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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Because I am White, my Privilege Allows me to be Silent—but Virtue Ethics Does not

Demonstrators take a knee while the names of people who died in police custody are read during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Demonstrators take a knee while the names of people who died in police custody are read during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Thor Wasbotten

Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

Thor Wasbotten is the managing director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

Because I am white, I do not have to write this. My privilege allows me to be silent.

Because I am white, I could ignore the news and social media and live in my bubble. My privilege allows me that opportunity. 

Because I am white, I can write this and think it is enough.

I often hear from white people that they should not be judged based on the history of this country, that they are different, and that they should not have to own the actions of previous generations—that this history is not their story. But for Black people, at least for those whom I have met and worked with, they tell me it is their story. Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman, spoke after a white police officer shot her brother, “so many people have reached out to me, telling me they’re sorry that this happened to my family. But don’t be sorry because this has been happening to my family for a long time. Longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmitt Till. Emmitt Till is my family. Philando [Castile], Mike Brown, Sandra [Bland]. This has been happening to my family.”

I have learned from Black mentors, colleagues, friends, and students that family is defined differently than family of origin or family of procreation. It includes every ancestor, all Black and Brown people, each person before them who built this country and were stripped of their cultural identities. And through this broader definition, there is a story—one that connects all of us. 

We must acknowledge that the history of the United States is all of our history and it is an important part of our collective story. Even though we, as individuals, may not have written the story ourselves, we are characters that have been introduced based on previous chapters. Because we are here, we are now the authors and are writing the present and future chapters. The decisions we make now can never reverse more than 400 years of slavery, oppression and systemic racism, but they will contribute to the conditions for the next 400. We are writing the story now.

I will be the first to say that I have fallen short in my own contribution. I have not spoken up when I should have, haven’t gone far enough when I could have pressed on, or followed up when I needed to close the loop.

I have also tried to act on behalf of and to improve the lives of Black people and others.

Twenty-six years ago, I focused my Master’s thesis on analyzing how whites and Blacks were depicted in crime stories in the Portland television media market (100% of all stories with a Black character had crime as a component). That research later informed my decisions as a television news director. In 2001, at KGUN-TV in Tucson, we began using the term “undocumented immigrant” as opposed to “illegal alien.” I also directed our journalists to not use suspect descriptions provided by law enforcement unless they met our standards—I was frustrated with seeing “male Hispanic, in his 20s, wearing a white tank top,” a description that encouraged racial profiling.

As the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University, I tried to contribute through a variety of programs and initiatives. I served as a mentor to new faculty-of-color in our discipline, listened to our students and tried to understand their stories and lived experiences. I worked with our Black faculty to create the Student Voice Team and created a series of conversations where all voices belonged. I also spent five years visiting various middle schools to help teach storytelling to students and to help them see a path to college.

One trip four years ago affected me greatly. I spent two days with about 50 college students, mostly Black, on a trip first to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University and then to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. Standing with our students, and seeing their reactions, particularly the young men who sobbed when standing in a replica of a slave ship. I wrote to Dr. David Pilgrim, the founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum: “Never had I seen so much raw emotion from our students, students who were both shaken to the core to see what others have been through and the realization how it may continue to impact their futures.” I sent the letter along with an artifact that my father had that depicted a racist image of Japanese men as part of a car club in the 1950s. I wrote: “The license plate was part of my father’s life, and as a result, it is a part of my history, too. For that, I am sorry.”

For all that I have tried to do, it has not been enough. Not nearly enough. And, because I am white, it is my moral obligation to act. Saying sorry isn’t enough.

I currently serve as the managing director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. In this role, I serve primarily behind the scenes and support our program directors.

After police killed George Floyd, I led our staff through the creation of a statement. After I wrote the first draft, our staff contributed to make the statement stronger. It reads:

Thoughts on Moving Forward from the Ethics Center

We acknowledge the history of systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States. Statements are important, but actions are critical. How we move forward will indicate our true intent and the sincerity of our respect and love for others. Recent events have provided this opportunity for growth, appreciating and embracing those in the Black community and other People of Color. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics recognizes how privilege has been used in creating unfair and unjust systems. We can’t achieve the Common Good and Justice for all without being intentional in our actions. We understand our own limitations and need for improvement. We join all those who have committed to solidarity and to act to improve the lives of current and future generations of the Black community.

It is not enough, and we have already fallen short. You may have heard about the recent incident on our own campus where campus safety officers made a Santa Clara University faculty member, Dr. Danielle Morgan, who is Black, prove that she resided in her home (this after following her brother from one location on campus to her home). Although the Center was not directly involved in this situation, Dr. Morgan is part of our Santa Clara University family. We must do better.

Our Markkula Center Framework for Ethical Decision Making includes looking at ethical decisions or dilemmas through five lenses: Rights; Justice/Fairness; Utilitarianism; Common Good; and, Virtue. One should always use all of the lenses to inform a difficult decision, but personally, I have always focused on virtue.

Virtue is what drives me each day. My colleagues have written extensively about virtue. Here are some of their words: “’Virtues’ are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop this potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues.” Ethics, particularly virtue ethics, asks the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?”

How we respond to difficult situations is part of the mosaic that defines who we are and shapes what we want to be. I have listened to Black people say they are tired, that they are angry, that, as Doc Rivers, the head coach of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, said, “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones getting denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung… It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

It is time that white people like me do more. That we act. That we understand compassion, fairness and courage are all virtues that we need to bring to the forefront of our actions. We need to understand that systemic racism is not going to be eradicated with virtue signaling. We must demand more—of ourselves and others, particularly those in power.

I want to be a person who is able to use my privilege to help improve the lives of others. So, I re-commit to doing what I am obligated to do … because I am white.

Sep 1, 2020