In this article, I will argue that the concept of “white privilege” is a counterproductive way of framing concerns about anti-brown and anti-black racism in the West in general, and in the US in particular. I won’t attempt to trace the term’s academic origins, or review the scholarly contexts in which it has been employed. Instead, I’ll be looking at the implications of how it’s generally used and understood socially.
I’m not going to speculate as to the extent of racism in American society here. Racism against people of darker skins exists in the US and being—or passing as—white confers certain advantages, on average, in the West. We should tackle this racism whether it is widespread, systematic, growing, or even just a dying vestige of a less enlightened era. This article is about how we do that: about tactics, framing, and strategies. I argue that the notion of “white privilege” is an inadequate and unhelpful way of tackling the very real discrimination often faced by people of color.
“Privilege” can be a useful concept. A person’s viewpoint is a “privileged” one when that privilege has blinded her to pressing social issues: when, for example, she is ignorant of or willfully denies that a problem exists because it does not affect her personally. It requires an effort of imagination and empathy to recognize that others may face difficulties we have never contemplated. Privilege blindness can cause us to harm others through thoughtlessness or callousness. I believe we have a duty to help disadvantaged members of our society, out of both compassion and enlightened self-interest. I believe you should support public transport and healthcare, for example, even if you yourself always use your car and have private health insurance. I believe we should provide accommodations for the disabled—wheelchair ramps, textured pavements, sign-language interpreters, etc.—to allow them to live as full lives as possible. As an able-bodied person, I cannot always know what is needed and may be blithely unaware of something which causes a person with a specific disability daily frustration. This is one way in which my “able-bodied privilege” might be said to blind me.
It’s political privilege blindness, for example, if you refuse to support the Iranian women campaigning against forced hijab because you live in a liberal Muslim family in the West and wear hijab by choice. It’s personal privilege blindness if you go out to lunch with a friend whose income is low, order the most expensive items on the menu and then insist on splitting the bill 50/50 between your foie gras, Kobe T-bone, and champagne and his soup of the day and tap water.
One of the purposes of political activism is to jolt us out of our smug self-centeredness and blithe obliviousness to the problems of others. Anti-racism activists aim to show us that people with darker skins often have different—and worse—daily experiences than their white (or white-looking) counterparts and are far more likely to face racist abuse, harassment, and discrimination. There are also structural level problems and adverse historical legacies that people may need to be made aware of. For example, African-Americans are far less likely to have inherited wealth or own assets than other groups. Black Americans have been full citizens of their country for barely half a century. Economically and socially, there is a lot of catching up to do. By using the concept of “white privilege,” activists hope to raise our awareness of these and other issues.
But I think this approach is misguided.
The Wrong Emphasis
Freedom from real or threatened discrimination, belittlement, abuse, harassment, or violence on the basis of your actual or perceived race is not a privilege. It is a fundamental human right. A ruler, oligarch, or dictator grants privilege. But rights should not be contingent on favor, but guaranteed. If they are not honored, they should be demanded, not petitioned for. A guilty man may receive the privilege of a pardon; an innocent wrongly imprisoned has a right to be released, as a matter of justice.
In addition, by framing the problem as “white privilege,” rather than racism, anti-brown or anti-black bigotry, etc., we shift the emphasis away from those who are experiencing discrimination, those who actually need help. Crucially, focusing on “privilege” suggests that we need to remove something from white people, rather than extend rights and freedoms to everyone. One oft-cited example of white privilege is that, activists argue, white people are less commonly subjected to police brutality. But, if true, clearly, the answer to this is to reform the police, to make it less likely that anyone is subjected to unjust police violence—not to ensure more white people are harassed, beaten up, or shot.
Also, all too often, this framing of the problem of racism as an issue inherent to whiteness leads to narcissistic self-flagellations on the part of white people—expiatory theatrics, rather than concrete actions or policies. The public mea culpas of woke white people “checking their privilege” are, by turns, servile and disingenuous. They do nothing concrete to help people of color.
That is, when the concept of white privilege falls on receptive ears at all. Which is increasingly rare.
The Inevitable Backlash
Some activists are careful to reiterate that they are using the term “white privilege” in a very specific way: that it refers to only one aspect of a person’s identity and that they are talking about averages and statistics, about societal structures, not individuals. But many more are not so cautious. The term is often bandied about as a way of dismissing arguments by anyone white (or white passing), as a means of shutting down discussions, or as a slur. But, even when used in a circumspect way, the term tends to put people on the defensive. It sounds accusatory—and people do not appreciate being blamed for something they did not choose. It implies, strongly, that all white people are privileged. This is stereotyping—and people generally respond badly to being stereotyped.
It can be powerful and effective to tell our own stories. If you have experienced or witnessed racism or discrimination, you should talk about that frankly, openly, honestly, and even with righteous anger. But, when you talk about someone else’s “white privilege,” you are making conjectures. You are telling someone what his experience has been, without knowing anything about him beyond his skin tone. And, whenever you do that, you always risk getting it very very wrong.
If the people you are addressing have their own serious problems—if they are in desperate financial straits; facing a terrifying medical diagnosis; in debt; caring for children with special needs or infirm parents; dealing with poverty, addiction, or mental illness—they are liable to respond to the accusation that they are “privileged” with anger and scorn. You never know what demons other people are wrestling with. When someone is suffering, they want compassion and understanding. If you not only refuse to contemplate the idea that they may have their own struggles, but taunt them with the false accusation that they have it easy, it will sound both disdainful and supercilious. The message they will receive is that you don’t care about them as individuals, that, to you, they are merely a statistic. This is not “white fragility” or “white defensiveness.” This is human nature.
Why Should You Care?
Activism should never be about pandering to frivolous objections or keeping the peace by brushing uncomfortable truths politely out of sight. But it must, ultimately, be about persuasion. If we are to eradicate racism from our societies, we will need to build a broad-based coalition of allies, supporters and—most importantly—of voters. People may respond to even very uncomfortable facts presented loud and clear; to strong messaging; to calls for action. But they will be resistant to guesswork about what their own lives are like—especially if they know such guesswork to be false. People like to be known, not have assumptions made about them, based on superficial characteristics. It offends their in-built human sense of fairness. And it is precisely to their sense of fairness that we must appeal, in order to stamp out the unfairness of racial discrimination and racially-motivated injustice.
Power and privilege are situational, not inherent in skin pigmentation. They are dependent on wealth, career, family, position, and health. More white people than people of color may enjoy these advantages in our societies in the West. There may, on average, be many more privileged white people than privileged people of color. But that does not mean that every white person is well-off. Generalizations about groups, such as “white people,” may be helpful for analyzing society, identifying problems, or formulating policy. But they are worse than useless when dealing with our fellow human beings as individuals.
What’s the Alternative?
To build a better society, we need to be clear and consistent in our aims. The most convincing way to do this is to avoid all forms of race-based stereotyping. People who have experienced racial discrimination can speak of their own experiences. Activists can present facts and statistics, and suggest policies that promote equal opportunities. We can all talk frankly about racism and oppose it strongly wherever we find it.
We have excellent alternative ways of describing this form of injustice: racism, discrimination, racial harassment, etc. The term “white privilege” is low resolution, frequently inapplicable to individual circumstances, needlessly inflammatory, and profoundly unhelpful. If you care more about the cause than about remaining wedded to this specific piece of rhetoric, I urge you to abandon it.