On Being Ready to Use Privilege as a Weapon for Change

ready (adjective): in a suitable state for an activity, action, or situation; fully prepared

Hi, I’m Fairleigh. I’m a comfortably positioned white middle-aged woman from the suburbs of New Orleans living in Baton Rouge. In the early 90s, I walked into the grand St. Charles Avenue all-girls Catholic school to join a strong sisterhood made of generations of wealthy, elite New Orleanians and a handful of suburbanites like myself. The sisterhood was palpable, and surprisingly, the idea of social justice and equity was prevalent, as it is and has been a focus of the Catholic Church – even with very few Black students. I participated in so many discussions around social justice and was even asked to join an honors class (despite being a mediocre student) to compete in a national Constitution competition representing the school as a member of the team focused on Civil Rights. Our civil rights group was all-white. We placed in the top 5 of the country. When I reflect on this, I see the problem - a handful of young white women driving the narrative, when we were ultimately the voice of the oppressor. But I also see what planted a seed in my work today.

Sometimes, what happens in a bubble still can spill over into meaningful work.

Fast forward over two decades, and following efforts of weaving anti-racism into my personal and professional life, I was asked by a Black colleague to participate in a panel discussion around equity, diversity, and inclusion for an all-girls high school in Baton Rouge. She had been hired by the school to create a thoughtful curriculum, including focus groups for administration, staff, parents, and students. I was honored, humbled, and hopeful about the opportunity – especially considering my co-panelists who were also friends and people I admire and respect deeply for their thoughtful dedication to the community. We were a panel of four – a Black man, a white woman (me), a white man, and a Black woman. All of us had our own experience doing thoughtful panel discussions, but this was different – we were all paid.

They were investing! They were ready! Yes, this was happening. The participants were relatable – mostly white young women in an all-girls school being told they are our future leaders – I thought, this is what we are all working for.

There were four summits scheduled – the juniors and seniors on day one, the freshmen and sophomores two days later. We all sat, masked, on a stage in front of dozens of mostly white young faces. Our facilitator had prepared a thoughtful presentation about Emotional and Cultural Intelligence, the impact of hateful and discriminatory words, and asked us, the panelists thoughtful questions. We shared our experiences, answered thoughtful questions posed by the students and stayed post-discussion to answer the questions of the students lined up to further the dialogue. We received praise from the school’s leadership following both summits. We all left feeling such excitement and hope that we acknowledged if we weren’t in a pandemic, we would have all convened off campus to recap and share excitement for the next two summits.

Those next two summits would never happen.

“Indoctrination”, “reverse racism”, “lies of white privilege”, were the topics that filled the online platforms of the school social media page and the site “Tiger Droppings”, a right wing echo chamber known for racist rants and propaganda. Other examples of misinformation shared included students saying that panelists suggested they go to a community college and leave room for Black students to attend a four-year universities(the panelist suggested 2 year college as a way to save money),a call to defund the police (a student thoughtfully addressed this and the panel discussed alternatives of allocations of dollars for prevention) and that participants were being forced to stand for the “BLM Anthem” (the Black National Anthem was played and the discussion was around awareness that this existed).

As a panelist I addressed all of this in an email to the President – doing nothing short but begging for clarity on these and many other false representations of the summits. Parents threatened to pull their children and to never give the school another dime. Parents of the freshmen and sophomores said they would intentionally keep their children home the day of their summits.

It was almost as if Ruby Bridges was going to school that day.

The chatter worked. While there was no need to line the street in front of the school and shout racist epithets, the keyboard warriors of 2020 won. The school cancelled the following summits.

Instead of a community coming together to invest in anti-racism and creating future and thoughtful women leaders, we perpetuated the role of white women in racism. We have to hold our institutions accountable, especially those who impact our female leaders. From the Carolyn Bryants to the Amy Coopers

When the consultant convened the panelists to let us know the full context, she explained that this was not her intention. She had been hired after presenting a thoughtful curriculum that was changed as a reaction to one of the students posting a racist post where she was wearing a bandana and Air Jordans and said “I look like a little N*****”. Against her recommendations, the school suggested the summits against her advice. Many of the students shared how valuable the summits were. However, the louder voices of students parroting their parents, and the parents with dollars, prevailed. Most notably, the economically dominant voices prevailed.

How do you know when an institution is not ready to do the work to create racial equity? How do you know when you are simply checking a box of joining a movement you are not invested in emotionally or financially? How do you know when your leadership has failed? How do you know that your claim that Black Lives Matter is authentic? When a white woman who attended an all-girls catholic school and participated in your false attempt at racial equity says you have only succeeded in one thing – perpetuating institutional and systemic racism.

Instead of a community coming together to invest in anti-racism and creating future and thoughtful women leaders, this institution has only perpetuated the role of white women in racism. But even worse ignored the voices of young women that acknowledged the need for diversity, and gained confidence from this effort designed to increase diversity in the place they live and thrive.

As white women, we need to speak honestly to ourselves, acknowledging what our Black friends have known and we have ignored. We need to understand the role we have played and take it seriously. We have to sit with that, ready or not, and be ready to be accountable.

Ready to do the work and fully commit.

About the Author

Fairleigh Jackson is a resident of Baton Rouge, a former roamer of mountains in Asheville and Yosemite, a native of New Orleans, and an advocate for cultural and architectural preservation - doing her best to find her way to help end systemic racism, even if she flounders along the way.