Variations among White First-Year College Students’ Understanding of Privilege
Tharp, David Scott
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Exploring how White college students understand privilege is necessary to support the design of curricula that can thoughtfully address variations in their understanding. Examining White college students’ understanding of privilege is also timely as higher education institutions attempt to cultivate cultural competence of college students to address racial campus climate tensions. This qualitative, phenomenological case study explored how 8 White, first-year college students at Great Lakes College varied in their understanding of privilege through data generated from reflection papers and interviews. Data was analyzed using discourse analysis that revealed how students’ conceptual, ideological, and emotional understanding varied with respect to their participation in either a Whiteness or Social Justice Discourse. Students’ conceptual ideas about privilege revolved around five different themes linked to when privilege exists, the nature of agency, the role of perception, temporal views, and multiple and intersectional social identities. Ideological explanations encompassed a critical race framework or one of three color-blind frameworks that included abstract liberalism, naturalization, and minimization. Students expressed four different categories of emotion that included feeling upset, sadness, anger, and discomfort while also using the phrase “I feel” as a descriptive or discursive tool for their feelings. Students expressed different conceptual ideas, ideological explanations, and emotional reactions based on their participation in either a Social Justice or Whiteness Discourse; however, they shared similar emotional reactions as part of their socialization into to a broader White racial community. This research demonstrates that White college students’ conceptual, ideological, and emotional understanding about privilege is interconnected, varied based on their participation in different Discourses within the broader White racial community, and is expressed differently in frontstage or backstage settings. Educators should consider developing curricula that addresses White college students’ prior knowledge, explicitly attending to students’ emotional development, using colonization as a teaching tool to promote conceptual ideas and ideological explanations consistent with a critical race framework, and practicing behaviors for social change.
Social Justice Education
White College Students