Commentary: On white privilege and playing it safe

The UW's chair of bioethics and humanities reflects on her role in confronting institutional racism. 

The Trump presidency has fomented public discord and action on a number of fronts. For Denise Dudzinski, a white person in a position of power, it has made the issue of racial injustice feel more personal than ever.

The issue’s renewed prominence has led Dudzinski, chair of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine, to explore her own feelings, and to acknowledge failings and regrets.

picture of Denise Dudzinski
Denise Dudzinski

“I regret the many years I neglected to take responsibility for my part in systemic racism by, among other things, failing to appreciate white privilege’s impact on people of color,” she wrote in an essay published last week on the website

Dudzinski wrote the commentary, she said, to exhort colleagues to recognition – and action.

“One of the injustices I see, especially in academia, is that we leave people of color to champion racial equity alone. White people are more likely to play it safe, when what we need to do is come forward and say, “I want to champion this.”

She related an experience of being at a professional bioethics conference a few years back, at a session on racial injustice. “A black professor stood up and said, ‘It’s very difficult to hear my white colleagues say they don’t want to talk about racism in class because it’s uncomfortable.’ That has stayed with me. Of course it’s uncomfortable. But if bioethicists don’t take on that discomfort and help their students understand it, then are we doing our job?

“I think most bioethicists already see that it’s not people of color who should be burdened with trying to create equity, it’s us – people in power, mostly white – who have to change. And the change is personal. It’s on each of us to see and work against the obstacles that people of color confront every day.”

This content may be reproduced in part or whole. To interview Dudzinski, contact Brian Donohue at UW Medicine: 206.543.7856;

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