Debate Over Penn State Professor Singling Out White Student To Show Privilege Proves The Point Of Critical Race Theory

Photo: YouTube / Kristopher Kettner / Shutterstock
Penn State University

A video of Penn State University professor calling out an “average white” student’s privilege is going viral across social media. 

Dr. Sam Richards, a popular sociology professor at the Pennsylvania school, has stirred up a heated debate over his teachings about systemic racism and white privilege

In the midst of a national battle over critical race theory and its place on school curriculums, the video has struck a nerve with those who reject the teaching of historical and present-day racism. 

What happened in the video of a Penn State professor calling out white students? 

In the video, Richards has a discussion with his students about systemic racism and its effects.

"I just take the average white guy in class, whoever it is, it doesn't really matter," Richards said as he approached a section of students.

"Look at Russell, right here, it doesn't matter what he does," Richards continued. "If I match him up with a black guy in class, or a brown guy, even... who's just like him, has the same GPA, looks like him, walks like him, talks like him, acts in a similar way, has been involved in the same groups on campus, takes the same leadership positions, whatever it is... and we send them into the same jobs... Russell has a benefit of having white skin."

Cue the outrage

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Why we need critical race theory and classes on white privilege.

Of course, Richards’ approach is unusual, maybe even a little outlandish, but if his aim was to engage his audience, it worked. 

The reality of systemic racism is shocking, so it’s only logical that any classroom example should be equally as appalling.

We should know the statistics that expose the reality of systemic racism by now.

Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over in a traffic stop than white drivers; at night, when the police can’t see a driver’s skin color, the difference is smaller.

Black Americans account for just 13 percent of the population but 25 percent of shooting victims.

Or what about the fact that Black workers with only a high-school diploma have a 12.1 percent average unemployment rate, above the 7.4 percent rate for similar white workers, and above the 10.1 percent rate for white high-school dropouts?

This is what systemic racism looks like.

So, if the worst thing a white student has to experience in his day is standing in front of a classroom and thinking about these statistics, he will be okay. 

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The viral video has now become a weapon in the arsenal of those against critical race theory, but it should be noted that Richards’ class did not explicitly reference the much-debated theory.

The core idea of critical race theory is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. 

Sure, Richards did touch on some of the concepts of privilege and racial inequality that critical race theory unpacks, but that doesn’t mean K-12 teachers are going to be making examples of white children in classrooms across America. 

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Richards is talking to college-age students — adults who can surely handle a brief moment of embarrassment and self-reflection. 

Ending systemic racism requires some uncomfortable conversations. 

The conversation Richards has with his students is uncomfortable. You can see it in the nervous laughter of his students, you can see it in the outrage the videos have generated.

That is the power of this topic, and the danger.

If we push through the uncomfortable aspects of privilege we can confront racial inequality, but if we run away from the things that are hard to talk about then we never get to the root. 

Richards isn’t saying that the student he called out has never had to struggle or didn’t work hard in college, he’s just implying that there is an absence of obstacles relating to his skin color in comparison to Black students.

Whiteness and the privilege it holds often remain invisible to society as a whole. It is often the default or norm and, in this invisibility, it maintains power by making other races outsiders. 

Richards is forcing his white students, and all white people watching the video, to look at their whiteness with the same scrutiny that people examine Blackness.

The reaction and outrage at having to confront this privilege is proof of why we need critical race theory and explicit classes on racial inequality.

People need to get more comfortable with unpacking their privilege, even if it means having some awkward conversations. 

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her Twitter for more.