Campus Life intuitively obvious

Our white privilege

Understanding privilege will help us combat inequality in our community

Published online Tuesday, Dec. 9

It’s hard to miss the signs on campus that say “Black Lives Matter.” It’s even harder to miss the street protests outside one’s office window, blocking the traffic on one’s drive home, and filling the newspapers and the television news.

Yet for most of us, most of the time, this is just a small distraction — someone else’s response to the inevitable injustice in the world, to the many injustices over which we have no control and assume no responsibility. MIT is hard enough without bringing the real world inside the Infinite Corridor. Are we not One Community Together in Service, collaborating harmoniously to solve the world’s great challenges?

The irony of this strange juxtaposition should hit us with force of the MIT firehose or take away our breath like tear gas.

Black Americans live in a parallel universe to the one we, a white woman and a white man, live in. This parallel universe is a murderous regime, in which black people are killed with impunity; there is apparently no accountability for white men who wear police uniforms. A grand jury refused to indict the policeman in New York who killed Eric Garner — an unarmed black man accused of selling loose cigarettes — using a chokehold maneuver banned by NYPD standards.

This was not an isolated incident. How many times must we read accounts of police who shoot, throttle, and beat up black men, women, boys and girls without any consequences? To be a policeman or a neighborhood watchman in America seems to be a license and an invitation to bully and to kill. No amount of evidence makes any difference: no number of witnesses, no taped phone calls, no videos of the events matter in the mock trials that follow. It appears that if the policeman is white and the dead person is black, the grand jury will not indict and a jury will not convict.

The first thing both of us thought of when Michael Brown was slain was the vulnerability of young African Americans. One of us thought of a friend’s young black son. The boy’s mother experiences fear not just when bad news comes; she fears for her son every single time he leaves the house. The other of us thought first of black students at MIT, brilliant young people, many of whom look like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Gabriella Nevarez, and many of whom have been stopped by police for walking to and from campus at night.

We white people cannot continue to live in our insulated safe parallel universe unconscious of this brutality and lawlessness without trying to stop it.

How can we stand by and watch this travesty of justice in our country? Does no one care about what is lawful and what is not anymore? It is bad enough that the wealthy get away without paying their share of taxes and that armed white Texans can face down federal law enforcement officers with seeming impunity. But this is human life. This is the life of citizens being callously snuffed out by those who are supposed to protect us all.

We have white privilege. With that privilege comes responsibility.

Our white privilege means that people do not call the police when they see us, do not feel fear that we are going to hurt them just because of our color. The police do not stop us on public streets or on the grounds of MIT. White privilege means we do not have to respond to offensive, derisive comments that we are at MIT because of affirmative action. Nothing we do is subject to continuous hostile scrutiny because of the color of our skins.

White privilege means that we do not have to search long for role models or mentors who understand our culture and share our experience. It means we are not made tokens of our race by being asked “What do white people think about…?” Instead of nursing anger at racist remarks, we are free to focus on our jobs.

White privilege is not a character defect. We cannot change the color of our skin any more than a black person can. But we can educate ourselves about the cost of white privilege to society and learn ways to use that privilege to reduce racism. For a start, we recommend reading readily available articles by Peggy McIntosh and Robin DiAngelo.

White privilege confers power to effect change. When others are discriminated against — especially at this Institute where we live and work, and whose mission we so deeply believe in — we cannot remain silent. We are here to teach and to learn, and education cannot proceed in an atmosphere of double standards. One cannot pretend to pursue truth while ignoring the uncomfortable facts of racial intolerance staring one in the face.

Some of the facts are available at a posting on “In the air, but not centralized?” We are not speaking only about racism outside MIT. MIT racism is revealed in anonymous defacing of posters and anonymous postings at isawyou, MIT Confessions, and responses to letters to The Tech. We invite you to see the vitriol being posted by some people using MIT email addresses.

Reading those comments and considering what lies behind them will make you uncomfortable. Perhaps this article does, too. But that is okay. Learning is not always comfortable. If it is not safe to experience discomfort and learning here at MIT, then where is it safe?

We call on readers to examine their own feelings and attitudes about race and privilege, to share insights with others, and consider ways to use your MIT privilege — which all of us here have — to aid others. Janee Woods offered great advice in her article “Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder.” Help us create a community that respects and supports the lives, experiences, voices, and success of all our students.

So we call on readers to join us in speaking up against racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of bigotry and harassment by joining us at the “Black Lives Matter” event Wednesday, December 10, 5–7 p.m. in the Wong Auditorium in E51. We call on faculty, students, and staff to join us at the Institute Diversity Summit being held on the afternoons of Jan. 29 and Feb. 12, 2015, the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration held mid-day on Feb. 4, 2015, and, for students, the Multicultural Conference MC^2 on Feb. 6-7, 2015. In these places we will discuss the meaning of privilege, justice, and respect at MIT.

Together we will try to understand better how to recognize the biases in our community and how to rectify them. We will show that all people are valued, by showing first that Black Lives Matter. Everyone in our community deserves respect and deserves to feel safe. Everyone.

Edmund Bertschinger is a Professor of Physics and Institute Community and Equity Officer, and Ruth Perry is Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of the Humanities

Luisa K. over 9 years ago

Excellent article. You put so much of what I've been thinking recently into words. The isawyou thread was very eye-opening, to say the leastbut while I think (and hope) the vast majority of white MIT students are not as actively and aggressively racist as some of those commenters were, white privilege is something that we all need to acknowledge, discuss, and consider. Thanks for writing this!

Becky Romo over 9 years ago


Anonymous over 9 years ago

As a brother and uncle of police officers who patrol some of New York's most violent crime areas, I take great offense at your lazy, biased and false generalization that police officers are part of a "murderous regime, in which black people are killed with impunity". That is patently ridiculous.

The overwhelming majority of policemen and policewomen, of all races, are honorable and hard working professionals who do a very difficult and dangerous job.

You both need to stop your inflammatory statements.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

While I appreciate the message of this article, I agree with #3 about the generalizations regarding policemen and would venture to disagree with the generalizations regarding the Black experience as well. I am not Black, but I am Indian, and have deeply felt the consequences of cultural essentialism in the name of appreciation or solidarity (yoga? Bollywood? poverty and corruption?). In examining our privilege, let's refrain from casting the experience of the Black community as one made up solely of grisly murders and unfettered violence, and from casting the Black community as helpless victims who need White rescuers (who have so nobly recognized their own privilege!). Rather than jumping to the action of "trying to stop it", let's first act by changing our own behavior, facing our biases and acknowledging what needs to change within our own community.

(As an aside, I'm not really sure what the place of the comment on taxes and Texans is in this article.)

Anonymous over 9 years ago

"It is bad enough that the wealthy get away without paying their share of taxes and that armed white Texans can face down federal law enforcement officers with seeming impunity" - weird political thing thrown in there.

c over 9 years ago

thank you for a wonderful article!

Anonymous over 9 years ago

3 is a racist, 4 is naive, and 5 is trying to derail. I'm impressed that that's only half the comments in this thread that are bullshit!

Thanks for the great article 3

Anonymous over 9 years ago

#3 and #4, you really seem to be missing the point of this article and the greater response to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others. Yes, I (and many others who I have spoken to) do believe that the vast majority of police officers in our nation have no racist intentions, and recognize that their jobs are difficult and dangerous. However, that's not the point: these individual officers are still part of a greater cultural system that is excessively dangerous for and prejudiced against black people. In the wake of these recent deaths and considering the greater statistical patterns, it's hard to argue that.

4 specifically... I have a hard time seeing where you're coming from. You first deride this editorial for overgeneralizing the black experience, then seem to suggest that the cultural biases and racism aren't as bad as people seem to suggest? It seems to me as though you're also being a bit inconsiderate in trying to speak for the Black community. As far as the strawman-esque portrayal of this article as a sort of "white savior" piece--I can't help but wonder if you even read it. The points it was trying to make are as such: white privilege exists, racism affects our (MIT) community, and there are things that people can do to help. That's all.

Anonymous over 9 years ago


Please explain to me how commenter #3 is a racist.

Anyone else can also feel free to chime in.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

"It is bad enough that the wealthy get away without paying their share of taxes."

Such a gratuitous and political statement.

To the authors; Feel free to send more of your money to the federal government.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

#7 - Close-minded people dismiss others for "derailing" conversation and being "racist." The truth is you dismiss their comments for not following the media narrative.

Ben over 9 years ago

Thank you to the professors who wrote this for sharing your thoughts with the MIT community. In spite of the deep importance of issues of race and police brutality, in spite of the highly visible murders of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others, and in spite of numerous massive protests, many institutions across the United States have been silent. Until now, MIT has been no exception. I hope this article, and other efforts on campus, lead to more awareness, dialogue, and action.

#3, I disagree with your view that it is "patently ridiculous" to call America a "murderous regime." I do agree with you that many police officers carry out their jobs with dignity and justice, and that their jobs are hard. But having a murderous regime does not mean that everyone is killing everyone else all the time. The article is not accusing every police officer of killing black people. But it is saying that when an officer kills someone, regardless of race, we should be looking into it. We should hold everyone accountable for unnecessarily killing people, no matter what their job is.

And this article is indicting America. The most powerful nation in the world has become so through horrible injustices and yes, murder. And that power is held in horrendous disproportion by white people, both in government and in mega corporations.

This article is calling for you to reflect. To ask yourself questions. Don't try to silence the dialogue.

It behooves the MIT community, an institution whose mission is "to advance knowledge," to reflect and discuss the most pressing matters of our time. Race is one of them. I call on President Reif to issue a statement acknowledging what is going on, and host a dialogue about race issues on campus. Black lives matter.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

Ben, people are silent because there are two options:

(a) Lie, or

(b) Be offensive, and become subject to life-threatening danger.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

#12: This is a country of over 300 million, with 780,000 law enforcement officials conducting 12 million arrests per year. There have been almost 15,000 homicides this calendar year. To point to a small handful of police homicides that may have involved excessive force and declare the US a "murderous regime" is absolutely ludicrous.

Also, your use of "murder" in your first paragraph is incredibly distasteful.

(Also, the Trayvon Martin case didn't involve the police, so lumping that one in is inappropriate.)

Anonymous over 9 years ago

I keep reading articles like this written by respectable people, and wonder, am I missing something? What am I not seeing? Because every time I review the evidence in these two recent cases, I come to the same conclusion: the grand juries made reasonable decisions. Is this article yet another fact-poor, emotionally-charged reaction piece?

Ferguson: The physical evidence and many witnesses support Wilsons story. While the Ferguson police were terribly inept at handling the case, Brown likely did assault Wilson and the officer likely did have adequate reason to defend himself. Even if the grand jury had indicted Wilson, theres no way a respectable justice system could convict anyone given that kind of doubt.

Staten Island: The Garner case is a rare instance in which a common, safe police tactic went awry and sadly killed a man. Although the chokehold is against NYPD policy, its relatively common in police forces across the nation. For a man without heart issues and asthma, a chokehold would have been inconsequential. Tasers, which ARE allowed by NYPD, also occasionally kill people with heart issues. Garner was given the chance to cooperate with the arrest order, and he refused. In the heat of the moment, a quick incapacitation tactic was needed.

On what charge could the grand jury indict? Chokeholds are not illegal, just against policy. This wasnt murder: a chokehold isnt intended to kill unless applied for a very long time. Manslaughter is a gray-area because chokeholds are common and relatively safe practices. How can they be considered criminally negligent in NYC but not elsewhere in the state/nation?

The incessant racism angle is another issue. Strictly within the context of these cases, theres no reason to believe race influenced police action. How can you conclude these particular officers would have acted differently given white suspects? People rely on preconceived notions about the police to see racism in these cases, and then they use these cases as proof of those very preconceived notions- its circular logic.

I think the protesters have become too emotionally and politically invested in these particular cases to step back and review their convictions. Im disappointed with the immediate assumption of guilt and with the refusal to review evidence through a lens of logic rather than angry, gushing emotion. While the protest movement does have legitimate concerns, many of the insinuations in this article are truly unsubstantiated.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

It is despicable that these authors (MIT college professors no less) claim that police departments across the nation, including the MIT Police force, are part of a "murderous regime".

Do these race baiters forget that an MIT policeman was gunned down last year while protecting the MIT community?

An apology is in order to President Reif and the rest of the MIT community.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

And most of all ..... a sincere apology to the MIT police department.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

Look. If you want to turn away and pretend that race has nothing to do with these homicides, you are like an ostrich sticking your head into the opaque bubble of white privilege that allows you to do so. I know it's comfortable. I know it's easier to be privileged. But these authors are asking you to step outside of that.

Your white privilege was built on violence and murder against the native peoples, violence and murder against Mexicans to take over Texas and the Southwest, violence and murder against slaves, and violence and murder against Latin American socialist uprisings. Now the same privilege is upheld through violence and homicides committed by our own police officers. It really isn't so far flung to call this a "murderous regime." Police are just a part of the history.

It's disappointing to hear people in such a supposedly educated community be so ignorant. Indictment, #15, is just creating an opportunity to go to trial. It says something might have happened. Anytime someone is killed, a thorough investigation should take place and the prosecutor for the police officer should not be part of the same community as that officer.

Look, put yourself in Eric Garner's family's shoes. Your brother has had a bad habit of selling loose cigarettes on the street. He lives in a place with tense race relations. One day a group of black police officers comes up to accuse him of selling the cigarettes. He denies it. He doesn't show any signs of malice, weapons, or violence, but one cop jumps on him, puts him in to a choke hold, presses him to the ground, hears him say he can't breathe over and OVER again, and the other cops pile on, causing him to die. Would you not think it was preposterous? Would you not think race might have something to do with it?

Or maybe your teenage son was walking around with a toy gun in the park and a police officer just drove up and shot him. Perfectly normal, right? Nothing is wrong, is it?

Anonymous over 9 years ago

"supposedly educated community"

" I know it's comfortable. I know it's easier to be privileged."

Supposedly educated? It's probably easier for someone like you to go through life without a brain. It allows you to not see the shades of gray and the inherent contradictions that generally accompany real-life situations. Unfortunately for activists, real life situations often do not fit into a narrative which supports their cause.

First off, let me just say that the Garner seemed to be not a threat in absolute terms and that his alleged crime should have resulted in a summons and fine instead of an arrest. He didn't deserve what happened, and my opinion is that the cop should have some kind of punishment. However, the facts of the case are that: 1) minority-owned business called the police on this guy because he was cutting into their profits by scaring people away. 2) the ranking officer on the scene was African American 3) NYPD is mostly minority 4) not allowing yourself to be handcuffed is resisting arrest, and the protocol is an escalation of force to be able to arrest someone.

The chokehold/headlock which brought Garner to the ground was not department policy, but it was protocol for them to escalate force in some way to put the guy under arrest.

There is very little evidence that this was motivated by race.

With regard to the Ferguson case, if you think white people can reach for a cop's gun and not end up dead, then it's you who are living in a bubble.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

#18 You write: "Your white privilege was built on violence and murder against the native peoples [....] Now the same privilege is upheld through violence and homicides committed by our own police officers. It really isn't so far flung to call this a murderous regime."

Your claim seems to boil down to: "there is a murderous regime of whites committing homicide against blacks."

Let's try to be completely objective and unbiased and just look at the data honestly for a moment. (I understand you may not want to do this, and in that case please stop reading.)

What is the simplest way to test the hypothesis that whites are inflicting a murderous regime on blacks? We might compare X = "# of blacks murdered by whites" to Y = "# of whites murdered by blacks." If X exceeds Y, your claim may have a lot of weight-- if whites are killing blacks a lot, that does seem like a murderous regime!

Let's go to the Bureau of Justice Statistics to do this scientific test. Page 13 here [1] has the numbers: Y exceeds 2X.

So "murderous regime of whites killing blacks" simply isn't backed up by the numbers-- Y is a couple times larger than X. Together with #19's excellent comment, I conclude you're thinking emotionally, not rationally.


Anonymous over 9 years ago

#20 The article clearly suggests the murderous regime is the police, not all white people. Furthermore, the police and justice system is a product of government/society which is dominated by white people with privilege..

But focusing on the police:

The Justice Department's BJS reports that between 2003-2009 there were over 2900 arrest-related deaths involving law enforcement [1]. Averaged over seven years, that's about 420 deaths a year. While BJS does not provide the annual number of arrest-related deaths by race or ethnicity, a rough calculation based on its data shows that black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.

Blacks 3.7 deaths per million ppl annually

Whites 0.9 "

(Calculated by dividing deaths by the average Census population for each race in 2003-09.)

So "murderous regime of [POLICE] killing blacks" kinda is backed up by the numbers. But in general I'd rather use the wording of unnecessary aggression and violence toward black people, with the most extreme result being death.


Anonymous over 9 years ago

15 Not to be rude in any way, but yes, you are missing something. For one, you are focusing on these two cases and isolating them, and then if you can figure a way to rationalize their outcomes as just, you choose to dismiss the entire movement. Hundreds of thousands of people of various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds across the U.S. would not be marching/protesting for months over 2 isolated cases. These 2, fortunately, have gotten nationwide news attention. But it's the overall system which allows these types of incidences to continue to occur that people are protesting and demanding change, with an obvious focus on these cases as empirical examples.

Ferguson: The physical evidence and many witnesses also go against Wilson's story. But why is it so easy for you to look past the Ferguson PD being "terribly inept at handling the case"?? You later refer to it as a "respectable justice system"...

Staten Island: You basically said that if Garner did not have heart issues and asthma, he would be alive. If HE did not have heart issues and asthma he would be alive... The fact that people (you are not alone) are rationalizing this response is troubling. Maybe if he was not aggressively jumped by a handful of police officers for no good reason he'd be alive. Maybe if they had the compassion to listen to his cries for his life that he could not breathe, he'd be alive. Maybe if the police didn't leave his non-breathing but barely alive body on the pavement with no regard for his health and instead attempted to resuscitate him with some type of urgency, he'd still be alive. This case is a prime example of the unnecessary aggression police have toward black people that we are talking about.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

What this article is asking of people is to open their eyes and ears. If virtually an entire demographic of Americans is in an uproar over the justice system systematically oppressing them, maybe instead of immediately dismissing them or finding ways to dismiss them, people should listen. Mind you, this is a demographic that has been legally and openly systematically oppressed in this country for centuries until just very recently (a couple decades), so maybe, just maybe what we are saying has some validity to it.

A lot of white people today will say stuff like "don't blame me for what my parents, grandparents, ancestors did etc." But some of these same people today turn a blind eye to what's going on now, because they are privileged to do so. What do you think most white people in the 50s and 60s did? Turned a blind eye. And 50 years later realized they were on the wrong side of history and their descendants now apologize for them. 50 years from now that same cycle may repeat itself if the majority of privileged white people today choose to ignore it again.

Bob Miller over 9 years ago

Evidence suggests that white privilege has been exorcised pretty effectively in academia, to be replaced by its opposite.

Peggy Seeger over 9 years ago

There is much to comment on in this article and it has obviously done a good job in raising issues and peripheral issues that have encouraged warm and heated controversy. Thank you, Bertschinger and Perry, for giving such importance to the word PRIVILEGE. It exists in so many strata of our societies. Males are born with privilege over females. Money, fairly and unfairly 'earned', brings privilege over those who have less, little or none at all. White skin privilege is not skin deep. It comes at the moment of birth and endows its owners with privilege so subtle that white people (of whom I am one) may not - nay, DO NOT - even realise how many times in one day we exercise it , consciously or subconsciously. Until we are truly aware of where we are in the privilege scale and how we behave and react within its parameters, we will not cure ourselves of racism, sexism (etc) and the horrendous class system in which we live. Privilege - worth keeping in the forefront of our thoughts and actions.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

To everyone out there, of all races, sexes and wealth, please realize #25 is spouting bullshit. You are free to perpetuate the bullshit, but for your personal safety do not believe in it.

Socialist Worker over 9 years ago

MIT admits an extremely skewed number of men as students from Saudi Arabia. Why is that? Does it have any thing to do with ARAMACO?

I think the MIT administration should answer that question first. They need to look at themselves before writing this type of article.

A Caucasian student who wants to learn about the lives of Black people needs only move to a big American industrial city. There you will learn that Black people aren't victims but fighters. That they are a very capably people able to do any type of job from running the grocery store and banks to the universities and work places.

When I say running I'm not talking about the people who have difficulty getting out of their chairs before a policy can be changed.

The biggest problem with this article is it assumes that the problems of police brutality can be overcome by a scholarly debate and non violence.

Police violence, a necessary component of capitalist rule, can only end when the rule of finance capitalism is replaced with a revoltionary Workers State and Socialism.

Anonymous over 9 years ago


Your last sentence does not follow from the preceding.

Communism failed in Russia, buddy.