White Privilege: Is It a Helpful Concept?

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 Blindness

“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.

 

 

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79 comments

  1. 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 over the top (shooting someone already in handcuffs) is not totally irrational in general. My black neighbors in the suburbs dress and act like I do and do not have trouble with racism or with the police. Funny thing. I saw a video last year where a young black man put on a coat and tie and went out and was stunned that people smiled at him and treated him so much better. I also saw a statistic last week that blacks who go to church had a 67% higher chance of becoming middle class. There are lots of things blacks can do for themselves that no one can take away from them and that do not depend on the government. I notice for example white mothers with toddlers constantly are explaining to them what is going on, what is next and why. They will explain why the kid can’t have candy or such. Black mothers generally are only urging the kids to come along and keep quiet. The difference in child-raising must certainly have an impact.

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  2. 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 course and allow the trends of slowly increasing racial equality to continue. The other is pursuing the agenda of “white privilege”, which is less an observation and more a cudgel for rapid social change. It’s purpose is to melt that “swiss cheese” version of equality of opportunity into a uniform Velveta in which equity bureaucrats divvy up opportunities based on racial quotas until the racial demographics of the country are mirrored in all of society’s institutions. Of course, all of this is run through the matrix of intersectionality so that gender, orientation, religion, disability, etc. are all considered alongside race as well. The logic here is that true equality would lead to this end anyway so employing equity just speeds up the process.

    Folks endorsing equity quotas typically believe that people are born as blank slates, all equally capable, some just missing an opportunity. While this may be true when comparing racial groups, it is certainly not true at the level where we all actually operate — the individual level. After all, you can’t hire blackness or asianness to perform a surgery on your sick child, you can only hire an individual doctor. Would you want that doctor to be the best doctor period or the best doctor of one race? How about the best female, black, muslim, disabled doctor? You see, as this brand of social justice increases, our ability to control for merit decreases. Since merit is the only mechanism we have that allows individuals to transcend their race, this is doubly strange.

    The fairness these folks are looking for will continue to elude them, and the reason is simple. The bug of our current system is the main feature of their new system — namely racial discrimination. The idea that you are changing the power dynamic between oppressor and oppressed does not change what racial discrimination is or that it is corrosive to societies. It just changes who it’s aimed at.

    In fairness to the equity argument, one might ask how long someone is supposed to just sit and wait for those holes fill in — for equality of opportunity to reach them. That’s a fair question. If the answer is two generations, what does that do for a person living today? Honestly, it does nothing for them but promise a better world for their children and grandchildren. If we turn it around and ask, what does equity do for them, I’d say it gives them a job today at the expense of the future of their children and grandchildren, because wringing the neck of the goose that lays the golden eggs only gets you dinner once.

  3. 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.

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    1. And the same principle works in reverse in other circumstances , i.e. “playing the race card”:

      A recent discussion on race I had with a black friend who is a political agnostic might help shed some light on the matter. A successful banker by day, he called me to complain about a black work colleague who, when stopped by a white traffic cop for breaking a driving rule in London, had promptly whipped out the race card: “Why did you stop me? Is it because you saw a black man driving an expensive car?”

      The policeman became defensive, muttering nervously it had nothing to do with race. The whole affair ended with the officer issuing a caution, the British equivalent of a citation. My friend who was in the car asked his colleague why he brought up race when he knew he was in the wrong. “Dude, when in a tough spot with a white person, bring up racism and there’s a 99 percent chance they’ll get defensive and back down,” his colleague responded and laughed.

      If shopkeepers are wary of a certain group of people (teenagers more than middle-aged or old people, for example), it is because their experience has taught them that members of that group are more likely to shoplift than others. That isn’t “ageism” or “racism”, that is human nature using its capacity to generalize in self-defense (that food made me sick once, better avoid it).

      The only thing that will cure that kind of generalisation is when the social reality changes so shopkeepers no longer expect different behaviors from different demographics, not yelling at them about “privilege”.

      Meanwhile, other smart people learn to “game the system”.

      https://quillette.com/2018/07/08/the-fear-of-white-power/

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    1. I’m aware of the history of the term. We have an article forthcoming which will trace its use over time. Instead, I opted to talk about how it commonly used and understood now, in wider society.

      1. While it is probably an error to use the term as something other than a “term of art”, it is very “American” in nature. Having lived in the US of A for 54 of my 59 years, the invisibility of whiteness ant its attendant social privileges goes far to explain both my personal and professional experiences.

  4. “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 on the other, the injustice is understood to be experienced both at the level of the individual and the group.

    The truth though is that both the injustice as well as privilege is always ultimately experienced at the level of the individual and talking of people experiencing “generations” or “centuries” of oppression is wrong headed and is exactly the kind of thinking that perpetuates cycles of oppression and breeds resentment that allows future injustices to occur.

  5. 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

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  6. 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 – affecting your anti-racist argument – contend that -isms and privilege are inextricable.

    And I don’t buy the point about alienation, which is not a function of terminology but of underlying proclivities and exposures. There could however be an alienating or opposite effect depending on mode and valence of communication, unrelated to specific word choice.

    But I take your point about framing and emphasis in the abstract. Or if you’re right that the term is popularized by leftists as a totalized, less nuanced cudgel, I don’t know what to say about that.

    How about “white advantage”? Or, “whiteness advantage”? Or even more precisely (yet overly academic?), ‘whiteness relational advantage/propensity/affinity’?

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    1. Further thoughts:

      It should be more helpful for everyone to forget about the terminology for a moment and focus on articulating the concept itself, and responding to that articulation. (I’m sure there are better ways to describe this than I offer here.) Let’s say there is something called “blueblue”. Blueblue is the concept that some of an individual’s personal attributes, usually an intrinsic or ascriptive attribute, affects how others react to or treat you, and possibly your ‘default’ perspective in some sense. Of particular interest are the positive reactions and outcomes associated with forms of blueblue, or a certain favorable relation between those who share blueblue compared to those who do not.

      Is there some analytical value in this “blueblue” concept?

      Now let’s try concrete terminology again. What if we draw on the idea of “dividends”? If X attribute is said to yield dividends, that suggests every member having X is a shareholder in X (LLC). Holding stock in X means that every member of X will be paid out in dividends per their status as shareholders. Now, the payouts are not all the same, and it’s unlikely to make you rich outright, but it is SOMETHING. Something that others don’t get. CRUCIALLY, it is possible to hold stock in many different X LLC simultaneously, a whole portfolio. Every human, in fact, must hold some stock in some X, and receive some dividends. It is not possible to hold stock in every extant X, however. Some portfolios are more lucrative than others…

      Surely there is something to all this?

      1. Yes, of course the term is useful in some ways. David, this is why I steelmanned the concept at the beginning of the essay. I just contend that there are many more ways in which it is not useful.

      2. The concept of blueblue is useful, the problem is calling being treated “normally” a privilege”. Because it is being called that incendiary term, rather than blueblue, precisely to shame and guilt-trip “whites” (or males in the case of “male privilege”).

        Calling it having an “advantage” is better than calling it a “privilege”, because everyone understands that everyone has some advantages and disadvantages in various aspects of life due to the luck of the draw, whereas someone having a “privilege” implies a strong moral judgement that it is something being given unfairly to someone and not to others by some higher authority (parents for example), and that could and should be removed to produce equality.

        I suspect it gets its emotional punch precisely because it triggers childhood memories of sibling rivalry or feeling unfairly treated at school, as one kid gets privileges the others didn’t get.

        It is disingenuous to claim on the one hand that “words matter” when nitpicking language deemed un-PC, then demand that whites shouldn’t object to the use of the term “[white] privilege” and just concentrate on the abstract, academic meaning you suggest. Because that is not the way it is being used in popular usage by the SJWs, as a cool, academic analysis of social structure, it is usually hurled as a personal accusation against individuals.

        Again, the problem isn’t that white people get treated decently, i.e. the way everyone should get treated, it is that other groups may not be. It is not a “privilege” for the majority of people in a society to be treated as if they are the norm, since they are, by definition!

        In Asia, the norm is being Asian, and as a white person, I am immediately assumed to be a tourist, not a native (although white people have been living there for centuries, and many are long-term residents), and not “one of them”, and therefore an easy target for scammers, pickpockets, etc. My white skin is a marker for that. That isn’t “racism” or “Asian privilege”, just human nature.

        If certain groups are treated differently because they are seen as not conforming to the norm, then address that issue, don’t accuse the average, “normal” people of being privileged for being treated normally. That is a much more productive, healthier approach for all concerned.

        1. Well stated. While pointing out an “advantage” might still upset some people I agree it would be less likely to put people on the defensive. I have a hard time believing that proponents of the use of “privilege” really don’t understand the negative connotations. From what I understand its use in academia goes back a way, but this is hardly a selling point for its utility among non-academics who aren’t already sympathetic to the concept.

        2. I’ve taken to calling it “minority penalty” since that much more accurately describes the phenomenon without the pejorative language.

    2. Hi David! I agree that, in a strict sense, white privilege refers only to the fact that being (or looking) white confers an advantage, on average, in the West. The problem is twofold: (1) the statement doesn’t lead to any kind of action—telling people to ‘check their privilege’ (no one has ever been able to explain what this would actually entail) is incoherent; it’s much more effective to tell them to fight instances of racism and oppression and (2) yes, it’s very very widely used to suggest that all whites are “privileged” in a more general sense, or, at the very least, that the person being addressed is “privileged” in a more general sense and (3) I don’t think we should be focusing on “whiteness” at all. The problem is racism. The problem isn’t that white people exist.

  7. 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 shrug it off as a tit-for-tat Us against Them mentality.

    It may seem not worthy of questioning anything outside perceptions narrowly formed by staying within a circle of people who all think, look and gripe alike for generations. Biases soften, change or get left behind when becoming open and celebrating the myriad cultures this world offers. Perhaps given more time, the U.S. will eventually morph into an interracial culture whereby saying any kind of racial slur will end up insulting someone in your immediate family.

    Good wordsmithing by the author—her article received many kind, intelligent responses. Most comments show we’re evolving, albeit slowly, from past injustices and are cognizant of current racially biased events which need changing, must stop, but are occurring mainly in pockets of the U.S.or Canada.

    1. Thank you so much! I have indeed lived in the US twice (one year in Los Angeles; three years in St Paul, Minnesota). I’ve also visited at least a dozen times, often for several months at a time, and I’ve travelled throughout the country. I’ve been staying here in the US over this summer, living in Phoenix, Arizona, so the US and American matters are very much on my mind currently. Also, I feel that whatever happens in the US, politically and culturally, tends to have a strong influence on the rest of the world.

      Re: the Parsis. We are a tiny minority, but we don’t consider ourselves “oppressed,” though there are disadvantages to being a non-Hindu in India. The Parsis are, overwhelmingly, a well-educated, forward-looking, prosperous and successful group. Overachievers abound. As I was orphaned at a young age and have had a very chequered history from childhood on, I haven’t personally benefited from what you might call “Parsi privilege.” But my aim in the book is certainly not to highlight any kind of plight.

      I’m currently reading Sujatha Gidla’s book “Ants among Elephants,” the chronicle of a Dalit family. You should check it out if you’re interested in the issue of untouchability.

      1. These comments are in reply to the reply of the author, so keep scrolling onward…

        There’s a person recently met who opened up about their life as an untouchable. It is a rare learning experience. I can only respectfully listen, take in this really kind person’s account.Thank you for your timely book suggestion.

        India seems a country of puzzling extremes; intellectual geniuses who still hold on to ancient myths; intricately spiced cuisine which is as complex as the people…it’s an intriguing far away place I’m currently perceiving through the memories of an adult fascinating person recently immigrated from India.

        Also to mention: Where you currently reside—Phoenix—offers many health-oriented spas. I hope you’ve checked a few out. It’s gotta be tough to write things for the internet where faceless pseudonyms can say harsh things. Takes a thick skin, for sure…and a few rounds in a jacuzzi and steam room, then a massage and back to the jacuzzi and steam room…life is good…on to writing the next article for Areo!

        1. Thank you! Unfortunately, there is no way I can afford a massage or the use of a spa right now. I wish! The three of us are working for Areo almost for free at the moment, as we build up our Patreon. If you’d like to offer support, please consider shooting us a few dollars a month. https://www.patreon.com/Areo

  8. 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.

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    1. A friendly note : you may not want to use the word “retard”, especially in a public comment of a post that is about language and violence.

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  9. 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.

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    1. On the contrary, I think arguably the greatest white privilege of all is focussing on narcissistic gestural politics such as declaring your guilt at being white and not attempting to deal with any of the real issues actually affecting people of colour. Also, the language of white privilege is one I far more often hear used by white people than by people of colour. It arguably IS “white people having conversations about race on their own terms.”

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      1. Why would I feel guilty about privilege? I have two arms and two legs and am ambulatory. I have health privilege. I don’t feel guilty about it, it just is. If you think privilege is about feeling guilty then you fundamentally misunderstand the concept. Maybe you should have traced the term’s academic origins, or reviewed the scholarly contexts in which it has been employed.

        1. We have an article coming out soon which will trace the term’s academic history. I am aware of that history — and gestured towards it in the article. I am however, more interested in how it’s commonly understood and used outside of the academy. I’m less interested in scholarship here, than in activism and in political campaigning.

        2. It would seen that guilt is the wrong term to use. As a white guy, I should be able to recognize that I benefit from being white. I also benefit from being a guy in American culture. The ability to recognize that others DO NOT have those same benefits is to have compassion. If you have compassion than you can move to help those less fortunate than yourself. All this relies upon two things: Your willingness to recognize your luck, and your honesty in applying help where it is needed and wanted in as fair and equitable manner as you can muster. It is not enough to not be a racist. We must recognize racism, call it out, and help and support those that are and have been victims of systemic bigotry.

          1. And you can do that perfectly well with the vocabulary you had before the creation of the term “white privilege”, as you just did.

            There is a reason the people who love the termt, love it and use it: precisely because they love to see white people made to squirm and feel guilty, more than they actually want to improve the lot of others. It is “payback time”.

            The term adds nothing to the conversation otherwise. People easily recognize that some people are born into easier circumstances than others, the term reveals nothing new about that.

            And of course a majority group will have more influence, and set the norms, than a minority, no need to posit ill intent, it’s just demographics, folks. That’s why the Boomer generation set the tone for decades, demographics. That’s why so many are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of whites becoming a minority in the Us, or even the West: because once that happens, the norms will change in favour of the new majority group.

            You can point out the obvious without the shaming and blaming that come with the use of terms like “privilege”, but that wold take all the fun out of it, wouldn’t it?

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  10. 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 because we cannot trace our history. Another privilege of the white. Thanks for the post it’s unfortunate to see that Black American perception is so tainted world wide.

    1. You have it backwards. Living normal lives should not be seen as a privilege, i.e. something nobody should see as a right, but as what the normal state of affairs should be for everyone, and so you should have the right to claim.

      The thing about a privilege is that it would be perfectly fair for no one to have it, and is that what you want, a word where everyone is miserable? Or is it one where everyone has a decent life?

      If the latter, then stop calling a normal life a privileged one, just claim your right to one, too.

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      1. Im curious how long have you lived in the US? Because you obviously read white privilege somewhere and don’t understand the US meaning. No one is saying it’s there privilege to have exclusive great rights. It’s an underlying program in every Americans sub conscious. Its a perception. Your argument is similar to me telling you to get over rape by just talking about it. As though that will make you safe in a alley. Oh wait I guess that’s my male privilege talking. Only the privileged judge others and tell them to get over it.

        1. Except it is being used in Canada too, where I live, and in other places which do not have the same history as the US. The US is exporting its own cultural neuroses all over the world.

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          1. So you talk of Black Americans and don’t even live here or know any for that matter? Interesting…. Why don’t you write about how you oppress Blacks with privilege in your country? Instead of running your mouth about things you’ve read or seen on TV. And if “we” export this hate why do you drink it up spread it and defend it? Does your magazine have editors or facts checkers? Or they let it slide because this is your best response, spreading ignorance on a global level. Sleep well! I’ve learned to do in the US, I forgive you for you know what you do just not how ignorant you are in what you do.

          2. Warren Stokes-

            Nothing in this article speaks specifically about Americans, black or white. The term has been applied all over the Anglo Western world.

            And the author isn’t American, either.

            But obviously non-Americans are affected by it, too, so we have a right to object to it, too.

            Keep using it if you want, but be aware of the danger of it backfiring, and creating more problems than it solves.

        1. You do realize what the state of the rest of the world is? I am willing to bet you that any black person in US still has rights and opportunities that 70%+ of the world population would die for?

          If there is *any* sort of privilege to be discussed on the global level, it would be “Born in the USA privilege”.

          1. What are you the writers ignorant back up? Don’t come at me with how good you think Blacks in America have it as though that was what the article was about and as if I wrote it. This ignorant writer chose to write about a topic, place and people that she doesn’t live among and cast judgement. It’s garbage and that is part of white privilege here. Saying shit without facts and it stands as fact because white person said it.

      1. Your still on this??? You have no clue what your talking about. A few years in 2 US cities doesn’t make you an expert. Write another article and move on. Have you heard what Americans say about being as good as your last? A given the fact less garbage you wrote you should get to practicing!

    2. Whites are quite aware that Asians (mainly Chinese) beat them in school, as do Jews. Graduate schools in STEM are a minority white and everyone knows it. As to clutching the purse etc-this seems pretty rational given crime rates. Just because it isn’t NICE to be wary of someone doesn’t make it irrational.

      1. So according to you white people should be afraid of black Americans because of crime rate? So what should Blacks do when they see whites coming? I don’t know what stats your reading but by your thinking everyone should be afraid of whites. Look what they have done to the planet? How is it that all you ignorant people are talking on things you have no experience with?

  11. 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 to these subjects, which should be mastered before we write about this stuff. It’s why even I – as a person of colour – do more listening than I do ranting. You’re clearly wedded to writing more than you are reading, which is dangerous given your audience.

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    1. If it takes fields of scholarship to understand this concept, it isn,t very useful in everyday public discussions with everyday people.

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      1. Er…the same could be said of thousands of valuable discoveries in medicine, science and beyond. So what, we abandon them? Jog on.

        1. The difference is the ordinary person doesn’t need to “master fields of scholarship” so they understand the intricacies of nanotechnology, microbiology, etc. before they are allowed to have an opinion on whether some piece of technology is useful to them.

          Here we are being told to just shut up and use it, whether it is useful in real life or not.

          And it isn’t, for the reasons clearly explained here.

          1. I don’t think anyone’s telling you to use it, just as nobody’s being forced to use nanotechnology! But “we are being told to just shut up and use it, whether it is useful in real life or not” is a particularly telling phrase, when it comes to understanding white privilege. The priority, from your perspective, is the protection of white people’s ‘real life’. That real life is the result of forces, some of which are outside of your immediate control. You aim (whether you’re conscious of it or not) is providing succour to those who feel real life is good as it is. That’s why people of colour are stepping in, despite ourselves, to try and quell the spread of this toxic message. Progress is likely to involve discomfort, even for those who feel they have done nothing wrong, and – listen carefully – for those oppressed by other forms of privilege (who we should be fighting for too). On the one hand you claim commitment to keeping uncomfortable truths about racism front and centre, and on the other hand, you are summarily dismissing concepts which are key to that very aim. I think I understand why you, as a person with non-indigenous ancestry, have taken it upon yourself to do this, but your quest is a truly confused, misguided and dangerous one.

          2. rantsonfireblog-

            “The priority, from your perspective, is the protection of white people’s ‘real life’. That real life is the result of forces, some of which are outside of your immediate control. You aim (whether you’re conscious of it or not) is providing succour to those who feel real life is good as it is. ”

            Wrong. That is not my argument. (It is an argument others are making, not me. See below.) I am not concerned with protecting white people’s “feelings”.

            My point is the other one the author made, and which I elaborated on below: that calling the kind of life most white people have a “privilege”, rather than the kind of normative minimum everyone should have, is actually counterproductive *for the objectives of the people using the term*.

            Having a minimally decent life, free of oppression, violence, poverty, etc., is a basic right, not a privilege. A privilege is something no one has a right to. Is that the point you want to make, that a decent life is something no one has a right to? Shouldn’t it be the reverse, that everyone has a right to one?

            But a side-effect of this is also to alienate a lot of white people who otherwise were sympathetic. Is thay also the intent? Actually, I suspect it is. Many really seem to be itching for a race war.

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      1. The tone of your response indicates that the article made you angry, and it is out of that anger that you’re responding. And saying that the author is “for all intents and purposes white” is pretty offensive and racist – you have no right to erase someone else’s identity. Growing up, we had a family friend who was half Native and half German. His brothers looked Native, but he had blonde hair and blue eyes – does that mean he was “white,” despite identifying as Native, holding a tribal membership card and speaking with an accent, while only his brothers were people of color?

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        1. Nobody, for the avoidance of doubt is trying to *erase* anyone’s ancestry. Are you mad? But being a person of colour is a visceral everyday experience for the watcher (and often a subconscious one) and the watched. My own son is in the same position as Iona and I have thought long and hard about how to keep in touch with a culture we’re increasingly remote from. I too have that longing. But to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, you don’t have to be able to empathise to think critically. There may be a need to bridge a communication gap between white people and others but as long time oppressors (something you’d have to be truly bonkers to dispute) the onus is on them. Your attempts to act as an intermediary to protect said white people from discomfort is profoundly misguided.

          1. I was responding to rantsonfireblog above. But at any rate, calling a mixed-race person who is visibly mixed-race (from other photos of hers, she certainly doesn’t look Scottish) “for all intents and purposes white” just because she doesn’t fit his particular ideal of what a person of color should look like is incredibly presumptuous and racist.

          2. First and most importantly, big hugs and love to you and your son! You may find this helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdUunlGWqrw

            But secondly I’m NOT a “long-term oppressor” and nor was my mother so I do dispute that.

            This also isn’t a “communication gap.” It’s worse than that: the term is often used as an inaccurate, unfair scapegoating and demonisation. It’s very similar, in that way, to how people have often described and viewed the Jews. Encouraging hatred against a group is always dangerous. We will fight racism best by being clear, fair and consistent. Whether we’re white—or any other ethnicity. (Btw, I mostly hear white people defending the use of this concept and plenty of people of colour disagreeing.) It’s of *some* use: to raise awareness of disadvantages people of colour suffer which white (or white looking) people might not be aware of. Beyond that, it’s counterproductive in the extreme.

        2. “Having a minimally decent life, free of oppression, violence, poverty, etc., is a basic right, not a privilege. A privilege is something no one has a right to. Is that the point you want to make, that a decent life is something no one has a right to? Shouldn’t it be the reverse, that everyone has a right to one?”

          This is why it’s dangerous to dismiss or ignore scholarship on the actual subjects you’re talking about. You’re trying to traverse too many topics, for the sake of your own ego! It couldn’t be more basic to understand that the concept of privilege, as I’ve said above, is relative. The relationship between rights and privileges is so much more complex than you are trying to make out. For instance, the European Convention on Human Rights sets out rights (none of which you’ve accurately identified) and includes a protection against discrimination. That latter right, however, cannot be relied on as a standalone right. Rather, fundamental rights are to be enjoyed without discrimination (on grounds of race etc). This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussing the difference between human rights, socioeconomic rights, discrimination and inequality and privilege (all of which you’ve conflated in your examples above).

          Rather than being offended, privilege is a – albeit uncomfortable – term which accurately describes the world in which we live, and which people should seek to understand. I really despair at your anti-intellectual approach, and your presumption that all intellectual/academic approaches result in alienating those we’re trying to engage in dialogue with. Your claim I’m trying to start a race war is embarrassingly off the mark, and with zero foundation. Others you’ve criticised along similar grounds have a long record of engaging, not because they like the sound of their own voice as you clearly do, but to explore notions of race hitherto entirely absent from public discourse. If you’re researching India, I hope you come across Amartya Sen, who looks at the history of Magisterial conceptions of that country. I hope the penny will then drop that woke scholars – I’m, unlike you, not shy of the term – are trying to undo centuries of misguided scholarship on people of colour, and other cultures.

          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. Others may be better placed than me to discuss empirical data on racism persisting even as black people break through glass ceilings, or on the higher likelihood of being criminalised, controlling for other privilege-based variables. One thing’s for certain, which is that you’re out of your depth, and endangering progress. I’m not going to expend any more energy engaging here, as other comments suggest it’s a breeding ground for confirmation bias, rather than anything more worthwhile. Enjoy your minions; the rest of us will fight on.

          1. Nice assumptions you’re making there about me being anti-inltellectual, etc. I have two graduate degrees in the “softer” social sciences, and am quite familiar with the theories and lingo. I just disagree with that framework. Many scholars do, Jordan Peterson just being one of the more visible ones. But if course, you would dismiss him as being a “pseudo-scholar”.

            And I happen to not only be aware of Amartya Sen’s book, I actually read it, or at least parts of it, don’t see what it has to do with my argument.

            In fact, you have totally failed to address it, just hand-waving at “scholarship”.

            I continue to maintain use of the concept in ordinary politic discourse is not only misleading, but counterproductive.

          2. And BTW, ironic you would bring up Amartya Sen. If anything, Amartya Sen and I have more similar viewpoints than you and he do:

            “Sen’s magisterial critique of the dominant mode of liberal political philosophy, which chases after the chimera of an ideally just society rather than identifying existing injustices, confirmed him as the English-speaking world’s pre-eminent public intellectual. By 2009, leading politicians from all sides were falling over themselves to claim Sen as their own.”—New Statesman

            “In lucid and vigorous prose, The Idea of Justice gives us a political philosophy that is dedicated to the reduction of injustice on Earth rather than to the creation of ideally just castles in the air. Amartya Sen brings political philosophy face to face with human aspiration and human deprivation in the real world, to whose improvement he has devoted his intellectual life.”—G. A. Cohen, University of Oxford

            “The most important contribution to the subject since John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Sen argues that what we urgently need in our troubled world is not a theory of an ideally just state, but a theory that can yield judgments as to comparative justice, judgments that tell us when and why we are moving closer to or farther away from realizing justice in the present globalized world.”—Hilary Putnam, Harvard University

            Not at all the kind of view being pushed by the radical Left, “check your privilege” types.

        1. The bio is standard, under every article. I mention it in the bio and NOT in the article because it’s relevant to my life (which is what a bio is about) but not relevant to the topic I’m discussing above. Why mention it? Because I’m *writing a memoir* about my Parsi heritage. Parsis are a tiny — and, I believe, fascinating — ethnic minority in India. I’m writing about this because it’s interesting and fun. Being a Parsi is neither something to be proud nor ashamed of. I didn’t choose it. I don’t “weaponise” it. And I don’t think it’s relevant to my opinions on the topic of “white privilege.” If it “springs out” at you, there’s nothing I can do about that, I’m afraid.

    2. > The feelings of the white person are entirely secondary to this expression of generations of oppression.

      Do you believe that the feelings of a poor child who happens to have white skin are secondary to “expressions of generations of oppression?”

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      1. No because I am not trying to create facile categorisations like you are. The experience of marginalisation is not exclusive to black people, but the concept of white privilege sits comfortably alongside that statement. A child born into white poverty still has privilege over a child born into black poverty, even with identical upbringings. Privilege is woven into the fabric of society. Racism is not simply a switch we can simply turn off and on. The fact I have to spell that out really shows the level I am dealing with here.

        1. > A child born into white poverty still has privilege over a child born into black poverty, even with identical upbringings.

          How can you be possibly certain of this? Surely, somewhere in the world, two such children could be compared with the outcome being be the reverse of what you claim. Would that not then invalidate “white privilege” as being a stain on ALL white people?

        2. > No because I am not trying to create facile categorisations like you are.

          I’m simply testing the idea that all white individuals have white privilege by laying out an edge case.

          > A child born into white poverty still has privilege over a child born into black poverty, even with identical upbringings.

          How can you possibly be certain of this in all circumstances? If we find two such children and the outcome is the opposite of what you claim, then your argument is invalid.

  12. 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.

    1. Thank you! Please make sure you seek help if you have suicidal ideation again. You are not alone. Be well and be happy.

  13. 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 grew up just as poor if not more so. But the MESSAGE doesn’t work!!! Why can’t the intersectional left see that?

    Good work!

    – Barney
    (Yenrap Rellin)

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  14. 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 why is this so difficult for proponents of the concept to see?

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    1. To elaborate: speaking of privilege implies something that’s nice to have, but that one could easily do without, because not strictly necessary, and could easily be removed without doing any harm. It certainly isn’t something everyone has a right to.

      That maybe the case with having a mansion, servants, multiple cars, traveling first class, closets full of designer clothes, etc.

      But is that the message the Left really wants to send about human dignity, physical and emotional security, health care, loving parents, education, cultural representation, a feeling of belonging, etc.?

    2. I totally agree with your statement about unjust police violence. It’s almost as if the goal, for some on the Left and Center Left, is to ensure that all demographic groups are proportionally represented within the police killings and violence rather than to eliminate/eradicate this violence completely.

      Adolph Reed, a professor of African-American politics at University of Pennsylvania and long-time labor organizer, writes about this in a piece he published two years ago on NonSite: https://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence

      Reed argues that, while black people are disproportionately (people often insinuate that “disproportionately” means “the majority”) represented in the police violence data, racial disparity is actually not the best framework for understanding and addressing the phenomena itself. I’m not arguing that anti-black/anti-brown racism is never a factor in a killing, but maybe there is more than one singular cause?

      Surely, mental illness (in the sense that police are often not well-equipped to respond to people with severe mental illness), poverty, over-availability of firearms in the general population, “tough-on-crime” rhetoric (rhetoric that was advocated by President Bill Clinton’s administration and by some black politicians in majority black cities – Charlie Rangel of Harlem, for example), over-policing of certain communities, and other factors should be considered – especially because black people, though disproportionately represented, are not the only population appearing in the data. If you look at data collected by the Washington Post from last year (2017), you’ll see that 457 white people, 223 black people, 179 Latinx people, 44 other, and 84 unknown were killed nationwide – https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2017/

      I’m sure that my pointing this out will upset some people, but it needs to be said in order for solutions to be developed. I’ve often heard it said that “If this were happening to white people, there would be an uproar.” Well, it is happening to a good number of them…it’s happening to white people, black people, Latino people, people who don’t identify with racial binaries, and people of unknown racial/ethnic identity. The questions to ask are “Why?” and “What are we going to do about it?,” and the answer does not seem to be a simplistic “anti-black racism/white supremacy.”

      There are similar arguments being made about mass incarceration – Reed and others are arguing that the application of disparities analysis to the incarceration rates in the United States ignores the fact that the United States would still have among the highest prison population in the world even if the racial disparities were removed.

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