The Hidden White Privilege of Academia
A significant but under-discussed issue on American campuses right now has to do with a different type of white privilege. When people think of white privilege, they tend to imagine predominantly male, Christian, upper middle class whites who are oblivious to the injustices and challenges that are an inherent part of minority life. These are people who don’t realize how most, if not all of their success in life was made possible from being part of a privileged sector of society. These are people who over-estimate their own personal role in shaping their destiny, and under-estimate the role of race politics.
But there is another kind of white privilege, found largely in academia, that tends to fly under the radar. And that’s because it masquerades as concern for social justice, championing the causes of the oppressed, and constant, unswerving identification with the underdog.
Why is Bill Mullen Implicated?
Bill Mullen, professor of English and American Studies at Purdue, is a prime example of this dangerous tendency of over-educated whites to falsely identify with oppressed sectors of society. The controversial instructor teaches a variety of courses, including Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Literature, Working-Class Literature, and African American Literature and Culture.
He is also the author of several books, including Afro-Orientalism (2004), which draws parallels between the Asian and African American experience, and Popular Fronts: Chicago and African American Cultural Politics 1935-1946 (1999). His most recent text is called “Building the Palestinian International.” In addition, he is currently writing a biography entitled Unamerican: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution.
On the surface, Mullen would appear to be a crusader for the most oppressed and disenfranchised members of society. But his white guilt shines through, as he attempts to be the mouthpiece of the minorities that he absurdly chooses to identify with – and convince his students to identify with.
Part of becoming conscious of white privilege is recognizing the fundamental differences that characterize whiteness and brownness. Mullen, as an exceptionally privileged member of American society, is disingenuous when he lectures his students about class and racial tensions. Not because whites are never at liberty to discuss racial issues, but because they cannot speak from a place of authenticity unless they address their own privileged position, which he fails to do.
The White Man’s Burden at Purdue
Without the self-awareness and willingness to acknowledge white privilege, Mullen’s ideas remain mere abstractions of actual economic and racial inequality. By reducing the variegated experiences of minorities to static political theory, he is actually practicing the very kind of colonialism he claims to be so against. Once again, an upper middle class white man is defining the problems, defining the language, and defining the subject.
His mission—to effectively absolve himself of white guilt by identifying with oppressed indigenous peoples—finds an eerie echo in Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden.”
The poem, which touts the era’s common belief in the benefit of imperialism for Europeans, also features a clear subtext in which the “noble savage” can only be redeemed by his more “civilized” conquerors. The “silent, sullen peoples” of Kipling’s poem are reliant upon the white man’s sacrifices, his “dear-bought wisdom.”
Similarly, Mullen’s obsession with speaking for minorities to students at Purdue rings just as condescending as the old colonial rescue narrative. He cannot purport to be the voice of a people when he is not of them himself. His knowledge of minority groups, much like the 19th century colonialist’s, is a product of grandiose fantasies and self-interest under the guise of altruism.
Mullen’s Deeply Hypocritical Approach
And what does he have to gain from hijacking the voices of the downtrodden? A cushy post at a prominent university, a rapt audience of eager young students, and a couple of books under his belt.
He’s a big critic of the capitalist system—legitimate enough. But where was he during the 2008 financial crisis when the irresponsible practices of big banks devastated ordinary Americans? While young activists were occupying Wall Street, enraged over the abuses of the 1%, all he was occupying was his comfortable office. In fact, as a tenured professor, he benefits from the very capitalist system he is so quick to dismiss.
Moreover, working class Americans want moderate change, job security and fairer wages—they don’t want a revolution. This just further demonstrates the extent of his disconnect from the people he claims to speak on behalf of.
Ultimately, talk from the ivory tower is meaningless without action grounded in real-world understanding. A case in point: Mullen recently donated only $25 to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). For someone who talks a big talk (and is so far from being a member of a poor or oppressed group himself), this is laughable. If he really cared about minority rights as much as he claims, he would invest far more time, money, and effort into student social justice groups. They are, after all, the ones with the energy and idealism to effect real change.