Stocker: Acknowledging white privilege in media


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

Around the country, students at major universities are protesting institutional racism. The events at Yale University and the University of Missouri have been broadly publicized, and here at Northwestern activists are participating in the fight against racial injustice through protests of their own. The resilience and hard work of protesters at Yale, Mizzou, NU and other universities has been met with a strong backlash. Many more Americans are silent. As discussion of the protests continues, one thing is clear: The backlash, and the silence, is the product of white privilege.

What does white privilege look like? One component of white privilege is the ability to distance myself, as a white man, from events unfolding at Mizzou and Yale. Silence and apathy are central features of white privilege. The ability to ignore the content of protesters’ demands, as their success or failure will not likely affect me, is another part of white privilege. White privilege is also the implicit understanding that, when reading media coverage of any contemporary events, I will see voices reflecting my views and experience.

White privilege is especially apparent in the media’s coverage of protests at Yale, Mizzou and, more recently, Dartmouth. Look up the names of each of the columnists weighing in at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post; many are white men. Staff writers are predominately white and male; the American Society of News Editors’ 2015 census found that just less than 13 percent of employed journalists are racial minorities, although racial minorities comprised 38 percent of the U.S. population in 2014.

This translates into a skewed representation of protests led by people of color on college campuses. Protesters’ demands vary from school to school, and the current media landscape makes it exceedingly difficult to figure out what protesters want at any given college or university. In a New York Times opinion piece, Ross Douthat condemns the “goals of these new activists” as an attack on free speech. The list of demands he cites is from the Amherst Uprising, yet, in his article, Douthat only refers to Yale and Mizzou by name. A quick comparison between the list of demands from Amherst Uprising and those issued by student protesters at Mizzou reveal abundant differences. The Amherst protesters demand a “revision of the Honor Code to reflect a zero-tolerance policy for racial insensitivity and hate speech.” The Mizzou protesters, on the other hand, demand nothing of this sort. Next Yale, the university’s student protest alliance, also issued demands quite different from those of Amherst Uprising. Yet, in Douthat’s column, Amherst Uprising’s demands are effectively presented as those of student protesters at Yale and Mizzou. Conor Friedersdorf, a white staff writer at The Atlantic, has written multiple articles discussing the protests at Mizzou, Yale and Amherst. Interestingly, the only Friedersdorf article that actually discusses the details of protesters’ stated demands deals with the Amherst Uprising.

Discussion of the protesters’ demands clearly illustrates why accepting and acknowledging white privilege is so crucial to understanding the demands of student protesters. Media coverage of student protests grossly misrepresents the protesters’ demands due to the distance afforded the majority white media by their privilege. Protesters’ less “exciting” demands — financial aid, resources, etc. — are ignored in favor of headline-grabbers. As a result, the media’s primary focus has been itself; in addition to opinion pieces condemning the actions of protesters, scores of news articles discuss the alleged anti-First Amendment activities of student protesters. White privilege grants the predominately white media the ability to shift the attention of these discussions from racism to free speech, thus misconstruing the importance and true objectives of campus protest movements.

White privilege presents a direct threat to journalistic coverage of, and discourse on, institutionalized racism on college campuses. Granted the option of apathy in regards to racial injustice, white journalists and students can easily change the topic. Journalists have a responsibility to report on the facts and students a responsibility to think critically. To that end, accepting and acknowledging our privilege is crucial for white NU students’ understanding of ongoing campus protest and for journalists’ approach to reporting on these events. It is important we recognize the majority of voices speaking about these events belong to fellow white Americans and how white privilege affects the narratives we read.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. 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].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.