Open Letter to Shirley Tilghman

This letter was sent to the president of Princeton University, Shirley Tilghman, last July, 
by Roberto Schiraldi, a counselor and therapist who has retired from the university. Schiraldi 
will facilitate the Continuing Conversation on Race and White Privilege, co-sponsored by
Not in Our Town Princeton and the Princeton Public Library, on Monday, December 3, at
7:30 p.m. All are welcome. 

Dear President Tilghman,

Thank you for speaking out on racial issues and for supporting multi-cultural programs
at Princeton University. I also want to acknowledge some of your excellent former staff,
especially Vice President Dickerson for her continued support of Makeba Clay and the
Carl Fields Center, and of Paula Chow and the International Center. They were each
such vital aspects to the rich culture of Princeton.

I was particularly pleased to learn of the financial support that Makeba received to
send students to a program on white privilege. It reminded me that a program like this
would be so beneficial for Princeton. So I am writing to ask you to consider initiating
such a program here. This is because, even though I am retired from the University, I
care very much, as I know you do, about helping to continue creating a welcoming and
compassionate environment for all students and staff.

There have been many changes which have helped to make Princeton more inclusive, and
therefore richer: admitting women and students of color, establishing new departments
and providing relevant courses and programs etc. Promoting training in diversity and
multi-cultural issues is, of course, important for the entire Princeton community, and to
be commended. However, most people at Princeton have not been exposed to training
about their privilege, as it is not usually discussed, and certainly not in depth, as part of
most diversity trainings. It is important for us to examine how white norms continue to
exist, and how they may hinder people of color from feeling really welcomed here. Some
very basic examples of white norms are: the way people speak, dress and act; if you
don’t imitate these norms, you don’t feel like you fit in. Educating people about white
privilege is not about blaming or finding fault, but rather about helping us to increase
our understanding and compassion, and creating an environment which is more fully
accepting and more fully embracing of all differences.

While the term “white privilege” may initially be uncomfortable to acknowledge, it
can be very useful in helping us to better understand how many of the members of our
community often feel marginalized. As a counselor in CPS, I heard many painful
stories from students who felt disenfranchised and unhappy here due to their race,
(similar findings cited in 2009 USG survey, PAW 2/3/10), as well as their gender,
sexual orientation, economic status and disabilities. A 2009 survey at UHS found that
non-caucasian students had significantly more concerns than caucasian students about
feeling welcomed and/or safe, and that their information about their health would be kept
confidential, suggesting mistrust related to previous experiences, cultural background,
and stigmas. I also heard similar stories during my two year participation in Sustained
Dialogue, and when I facilitated group discussion at the Princeton Black alumni program
during Reunions. While the Sustained Dialogue program is an excellent program,
privilege was minimally addressed, if at all, and it was basically a case of “preaching to
the choir”. While privilege isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is important to understand how
privilege can hurt us all. For if some of us feel diminished, then so are we all. And the
burden of achieving and maintaining the “top” position can lead to a fragile and illusory
sense of worth, as well as premature stress related illness and heart attacks.

Given the importance of the work of the Alcohol Coalition, three examples of white
norms related to alcohol at Princeton, are very poignant. These examples are impressions
which prior to my retirement, students had repeatedly expressed to me in my former
role as alcohol and other drug counselor: 1. the Street, which is the main social outlet
on campus, and which is still, predominantly, white male driven, (the officers are
predominantly white males, the music is predominantly white music etc.), 2. competitive
and high risk drinking, which tends to be predominantly white male behavior, rooted in
the history of this institution, and which is unfortunately being emulated more and more
by our young women and students of color, and 3. Reunions, which also seem to exhibit
predominantly white male excessive drinking.

Most racist behavior today is very subtle and unintentional. As someone who has
attended many trainings on white privilege, I will attest to how useful it has been in
helping me to examine my own privilege, even though I had never seen myself as
someone who had a great deal of privilege, and certainly not someone who harbored any
racist feelings

It is my concern that until we, as a community, understand more about white privilege
and entitlement, there will not be true change in the cultural climate of Princeton. It is
my belief, that for Princeton to truly become a leader in equality and social justice, “in
service of the world”, it is necessary for us, as whites, to understand that the color of our
skin automatically entitles us to privilege, status, and being part of the norm. People
of color often do not feel like they fit into this norm, no matter how much they try to
conform.

To truly value and embrace all people, and to prepare its graduates to be leaders in a
diverse world, I believe it is time, (especially given the historical election of Barack
Obama and campaign of Hillary Clinton), for Princeton to establish this type of training
as part and parcel of its foundation. Educating people about white privilege is not about
blaming or finding fault, but rather about helping us to increase our understanding and
compassion, and creating an environment which is more fully accepting and more fully
embracing of all differences. Initiating training in white privilege would take vision,
integrity and courage, and most of all, great empathy. For it would likely be met with
considerable resistance. Since this is such a sensitive issue, it is, of course, extremely
important that it be presented by trainers who are highly experienced and skilled in
facilitating these discussions. This will best ensure that these explorations take place in
a very caring, supportive and non-adversarial way. An initial step may be integrating
training on privilege into the already existing diversity training. Perhaps framing the
discussion around global citizenship in a culture of fear (i.e., especially since 9/11)
rather than calling it white privilege, would be an appealing way to promote an ongoing
dialogue within a broader context.

This is a wonderful opportunity to create a new legacy for the next generation of
Princeton students, one in which we can all be proud. Given that Princeton is one of the
premier educational institutions in this country, it is my hope that it will one day set the
standard for addressing this most important issue (i.e., the University of Colorado has
been hosting its yearly conference on white privilege for the past 12 years). I believe
that the future well-being of this institution and of this country is integrally tied to first
increasing our understanding and compassion, before deeper change can truly take place.
It is with optimism and hope that I ask you to consider promoting this type of training
for the students, staff and leadership of Princeton. I would welcome the opportunity to
support this effort. It is with optimism and hope that I ask you to consider promoting this
type of training for the students, staff and leadership of Princeton. I would welcome the
opportunity to support this effort.

Thank you for all you do for Princeton.

Sincerely,
Roberto Schiraldi

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