Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Explaining "White Privilege"

Last night I posted a lengthy comment on a Facebook discussion thread sparked by the following meme:

Image may contain: 2 people, meme and text

Since my comment was appreciated and shared by a number of people (and was posted on Robin Parry's blog--thanks, Robin!), I figured it should go here as well. So here it is:

Here's how I explain the concept of white privilege in my classes: "Privilege" names an advantage that is possessed by virtue of systemic or structural features of a society, usually an advantage experienced because one happens to belong to a specific group. In this respect, it is the flip-side of oppression, which names a systemic group harm.

Those who experience privilege did not choose to be born into the class that society advantages through systemic forces, and they did not create those forces that advantage them. Furthermore, they have limited power as individuals to change society, and so are unlikely on their own to be able to divest themselves of their privilege. This means that having privilege is not something anyone should feel guilty about. You can't help it. While there are some advantages you can cast off, you can't remove the social forces that give people in your class a systemic advantage. So acknowledging privilege is not about feeling guilty or about casting blame. It is first and foremost about recognizing an inequity in the social structure, and then about making a commitment to working for change as one's life situation allows, and recognizing that having a particular kind of privilege may allow one to work for greater equity—work for a society in which one no longer experiences this privilege—in ways that those who lack this privilege can't.

Now we can talk about "all-things-considered privilege" and "specific privilege" Someone might have privilege in one respect but be oppressed in others, and end up being oppressed all-things-considered. It might sound strange to say that a black slave in the ante-bellum South experienced male privilege, but in saying this one is not saying that he was privileged. One is saying that although he was oppressed, horribly oppressed, the system did not make him a target for systemic sexual abuse by virtue of his gender in the way that it made female slaves a target. While he might still be raped by his owner, the cultural forces in play don't make him uniquely vulnerable to being raped in the way that female slaves were systemically vulnerable.

Likewise, to say that a person has white privilege is not to say that the person is privileged all-things-considered. The person may not enjoy much privilege at all, having been dealt a lousy hand with respect to an array of other social factors. In other words, it is perfectly possible for a person to truthfully say, "I'm not privileged!"—for that claim to be true about their overall condition in social life—and for it still to be true that the person is the beneficiary of white privilege.

The thesis that there exists white privilege is the thesis that there are various social forces in play (such as culturally ingrained unconscious biases and preferences, demographic facts about who is in the majority and who holds the majority of leadership positions, historical facts about who has held positions of power, implicit cultural conceptions of what is "normal," facts about which stories and films and works of art happen to be most prevalent and beloved, not to mention facts about past or present legal and economic structures that impact opportunities) that give persons who are socially recognized as "white" an advantage in one respect over those who are not (although, again, a white person may experience economic disadvantages and class disadvantages and disadvantages relating to sex and gender, etc., etc., and so not be privileged all-things-considered).

All of this is definitional. The question now is whether white privilege, so defined, exists. Well, here's one tiny thing that I noticed the other day. My kids dug out an old "How to Draw Faces" book that we'd gotten from relatives at some point. It was a few decades old. I leafed through it. Every face in the book was white. EVERY SINGLE ONE. The book was not called, "How to Draw White Faces." It was called, "How to Draw Faces." But there were nothing but faces that we'd classify as white. Of course, this book was a few decades old. Books you buy today will almost certainly exhibit more diversity. But these artifacts of history still litter our landscape—artifacts in which "face" is treated as equivalent to "white face." And the existence of these artifacts (but no comparable or comparably widespread artifacts treating "face" as equivalent to "black face") means that white kids will come across these artifacts and never have the experience that a little black kid will have: "Why aren't faces like mine represented?"

Of course, this is a small thing. But there are lots and lots of small things like that. There is the fact that 44 out of 45 US Presidents are white. There is the little fact that the majority of US Senators and Representatives are white. There is the fact that most CEOs are white. These are just demographic facts and historical facts, and I'm certainly not responsible for them and should not, as a white man, feel guilty about these facts being what they are. But they do mean that as I was growing up, I was inundated with role-models of leaders who were "like me." There was no need to seek them out, no need to set aside a special Black History Month to call attention to them. So, there is a set of realities about our society and its history that gives me an advantage, however small, over persons of color (and over women).

And these advantages hold even if we deny that there exist any implicit racial biases (unconscious, socially-ingrained biases favoring white persons over black ones). But the research shows that such bias does exist—all over the place in society. For example, there was a study in which college professors in graduate programs were contacted out of the blue with e-mails from individuals claiming a desire to study under them. The researchers varied the letters only in terms of whether the name was a common "white" name or a "black"-sounding name, Hispanic name, etc. They then tracked how likely the professor was to respond to the unsolicited email. Guess what? They responded less frequently to the emails with the non-"white" names.

And that is just one study among very many studies that all point in the very same direction over and over and over again. None of this means that a white person, by virtue of being white, is going to get white privilege checks in the mail. It doesn't mean they will experience all-things-considered privilege. And it certainly does not mean that the typical white guy minding his business and treating others with respect and decency is guilty of anything. It just means he has a kind of advantage that people of color do not have, because of a complex array of historical facts, demographic realities, legacy effects of segregation and red lining and other marginalizing practices from previous generations, self-concept affirming cultural artifacts, and persistent but unconscious culturally-ingrained biases.


  1. Are you ever going to acknowledge that a lot of the problems in the black community are not the fault of whites? "White privilege" isn't the cause of black single moms; "white privilege" isn't the cause of education being culturally derided as "acting white;" "white privilege" isn't the cause of thugs and gangstas being lauded as ideal role models. Why is it that Asians can come to this country barely speaking the language and 20 years later own a chain of stores?

    What are blacks going to do when whites fall under the 50% mark population wise? Then they will be dealing with Hispanics and Asians who are flexing their political muscle, and more importantly, don't share the same history with blacks as whites do. In other words, the old excuses won't fly, and it will be a vastly different ball game for the "community" when they won't have white liberals running interference for them.

    1. A few points:

      1. As defined above, white privilege is an effect of systemic social forces that have other effects, too--most notably the creation of corresponding disadvantages for non-white populations. The question posed in my post, once I defined the term, was whether white privilege exists. That's a distinct question from the question you ask--namely, which disadvantages and struggles in the black community can be attributed to the same systemic forces that generate white privilege, an which have their origins in something else.

      2. I am a firm believer in the notion that we should take the mote out of our own eye before taking the splinter out of our neighbor's eye. I am a beneficiary of white privilege, not a victim of systemic racism. The question for me is not how the victims of systemic racism can best handle that situation and whether they are handling it the best way. The question for me is what I should do as the beneficiary of white privilege-what justice demands of me. Fixing my gaze on what others are doing and making judgments about their choices seems a great way for me to avoid taking responsibility for my own choices, but a remarkably unhelpful way of making progress in the world. I can't understand the situation of others well enough to pass judgment soundly; and even if I could, I am not in control of others' actions, only my own. Hence, as a white person, it makes sense for me to focus on what I can do with my privilege to make the world better for everyone. Maybe if I model taking responsibility for my own life and choices in this way, rather than pointing at the shortcomings of others, this will inspire others to look inward rather than pointing fingers.

      3. Blacks originally came to the US as slaves in slave ships. They were sold at auction. They were made to work for others as if they were little more than cattle. When slavery ended, Southern states tried to preserve what they could of the old system, an effort that culminated in Jim Crow. When segregation finally was outlawed, various efforts to perpetuate it by circumventing the law--such things as red lining--persisted, as did both overt and covert racism. And the systemic economic marginalization created by these historic trends established multigenerational challenges that touch those who endure them on a psychological level.

      I want to make two points about this oversimplified history lesson. First, other non-white minorities have not endured this distinctive history in the US or had to deal with its legacy. So comparisons of monirity groups is unhelpful at best. Second, those who are part of the community that is still enduring these challenges know far better than you or I do the scope of their effects and the best way to address them. And they are addressing them. Brilliantly. Their efforts are impeded by the kind of blame-the-victim rhetoric you deploy in your comment. They are doing amazing work to lift up the sense of black self-worth that has been beaten down by a multigenerational history of oppression. Voices that try to say to the black community, "You are miserably irresponsible and it's all your fault" (while invoking a selective focus that ignores the many great things happening in the black community) certainly hurt those efforts, but not enough to prevent them from continuing to do the remarkable work that they are doing.