Friday Focus: Understanding privilege

UAF Chancellor Dan White
UAF photo by JR Ancheta
UAF Chancellor Dan White

June 24, 2022

— By Dan White, chancellor

UAF leadership has nearly completed a 6-segment training on diversity, equity and inclusion, specifically focused on racism. In last month’s training we discussed privilege. The training was mainly on what privilege means, how we understand it in our university context, and how we take action to create equity. 

In our session on privilege there was a lot of discussion about how privilege is defined and to whom it applies. What I learned was that it is not binary. The fact is, privilege is a spectrum and many historical and modern actions, laws and social constructs add to privilege. The training taught me that there are a myriad of things that make life hard and those things are not evenly distributed. Because of environmental, social, societal, and historical factors, individuals and groups of people have more of those factors that make life harder than others. Some of those things are little, but some are really big. And even the little ones become big over time and space.

That said, no one’s life is easy. I grew up in a very small mining town in a crack in the Rocky Mountains. Idaho Springs had 1,500 or so people at the time and was often described as 3 blocks wide and three miles long. Idaho Springs went through the gold rush of the 49ers (the 1849ers) and was known for gold and silver mines. But most every family I knew as a kid in the ‘70s worked in association with the Moly mines. Moly, or molybdenum, is an element used for hardening steel. No one I knew had an easy life. 

We had a baseball field made of mine tailings. The outfield was tailings, the infield was tailings and the pitcher’s mound was tailings. It was the home of the “bad hop.”  I knew the kids whose parents didn’t show up to games had it harder than me. Probably not as hard as the ones whose parents did show up but got too drunk to drive them home. Those kids had it harder than the kids whose folks just didn’t show. Worse yet, I remember fist fights between parents whose kids were on the same team but the fight was over which kid’s fault it was that we lost. Those kids had it even harder. But all those kids were privileged. 

How is that possible? Well, the kids on the field did not have it nearly as hard as the kids who didn’t get to play baseball at all because of actual discrimination or fears of discrimination toward them. There were kids who were afraid to play, and others who just did not get the chance because the sign-up was not advertised in a language they understood, it was advertised in places they would not have seen it, or playing came with criteria they could not meet through no fault of their own.

Privilege just means there was not another factor that made your life harder. Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. Things you can and can’t see. That’s what I learned in our training. The word privilege is nothing to be afraid of. As a white male christian I have privilege. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard and it doesn’t mean I did not have challenges. But I recognize that others face challenges that I don’t or didn’t throughout my life and today. 

Acknowledging privilege doesn’t mean I am any less or I can’t contribute to positive change. It just means that my race, religion, and gender didn't add to my burden. That’s all. Well, that’s half of it all. The other half is taking action to help create equity for those who have had the added burdens in their life.

We want to be a place in which everyone belongs. That requires understanding. The more we understand that privilege is not binary but a spectrum the better. The more we understand there are things that create privilege (or the opposite) are seen and not seen the better. It also requires action. Action to create equity among our faculty, staff and students. Action to create an environment free from discrimination. And even when we have equity all across UAF it does not change the fact that some people may not feel welcome here because of their own past experiences of discrimination, fear of the unknown, or historical context. We need everyone at UAF.

We focus pretty closely on those students, staff and faculty who choose UAF. While we continue to create belonging on campus for them, let’s also focus on who is not at UAF. How do we create a place of belonging for them too?

Thanks for doing your part and thanks for choosing UAF.

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF's leadership team every week.