As a recruiter for the Buckeye Civic Engagement Connection (BCEC), I am always looking for new volunteers to facilitate our programming. As an agency, I find it especially important (and difficult) to recruit white students. I focus especially on white students because it is important to have white volunteers so they can share their experiences with marginalized groups with their white peers who may otherwise assume characteristics of under-served populations from descriptions they hear in the media or elsewhere.
I find myself evaluating white people in my everyday interactions, deciding if they would make a good fit with the department, and many times extending an invitation for them to apply. Myself being a European-American, or “White,” I meet my share of bigoted and racist individuals, whom are usually expecting a pale, sympathetic ear. Like the scene from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), I take on Gene Wilder’s Wonka to their Veruca Salt. With the blare of a racist comment in my ears, the arrow of my evaluation flips to the words “BAD EGG” and I continue searching. Being that our department works with several societally marginalized populations, it would be unproductive to have an oppressive person tasked with empowerment.
However, not all Buckeyes are bad eggs. In fact, I meet several white students who posses a sort of ‘Golden Ticket’––that ticket being an ability to understand racist constructs and sometimes even identity their White Privilege, a concept believed to be purely imaginative by some. Like an overzealous Augustus Gloop, a racist individual will lap up the waters of White Privilege until they eventually fall in, enamored with their own reflection, and thus no longer be able to comprehend the forces they have succumbed to because they’re swimming in it. But when I meet a special individual, one with two feet firmly planted on solid ground, my internal evaluation lights up in celebration. Sometimes it seems these individuals are as random and hard to find as a golden ticket in a candy wrapper, but nevertheless they exist.
I have had both of these experiences several times. Unfortunately, even the most enlightened conversation does not predict if a student will choose to apply. For example, I have had a few fantastic interactions with white fraternity brothers who can deconstruct racism, yet ultimately explain that can not find time in their schedules for any of our over 50 programs a week––or simply ignore my requests to apply altogether.
Why? I sometimes ask myself. How can someone clearly understand the need for social change and then refuse to join the department facilitating it? The answer is simple: White Privilege. Whether they join or not, their lives will be unaffected. Racism will continue to benefit them and others white people (myself included). Keeping with our Wonka theme, to some, a white man empowering marginalized races seems as illogical as Wonka giving up his recipes to help rival candymakers. Why help them when one could be helping yourself?
In the final scene of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wonka forbids Charlie from claiming his prize despite making it to the end of the contest. Charlie, secretly having stolen Wonka’s prized ‘Everlasting Gobstopper’ knows he could easily sell the one-of-a-kind candy and make a fortune. Instead, Charlie does the seemingly illogical and returns the Gobstopper to Wonka and begins walking out the door completely empty-handed. He made the decision to give up what was not rightfully his and return to his squalor of a home because that was the fair and just thing to do on his part. To his surprise, Wonka, in a barely audible fashion, mumbles, “so shines a good deed in a weary world,” and begins exclaiming that Charlie has––in fact––won the competition. The chocolate factory is his and all is well in fantasyland.
Many white students I speak to hold on to their Everlasting Gobstopper, or White Privilege. It was not earned by them, but stolen by centuries of racism and oppression. White students know if times get tough or things do not go their way, they at least have their Gobstopper. However, when white people hold onto their racist privilege, their Gobstoppers, and refuse to help the people they draw their privilege from––that is the true failure.
I look for the people willing to give up their Everlasting Gobstoppers; those willing to renounce their privilege and empower the powerless.
As white Americans, we must consciously choose to give up our undue privileges. If we fail to do so, racism will be as everlasting as Wonka’s famous candy.