Campus diversity efforts explore stigma, prejudice and ‘white guilt’

Diversity initiatives in the workplace and on college campuses are frequently perceived to benefit minorities over whites, according to a new study. But at the University of California, Berkeley, some faculty members are creating forums that encourage students to share their most uncomfortable experiences of stigma and prejudice, including how it feels to be privileged and/or white.

More than 200 UC Berkeley undergraduate students – as well as two dozen campus staff members – are enrolled in “Psychology 167: Stigma and Prejudice,” which is among 30 new or revised American Cultures courses with an emphasis on community engagement. The classes are part of UC Berkeley’s Initiative for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, launched last year thanks in part to a five-year, $16 million grant from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

Social justice educator Victor Lee Lewis will give keynote speech at the Stigma and Prejudice class event

Stigma and Prejudice is the brainchild of UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, who writes about diversity-related issues in his Psychology Today blog, “Are we Born Racist?” His research has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on college campuses. He is also interested in perceptions about biases against whites.

The class is held twice a week in the Valley Life Sciences Building and attracts an eclectic mix of students, some of whom have taken the lessons to heart.

“I am now more aware of the effects of prejudice on others, as well as on myself,” said Dylan Jackson, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering and computer science. “I try to maintain the same level of friendliness when interacting with everyone now, instead of avoiding interactions with African American and stereotypically foreign-looking people.”

The class culminates tonight, April 28, with a keynote speech by social justice educator Victor Lee Lewis, who is featured in the documentary “The Color of Fear.” His address will be followed by 30 student-led breakout discussions on such topics as “Stigma and Self Esteem,” “Sexual Orientation,” “Racism in Children/Teaching Tolerance in Kids,” “Racism in Hollywood,” and “Privilege.” The keynote speech is open to the public.

UC Berkeley’s Initiative for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity is a 10-year, multidisciplinary effort to support teaching, research and public service on these issues, and to make the campus’s academic and workplace climate more welcoming. Among other ventures, it has established scholarships and programs, including the American Cultures Engaged Scholarship effort, of which Stigma and Prejudice is part.

At the class’s April 14 “Fishbowl” event, at which diversity experts shared personal experiences with bigotry, Mendoza-Denton, who was seated in the audience, raised the question of racism against whites.

“I’m glad you put it out there,” said Joel Brown, an attorney and poet who introduced himself as African American, gay and a descendant of the Choktaw Nation.  “It is just as important to me to discuss whiteness and being prejudiced against people basically because they are white.”

Anjna Champaneri, a Cal Housing resident director who faced prejudice growing up South Asian in England, agreed that white alienation on campus is a legitimate concern. “In doing the work that I do, one of the things that I really struggle with is watching the white students struggle especially when they get to the point of white guilt,” she said.

“On this campus, there are so many groups for people of color and so many spaces where people can talk to their people about their issues,” Champaneri added. “Where does a white student go?

Experts say cross-race conversations are key to diversity

One place where such conversations can occur is the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the UC Berkeley School of Law, which has been holding a weekly lunch session on “White Privilege” run by the center’s executive director Wilda White.

Another is  the law school’s Culture, Diversity and Intergroup Relations Lab, run by Victoria Plaut, a social and cultural psychologist and coauthor of a study – to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – that suggests diversity efforts are unlikely to succeed without buy-in from whites.

Plaut was among the diversity experts speaking at the Fishbowl event, where she stressed the value of opening oneself to a potentially difficult cross-cultural exchange. She recounted the case of a black student in one of her classes  who divulged her specific peeve about white people, offending a white student who did not feel she deserved to be tarnished with the same brush.

After an awkward pause, Plaut said, the black student said, “‘Part of me is saying you’re negating my experience. But you know what? I just negated your experience.’”

“It was a wonderful moment, though painful,” Plaut added. “You have to be able to jump in and to open yourself up to where people are coming from.”