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.
Thank you for this well-written and well-argued piece. I agree completely. The “white privilege” paradigm is ugly and counter-productive to the goal of ending racism and all vestiges of slavery.
Yes. This. I could never get behind the term because “privilege” implies something that wasn’t deserved, something hierarchical. If many people’s initial reaction is defensiveness because many people are actually just really struggling, a term that triggers defensiveness is not helpful on getting people on board. Let’s talk about discrimination, and it’s much easier to understand and get immediately behind it.
What a wonderful article, thank you!
Saying many of the same things in satire: https://unherd.be/articles/guest/so-white-privilege.html#comment_form
One thing that I do observe as a middle-age educated white man is differential treatment. Why should that be? It is generally the case that middle-age educated, well-dressed white men 1) have a responsible job, 2) will not steal from the store, 3) will not yell at the clerks, 4) know things, 5) are even go-to people if there is trouble, 6) won’t kill you. This is a stereotype that is highly accurate and no doubt influences the police. If they pull over 100 guys like me for a traffic issue, they will likely have 0% trouble (like pulling a gun on them). So of course they will treat me better. They may have more trouble with a 23 year old white guy with tattoos and jeans, and more trouble still with a young black man (though less than that with a black woman). The reaction of police while sometimes… Read more »
Every society has a kind of social topography that privileges certain people. The question is, what moves one to the top of the hill or keeps one down in the valley. Is it race? Competence? Corruption? A mix? If the answer is competence, then privilege can be seen as a good thing — the self building/repairing engine of a well-functioning society. But the precondition for this is equality of opportunity. If equality of opportunity is a block of cheese, I believe what we have in the U.S. today is a block of swiss that is gradually filling in its holes. Some holes are due to old-fashioned prejudice; some due to the socio-economic “hangover” of institutional racism; some due cultural differences between many races, and some are due to the preferential quotas of progressive policies intended as filler. So what to do about it? One answer is patience — stay the… Read more »
I recently heard a podcast featuring an interview with a white woman who was an unashamed shoplifter. She admitted that she would target shops that were frequented by black people, to take full advantage of the obvious fact that the security guard would pretty much ignore her in favour of the shoppers with darker skin. White privilege? She knew she had it, and had illicitly gained a lot by it.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end:then stop.” Here’s the beginning, and the social context, including the year, is importan when dealing with the term “white privilege”. https://archive.org/details/ERIC_ED335262
Sorry that comment was supposed to be in reply to the ranting guy below.
“My main aim in trying to contribute to this debate was to prevent the spread of the idea that white privilege is illusory, or that it inherently attacks all white people.” “attacks” is a curious choice of word here. Perhaps you mean “applies”? But from what you’ve said further up, you do seem to view that it applies to all white people. In fact, if it didn’t, it would imply the “white” was redundant since if it didn’t confer some privilege that could not be accounted for in any other way then we just need to control for some other variable no? The dishonesty in this debate in my opinion can be seen in the attempt to argue on the one hand that since the causes of oppression are structural and systemic, all white people are implicated in the oppression regardless of their lived experience (described above as secondary); while… Read more »
Somewhat tangentially, I’ve found the recent use by some of “white supremacy” to be synonymous with “white dominance” to be a misuse of the former term and counterproductive. “White supremacists” has traditionally referred in common use to adherents of white supremacist ideology, such as neo-Nazis, and trying to extend the term to refer more widely to conditions of advantage toward white people in society just muddies the waters as far as what is being discussed. If we’re going to discuss terminology, we should be precise as far as what each one means. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_supremacy
Iona, (As a layperson with no academic context on the debate) Interesting article but it seemed as though you were equivocating in your uses of “privilege” between the first and second halves of the article. ‘X privilege’ is an attribute that confers advantage *in the respect of* that attribute. To say someone possesses ‘X privilege’ of any X is not equivalent to saying that individual is privileged in some total or absolute sense. Or as you wrote, “Power and privilege are situational, not inherent […]” Next, regardless of whatever rights a human may deserve, a privilege is not in itself one of them such that all should attain it; what you noticed is that privilege may comparatively help members *achieve* those rights. The Left wants (or should want, ideally) to achieve those rights for all *without* the involvement of privilege as described above. I know that partisans of “privilege” terminology… Read more »
The author states in Bio she’s lived in five countries and speaks four languages and that info is what best describes a “citizen of the world” which is a good thing. About living in Bombay and writing a book on Parsi roots, the Untouchable plight came to mind but it does no one any good to start comparisons about cultural injustices. I wondered if the author visited or lived for awhile in America and decided she must have to write so many good opinion columns about the country. Each state, city, town; regions north south east west offer varied differences in the people encountered. Texas, for example, offers a far different culture than California or Maine. Racism widely differs throughout the U.S. Shout the term White Privilege out to a crowd in the multicultural, interracial city I reside and folks would assume your bad boss is a white person or… Read more »
Like many sociological terms appropriated by retards the concept of white – male, neurotypical, or whatever – privilegemight have some utility when discussing groups in aggregate (of course some groups have it easier, on average) but it is totally inapplicable to all the individuals within that group.
Genuinely curious. Has it occurred to you that to constrain the battle against white supremacy by making sure that none of our arguments make white people uncomfortable actually perpetuates white supremacy? The greatest white privilege of all is getting to opt out of the race issue altogether. If people get to opt out the minute something makes them feel uncomfortable and we adjust our language to accommodate their inherent snowflakeyness, we’re actually not helping the conversation. We’re giving them an excuse to opt out. If it’s not “white privilege”, it’ll be another term that hurts their feels. It’s time for white people to have conversations about race on terms other than their own. That’s literally the entire point.
MLK openly discussed racism and what happened there? I do appreciate your thoughts on what us Black Americans should call our oppression and how best to solve it. White privilege is a term or concept that describes the “superiority” training that has been brainwashed into the US population. It proceeds all whites in America to all other races regardless of if it’s true. Just like when ladies like you see me they fall into Black hate. And let that same white privilege training determine their perception. Which is fear, to clutch the purse, lock the car door, take the next elevator. See white privilege makes comments like yours stating Blacks have a lot of catching up to do. To whom? Their slavers? We were created out of rape and murder and not compensated for years. And regardless of the money we have yet to heal or understand who we are… Read more »
There’s 4 minutes I’ll never get back. It’s breathtakingly naive to attempt to tackle such a subject, without an analysis of the role of history, and without listening to people of colour who’ve meditated on the role of privilege for decades. Your PhD in English Literature, and your ancestry, have been cynically weaponised – you are for all intents and purposes white, and cannot possibly understand the utility, or moral status of the term ‘white privilege’. For the record, even those who use the term without careful reference to structures, have a right to do so without being shut down. It is part of the healing process, something you might have reflected on had you even paid a second’s attention to where the term has come from. The feelings of the white person are entirely secondary to this expression of generations of oppression. There are entire fields of scholarship devoted… Read more »
I appreciate this piece, Iona. I used to be someone who claimed their “white privilege” out of a sense of perceived obligation, but I realized recently that theconcept does not seem to be helpful any more.
The generalizations about “white people” have become incredibly hurtful because we’re dealing in stereotypes rather than dealing with human beings as individuals. I got to a point where I thought about killing myself because friends and acquaintances would make and write these types of comments so frequently in front of me. Of course, I would keep my hurt feelings to myself; but privately it made me wish I was dead and never existed.
Excellent article Iona! Well done! Nice “steel-manning” at the beginning. This is my favorite part…. “…..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.” SOOO True! I always say, imagine being born in land locked, economically dying area in the States. Parents on welfare, but working two jobs just to raise you in their trailer home. Fighting crime & drug addiction. Etc. Just imagine this ONE kid then works hard, gets into a decent college in a bigger city. The first thing he’s told to do “Check your privilege!!” Screamed in his face. Is it a wonder that the Alt-Right, Trumpian message appeals to him at that moment? This does NOT change the fact that this white kid DOES have a statistical advantage over black or brown kids who… Read more »
Well said! I particularly like this crucial point: “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. … … 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 – e—not to ensure more white people are harassed, beaten up, or shot.” But… Read more »