Syzman: Great expectations: The isolation of ‘white privilege’

Rachel Ann Szyman

For the last few weeks, many young white adults in our community have left or will leave for their first experience on a college campus.

As freshmen, individuals are expected to overcome obstacles and move on to new challenges. Unfortunately, some are overwhelmed and forced to take a leave of absence or even drop out. What happens to young white adults who have so many advantages but return to suburban hometowns defeated, not as conquering heroes but as pent-up balls of anger and frustration? I believe there is a connection between the experience of young white adults, their struggle to maintain the status quo and the impact of white privilege that affects us all.

White privilege allows white Americans dominance and access to resources over people of color. Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets which (an individual) can count on cashing in each day but about which (the individual) was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” During my senior year in high school, I spoke to a friend about applying to City Year, a program where young adults can volunteer in an urban community for a year. Her face twisted, “You aren’t thinking about NOT going to school?”

It wasn’t really a question. It was an answer and a clear reaction to my thoughts about leaving the traditional path of youth in my wealthy and white hometown. My friend’s reaction came from her invisible package of unearned assets. She knew, unequivocally, that we were bound for higher education. Not simply because we earned it through all our studies but because from a young age we were told that was our future.

Eventually, I settled on the only “acceptable” choice, going to a four-year university. But I could not afford the prestigious private institutions that my peers were encouraged to attend. When I started to share with others that I would be attending a public university, the response was often silent, blank, hollow, absent all together.

Over time, I realized my own white privilege prevented me from realizing the significance of any access at all to higher education. I believe that just as white Americans remain oblivious to the advantages that white privilege provides them, they are also oblivious to the lasting consequence it has on themselves and their community.

Ultimately, there is an unconscious bargain made when white Americans thrive on privilege but also have to live by the rules. In “Whiteness: The Power of Privilege,” author Tim Wise begins, “Aside from the moral argument - the answer is straightforward: the price we pay to stay one step ahead of others is enormous.”

There is clear connection between white privilege and the overwhelming pressure that can push individuals to desperate lengths to escape. I know two young white women who left college because they were overwhelmed by the reality of life outside our privileged community. They could not handle the dorm, new faculty, staff, students, and classes without the support once available to them at home and in high school.

While trying to juggle all these experiences, alone they were responsible for managing treatment of their mental illness. And finally they were constantly aware of the expectations of those at home and in the community. Eventually they both returned home, blaming themselves, the university and their families but never questioned the role and responsibility of the community in which they were raised.

In many predominately white communities there are no institutions to accommodate unique needs because they expect young white adults not to falter from the path of privilege. Town resources, like the school system with nurses, school psychologists and guidance councilors are only available to meet the needs of those who stay on track. It is important to open and expand these opportunities to students who return home. Professionals who have worked with the students since they were young are often the most qualified to support their transition.

White Americans are shocked when the suffocating power of white privilege hits home. It might be scary to think, even unconsciously, that the privileged community that has allowed them so much might not be effective or complete. We should be careful not to dismiss the consequences of white privilege that often play out as young white adults make the difficult transition from home to the reality of college life. Their experience demonstrates the warped and deep-rooted imperfection of white privilege.

Rachel Ann Szyman is graduate student at The New School for Management and Urban Policy in New York. She is a 2001 graduate of Hingham High School.