Roach: The silent voice of privilege


Jonathan Roach, Columnist

Recently at Northwestern, everyone has been talking about inclusion. Whether it be about Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling, it seems everyone has something to say. The Daily itself has published half a dozen articles on the matter in the last two weeks, including an entirely new series in the Opinion section, The Spectrum, that focuses on marginalization on campus. Unfortunately, in the discussion of inclusion, it seems as though one voice has largely chosen to remain silent: the voice of privilege.

Since I am a fair-skinned, upper class, semi-agnostic, probably-heterosexual male, I recognize that when I speak, the voice of privilege is all that comes out. To be sure, this does not mean that I speak for all people of privilege. But it does mean that I am faced with a unique situation. Unlike the vast majority of people who have shared their opinions about inclusion, I have the rarely-seized opportunity to change the exclusionary hegemonic forces from the inside. As a consequence of the categories I happened to have been born into, I constantly find myself at lunch tables, business meetings and even family gatherings where making overt comments against various marginalized groups will not raise any ears.

I was not always so aware of the significance of my privilege. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first town in America to legally recognize a same-sex marriage. The high school I attended was the first in the state to take a day off in recognition of an Islamic holiday. Kids born in countries all around the world found a place on my soccer team’s roster. The house I lived in was two blocks away from public housing projects and three blocks away from places presidents lived. Sure, Cambridge was no utopia, but for all these reasons and more, the transition to Evanston came to me as a shock. How could someone not feel jarred when trying to make a new home at a university where the president can openly say he is “excited” because 21 percent of the student body is black or Latino, even though they make up 30 percent of our country?

To be clear, the shock was not for lack of a warm welcome. In fact, it is specifically the privilege-oriented environment NU creates that makes students of privilege comfortable and reluctant to call for change. And for the past year and a half, I have been part of this docile mass that poses the largest obstacle to inclusion. I mean this not as a confession of guilt, but as a proclamation of the power we hold. Now is the time to transform NU into an example for the rest of the country.

When I first started thinking about this privilege, I wondered what stance I ought to take to rectify the situation. Naturally, I assumed the position that I saw other people of privilege taking. When asked what to do, they would say things like “we need to accommodate the needs of marginalized people” or “we need to give marginalized people the same thing we give ourselves.” But quickly this stance started to feel like a modern-day “White Man’s Burden.” Fighting for campus inclusion as a person of privilege is not a form of altruism. It is not a matter of doing a favor for marginalized people, and it is not a necessary evil. As banal as it might seem, inclusion benefits everyone. People of privilege should not fight against discrimination only out of an obligation to others, but should realize that to do so would actually be in everyone’s best interest. People learn more and live richer lives when they seek out difference instead of similarity.

I know that some of these statements will upset readers. Some people may feel that the voice of privilege has spoken enough and to continue would only do more harm. But when it does speak, it is too rarely in favor of inclusion. I cannot remain silent so long as I too am hurt by a marginalized campus, and I will continue to speak out so long as NU perpetuates a culture in which everyone loses.

 Jonathan Roach is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].