended, to form a more perfect union, as the idealists claim to be and yet do the same thing over and over again,” Peterson said.

However, although they knew each other, their “bubbles were different,” according to Peterson.

They accidentally connected about four or five years ago through a mutual love of Tai Chi, including study and practice under the same Tai Chi master.

The following are excerpts from a recent News conversation with Skillings and Peterson on the topic of white privilege.

Skillings, who has published research on the topic since the early 1990s, shared her impressions on how the subject area of white privilege has evolved as a social construct over the decades since she began studying it.

Skillings: “I am actually surprised that ‘Black Lives Matter’ seems to be catching hold more than other things in the past. I did do the work in the early ’90s, and I ended up feeling like there was this small slice of preaching to the choir, and it was very hard to reach beyond that. What I have watched over the last 30 years is that there will be some outrage, but they come periodically, white folks notice, they go, ‘ain’t it awful?’ and then they go back to sleep. I’ve watched that pattern a lot … but I am seeing more white folks begin to get it. The problem is in the white community — with consequences in the Black community. I am seeing more white people [saying] ‘all that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.’ I am seeing more awareness of that, which is heartening. I am cautiously heartened. I’ve watched a lot of nothing happen, it’s not clear to me that the bad guys are not going to win, but there’s motion now.”
Skillings also reflected on how academic work and research has advanced since she began studying white privilege.

“Here’s the piece that I really like. When I went through school, you would take a multicultural class to be a good psychologist, and you would learn about who eats collards and who eats spinach and that was somehow supposed to make you skillful at working with people from different ethnicities. I felt like screaming for a lot of years — learn about whiteness, and then if you’re white you’ll be able to manage yourself more responsibly. … But the issue is learning about my [white people’s] stimulus value as one of many, rather than I’m the norm.”

Peterson discussed how he became involved in the work around white privilege, citing both personal and professional experiences.

Peterson: “I have been involved in social activism through my work with sex and minorities. The four books I’ve written are all on sex and gender.

“I grew up very privileged as a white man and just always thought I had a lot of dumb luck and smarts. I never thought I was really smart. Through my study of history and psychology — I was a history professor before I was a shrink — and just maturing, watching social commentary and how we’ve been doing our waxing and waning in terms of progression as a democracy has really been pushing me to understand that I am not as lucky and smart as I thought I was. It’s a lot about privilege that accounts for a lot of the variances.”

He also pointed to studies regarding “science of denial” as it relates to white privilege during the discussion with the News.

Peterson: “There’s a whole body of literature about the science of denial. Even when white folks are looking at some of the same data that Judy and I are looking at, they are looking at it with a completely different interpretation. The bottom line for me is that as a society, we will continue to have this trend happening where white folks become more anxious, more uncomfortable living in a multicultural society. I think part of our message is that it’s OK; in fact, it’s a good thing. It’s more about getting comfortable building multicultural skills and being outside, expanding your comfort zone, because when people get anxious — and a small minority of them get very, very anxious and fearful — then that’s the parent of violence.”

Peterson also said he’s learned through his work in integrated healthcare. He recently worked in Kansas City, Mo., recruited there from a job with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, to build an integrated healthcare program for Kansas City University’s Psy.D. program. He returned to this area after his wife died.

Peterson: “[Kansas City] blew my mind — never even thought of Kansas City — it is the most diverse place I’ve ever lived. We had 30 languages spoken at our health center every week; we had a whole department of about 12 to 15 interpreters. About 50% of the people who came for services preferred to have Spanish spoken. I was downtown in the middle of two million people.

Coming back to integrated healthcare is what I got accepted to do at this community health care in greater Dayton. Right now, I am providing psych services for people of many different cultures. I had a 12-year-old girl yesterday speaking Arabic, a family that came from Libya, just immigrated so there’s a lot of multicultural skills involved in trying to reach out and make connections, and seeing what ways I can be of best assistance on the ground level at the healthcare sites.”

Although Skillings and Peterson want to bring awareness to people’s white privilege, they also want to create a safe environment in which people can ask the hard questions.

Skillings: “I think white people need a chance to say I don’t understand, I don’t feel privileged, and they’re not necessarily going to say that in a multicultural group. But you have to have that, that’s where the conversation needs to be. OK, let’s have that conversation, and I think perhaps white on white groups are better suited to that, and Pete agreed.”

Skillings said that communities considered more progressive, such as Yellow Springs, can sometimes be more resistant to the message at first.

Skillings: “The downside is yes, there is an enormous amount of complacency, ‘well I know I’m not a bigot so how can I be a part of the problem?’ At the same time, if you can get even the tiniest little hook of ‘you might be causing other people pain and not even know,’ there is openness, there are people that are like, ‘oh, that never occurred to me.’ If you can get that without going into the self-righteous ‘you’re bad’ — you’re not writing them off as a hopeless racist, but you’d like to talk to them about it — then more people respond in Yellow Springs than in other communities.”

Peterson said bringing attention to white privilege has nothing or little to do with education.

Peterson: “I was having lunch with a new psychologist l trained, and who also has a post doctorate master’s — very smart woman — and she’s going off on her tropes, immigration, ain’t it awful we’re all white people being called racist. I’m like ‘I’m racist, I’m sexist, I am certainly trained that way to act on that,’ and she didn’t know what to say. I didn’t write her off as being an extreme right-wing nut job; I am looking at her as an opportunity for me to understand how we look at things so differently when trying to make a connection. That way she can understand where I am coming from, and vice versa.”

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