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A White Man’s Voice: The Role of the Privileged Actor

By Ian D. Svetkey, Crimson Opinion Writer

When I was looking through courses this semester, I noticed that the professor of a class about narratives of individuals who were enslaved was a white man. That didn’t sit right with me. Why would a class about stories integral to Black culture be taught by someone with no lived experience in that culture?

I’ll back up a little bit. As a straight, cisgender, white man from an upper-middle-class family, I come from an awful lot of privilege. I know how easy it is to unintentionally overlook bigotry because it doesn’t constantly exert a force on my life. I’ve felt the effects of discrimination through my friends and my mom, who works as a lawyer, while my dad stays home — but that’s not remotely the same. And as someone with not just one, but many forms of privilege, I haven’t had any experience with oppression that might help me empathize with others’ struggles. I simply have no rubric.

This lack of lived experience means I have to be careful when talking about injustice. I can, and should, educate myself on the topic — oppressed people shouldn’t bear the sole responsibility of teaching others about their trauma. But there’s a difference between forcing the burden of education on victims and understanding that a story rooted in group history and experience can only be truly told by someone within that group.

So regardless of how qualified white professors are, I really don’t think they should be teaching classes explicitly focused on the experiences of other racial or ethnic groups. Of course, these topics need to be taught, and at a less-well-funded school, a white teacher might be the only person available. But Harvard has the resources to hire whomever they like, so it’s concerning that 79 percent of tenured professors are white, 57 percent are white men, and only 4 percent are Black. Yale and Princeton, among others, have similar demographics, but that should not be used to diffuse responsibility. Something is deeply broken.

Harvard should hire more minority faculty in every department — diverse scholars shouldn’t be pigeonholed into studying only their own cultural history. But in fields focused on group culture, there’s no excuse for underrepresentation. While there are certainly esteemed Black professors in the Department of African and African American Studies, there are not nearly enough. And that’s not for lack of demand — students have been pushing for an expanded ethnic studies program for years.

Why such reticence to make meaningful change? One reason is that this change requires privileged individuals to fight against their own privilege. And that’s hard, because privilege offers a powerful feeling of superiority — a feeling strong enough to cause people to sometimes betray solidarity even when it would be in their economic interest. Poor white Southerners, for instance, refused to join Black sharecroppers after the Civil War to fight the plantation aristocracy, because they didn’t want to let go of the emotional safety net of white supremacy. Fear of ostracization offers another impetus to stay silent — for example, men who stand up for women’s rights are often attacked by other men. And hearing marginalized people speak up can feel like injustice for those accustomed to their stories being the only ones told. That’s why white racists scream “reverse racism,” and transphobes cry for the rights of the “super-straights.”

Whether I like it or not, my privilege gives me a platform, and I have a responsibility to use it, because silence promotes the status quo. As I understand it, I should amplify others’ stories, express my opposition to discrimination, and share my experience when appropriate. It’s a cop-out to argue that I shouldn’t say anything because my perspective isn’t as relevant as the one of the person who’s experiencing discrimination; telling my story isn’t mutually exclusive with listening as long as I’m respectful. I just need to make sure I stay open to constructive criticism — I have no experience with the other side of the power dynamic, so criticism could easily be rightful.

Of course, being an ally does not absolve me of privilege — I know that I’m still capable of accidentally hurting people, and judgment for going against the grain is not the same as being seen as subhuman. I’m also aware that I shouldn’t congratulate myself for standing up — applauding allies for decrying bigotry, while not doing the same for marginalized people, is itself a subtle form of discrimination. I shouldn’t be rewarded twice as much for working half as hard.

I’m sure the white professors teaching about Black history are knowledgeable. But that doesn’t mean they should be the ones teaching those classes. As someone who’s never faced discrimination, I ask those in my position to understand our shared lack of experience, and therefore to be more cognizant of when to talk and when to shut up — even when it’s easy to keep talking. Because the only people who can truly understand prejudice are those who have been on the wrong side of it.

There are many things I can and should do with the platform my privilege affords me. Telling someone else’s story for them is not one of those things.

Ian D. Svetkey ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Hurlbut Hall.

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