Appalachian State University was featured in national headlines when media outlets picked up a story about a bulletin board in East Residence Hall that urged students to “check your privilege.”
A few weeks later, the university reacted by hosting a panel discussion titled Forum on Privilege at 7 p.m. Monday in the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts.
Chancellor Sheri N. Everts provided the introductory remarks for the event, saying her expectation for the evening was for attendees to work toward moving forward and learning from one another’s shared characteristics and unshared differences.
“One of the very special things about being on a university campus is the amazing resources we have in our faculty and staff, regardless of the topic of the discussion,” Everts said. “Words are powerful and our individual perception of their meanings involves complicated internal processes. One such example might be the use of such labels as gender, race and sexual orientation in ways that draw attention to differences in a way that reinforces our perceptions or biases.”
Bindu Jayne, associate vice chancellor for diversity, was moderator of the event, which included seven panelists, professors and assistant professors of the university.
“At Appalachian, conversations about privilege certainly did not start with bulletin boards in residence halls, but this year these boards did spark both supportive and critical reaction,” Jayne said. “Similar bulletin boards have also received attention at other colleges and universities.”
Jayne said it is common for college campuses to be a mirror to conversations happening nationally and demonstrated this by showing the audience the bulletin boards that primarily received the most attention on Appalachian’s campus and by also sharing a lengthy list of news headlines from around the country concerning the topic of privilege.
In order for the audience to understand the discussion, Jayne’s first question asked the panelists to define privilege.
Kim Hall, professor in the department of philosophy and religion, called privilege an “unarmed advantage,” while Brandy Wilson, assistant professor in the department of leadership and educational studies, said privilege is an outcome of the system, as is oppression.
“If you think about being a fish in water, certainly there are particular moments or particular bodies of water where the current moves differently, so if you’re swimming in the same direction that the current is carrying you, then you certainly have an advantage,” Wilson said. “That doesn’t mean you didn’t swim, you still swam, but you had a particular advantage, which was the current. Whereas if the current is working in the opposite direction for you, then certainly that’s going to create barriers and obstacles.”
Panelists acknowledged that people cannot help the privileges they are born with, however, there is a responsibility to understand and acknowledge privilege’s existence.
“There’s always this piece that comes in ‘well it’s not my fault that this happens,’ where I hear that regularly and for me that’s kind of a marker of privilege, when I hear those words,” said Nickolas Jordan, coordinator in human development and psychological counseling. “But when that comes up I have the conversation of fault and responsibility, sure it’s not your fault that it is this way, but it is your responsibility to do something about it and behave in a responsible way around it.”
The panelists were asked whether they believed privilege could be eliminated. They seemed to be unsure, but certainly believed strides in the right direction can be taken as a society.
Peter Nelsen, associate professor in the leadership and educational studies department, said people often make the mistake of believing one movement or historical stride, such as the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage or Obama’s election as president, solve problems of privilege altogether.
“So we need to deepen our understanding of the complexity of oppression,” Nelsen said. “There’s this notion that we made a step forward on an issue and that’s it.”
Andy Koch, professor in the government and justice studies department, said he is surprised there was such a “kerfuffle” over the bulletin board, as he believes it concerns topics people should be dealing with and debating everyday, both internally and externally.
Jordan said his first reaction to the negative feedback created by the East Residence Hall bulletin board on campus was disbelief.
“My first reaction is ‘really?’ Have you watched TV, have you seen the pudgy black dude in New York that got choked to death by the police – that looks a lot like me, which is really creepy,” Jordan said. “Did you see the guy in South Carolina that got shot 5 times in the back by the police and I’m ostracizing you?”
Cameron Lippard, associate professor in the sociology department, also shared Koch and Jordan’s astonishment over the negative opinions of the bulletin board on campus.
“This describes me, white male, Christian and heterosexual,” Lippard said. “The thing you should think about is being ostracized, which is being excluded from society. Where did that bulletin board exclude whites, males, Christians, heterosexuals, etc. and where did you systemically lose anything by somebody putting a sign on a wall?”
The overriding message from the panelists encouraged students to get out of their comfort zones and become aware that privilege exists, which Hall said could be the first step in working against privilege and oppression.
“Discussions about race and equality are not always easy ones for a community to have, but I am confident that this opportunity and this community truly wants to have these discussions in open and honest ways,” Everts said. “I believe, also, that this community is willing to do the hard work in tackling the issues that confront our campus and nation.”
STORY: Nicole Caporaso, Senior News Reporter