The Progressive Case Against White Privilege

The arguments against the existence of white privilege are stereotypically represented as originating primarily from right-wingers and grounded in conservative notions about American meritocracy. But there is a stronger argument against the concept, which comes from the very philosophical tradition that its supporters claim as their intellectual heritage.

White privilege is a flawed paradigm, which ascribes racism to a process which does not contain it. But, more importantly, it’s an ultimately self-defeating notion, which negates some of the most fundamental principles of equality and human rights.

The term was brought into the mainstream by Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. It is essentially a list of statements about the author’s life, which she argues are privileges accrued by virtue of her race, to her and, by extension, to all white people.

Let us take two of these items:

  1. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  2. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

We will come back to #19 in a moment, but for now let’s examine item 20. The fundamental issue with white privilege is that it is very difficult to prove that such situations are due to theoretical oppression rather than simple demographic overrepresentation. Much of McIntosh’s essay is devoted to the difficulty of finding products and services tailored to racial minorities.

It is puzzling to consider the abundance of pale-skinned dolls, for example, a societally conferred privilege. No central committee has decreed this and we have no evidence that the decisions underlying it were racially motivated at all. We are talking about an advantage which accrues to the majority group in any culture, one which can be found among black people in African countries, Muslim people in Middle Eastern countries and, yes, white people in America. A demographic mismatch does not in itself prove unfair discrimination.

McIntosh identifies the second issue herself, towards the end of her essay:

But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups. We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantages, which, unless rejected, will always reinforce our present hierarchies. For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally, it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the US consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.

McIntosh’s terminology is wrong. The characteristics described here are rights—not privileges, unearned advantages or conferred dominance. To use her own example, not being stopped by the police randomly or being subject to government scrutiny on the basis of race-based suspicion is a human right.

As Lewis Gordon argues in the collection, What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question:

A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white-privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things?

The dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” But Gordon is correct that a privilege is universally thought of as an unnecessary allowance and most of our discourse is defined by the connotation of our words and phrases. We rarely stick absolutely to their denotation. If we did, then, for example, the conservative argument against homosexual marriage (that the strict denotation of marriage refers specifically to the heterosexual variety) would be valid. I, for one, strongly disagree with this position.

Consider how the legal system treats freedom of speech versus driving a car. The former may not be denied us, even as a criminal punishment. Felons may not be stripped of their right to speak. However, one must earn the privilege of driving a car by passing a test. From a legal perspective, freedom of speech is a right, available to all, whereas driving is a privilege, which may be restricted.

If we want equality for people of all races, we must embrace the paradigm of human rights. To do otherwise paradoxically undermines the most valuable and powerful argument against racism that has ever been employed by human society. Was it privileges that Martin Luther King was fighting for or basic human rights?

Why are progressives who are theoretically supportive of equality so quick to disparage humanistic individualism—seemingly the best defense of equality? The best manifestations of anti-racism, feminism and all philosophies which seek to represent the oppressed have taken as their fundamental presuppositions the supreme value, worth and dignity of the individual, as guaranteed by the rights owed her by the state and by society at large. This is not a minor terminological distinction, motivated by obsessive pedantry or a fundamental animus towards anti-racist thought. It is of paramount importance, and though seemingly subtle, has practical real world consequences.

Radical left-wingers insist that white people are complicit in the system of oppression in America because they are exercising their privileges (such as not being stopped unfairly by the police) to the detriment of those who don’t have them. That’s a logically coherent argument if we accept these as privileges and not rights. This worldview assigns collective guilt on a racial basis. That is not a path we should walk again.

Clarity and precision matter because words express ideas, and even people who have a tenuous grasp on those ideas will find themselves playing out the set of assumptions which come pre-packaged within them. When one builds a linguistic, logical or political system on a flawed set of assumptions, those flaws will inevitably become manifest in the real world.

Consider the case of Bret Weinstein, as described by Bari Weiss in her article for the New York TimesWhen the Left Turns on Its Own”:

Day of Absence is an Evergreen [University] tradition that stretches back to the 1970s. As Mr. Weinstein explained on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, “in previous years students and faculty of color organized a day on which they met off campus—a symbolic act based on the Douglas Turner Ward play in which all the black residents of a Southern town fail to show up one morning.” This year, the script was flipped: “White students, staff and faculty will be invited to leave campus for the day’s activities,” reported the student newspaper on the change. The decision was made after students of color “voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election.”

Bret Weinstein thought this was wrong. The biology professor said as much in a letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles,” he writes, “and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.” The first instance, he argues, “is a forceful call to consciousness.” The second “is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” In other words, what purported to be a request for white students and professors to leave campus was actually an act of moral bullying— “to stay on campus as a white person would mean to be tarred as a racist.”

For this act of heresy, Professor Weinstein was mobbed by student activists, and his class was threatened so severely that he was forced off campus to teach his next class, because his safety couldn’t be guaranteed. The actions of these student activists, while reprehensible, seem to be a logical conclusion of the white privilege paradigm. Why should minority students tolerate white people exercising their privilege of feeling safe on campus when others clearly cannot? Why should this privilege be allowed on campus in any form if it can be renounced?

This is the sort of odious behavior that can result from a seemingly small terminological error in a complex idea/system. So, while it’s likely that many people do not use this term with any specific malice in mind, it is important to question the essential underpinnings of our systems of thought, especially when we see so much evidence that they are being misused.

The consequences of this line of thinking were on full display during the last election cycle. The idea of white privilege seemed insulting and inaccurate to many white people in communities hit very hard by poverty, obesity, the opioid epidemic and a thousand other horrors. The coal miner who drags himself home every day, having worked himself one step closer to black lung, returning to a family for whom he has failed to provide, is understandably annoyed at being called privileged. He would not be similarly outraged to hear that some of us who are still discriminated against due to our race are having our human rights violated.

By making that simple transformation of language we enter an entirely new frame of reference. Suddenly, instead of focusing on all the things some of us have which others do not, we’re talking about perversions of justice being perpetrated on the vulnerable. We’re pointing to the black man who had his loan application denied due to his skin color and being justifiably outraged on his behalf rather than pointing to the white man who had his accepted and condemning him as a privileged oppressor. Truly, this is the best path forward for us, as a society.

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17 comments

  1. I’m not entirely sure what the author hopes to accomplish with article. It’s very amateurish, with comments that appear from the author’s base of college frat buddies.
    Denying the existence of something but arguing that they aren’t responsible for the very thing they deny – the plight of their fellow human – it’s non sequitur. It’s fear. It’s anger. It’s privilege. And that suggests you don’t even see yourself as a work in progress.
    I would think that someone in their early 20s would have an outlook of change, not denial. We ALL have an obligation to the FUTURE, to fix what has been done wrongly in the past, because we are part of that legacy. That is the wisdom you lack.
    Face it, the ONLY thing you have done to be here was have the luck to be born white, male, and American. It could have gone a lot differently for you if chance weren’t on your side.

    1. If we truly have such an obligation to right the wrongs of our ancestors then we will all drown under the weight of it. It’s an untenable proposition. The importance of the rights privileges distinction isn’t to provide an excuse for people to be selfish or narrow minded but to avoid tying people to their group.
      This is where the modern left wingers have gone astray. We cannot solve anything by admonishing people to repent for the circumstances of their birth. Instead, we must look to those who are still oppressed and find ways of freeing them.
      Finally, I’d like to suggest that you know nothing about me beyond a two sentence biography and have no basis for the claim that all that I have is due to my race and gender. You know nothing about my circumstances, how hard I have worked or what challenges I have faced. I don’t know why or how race and gender became the canonical characteristics left wing analysis uses to define people but it’s a small minded proposition which in and of itself perpetuates the very racism and sexism it claims to abhor.

  2. There are some logical problems of causation in the debate. For example, while it is nice to not be pulled over for no reason, I personally did not CAUSE that and that fact does not make me complicit in racism, nor can I renounce not getting pulled over. Similarly, while I may have been aided by having 2 parents, this does not harm anyone else nor did my situation cause their parents to divorce or never marry.
    One of the complicating factors also is that people disagree violently on what causes what. For the Left, shoveling money at the poor and punishing the rich is the solution. For conservatives, growing the economy, reducing occupational licensing barriers, lowering barriers to building homes in cities, etc is how you help the poor. These two things are not the same. If you tell a leftist that you have data showing that raising the min wage hurts young black men a lot, they will say it should be done anyway (I just had such a conversation).

  3. About the demographic overrepresentation argument for explaining the presence of people of your own race in magazines, maybe that applies to Europe and perhaps the US and Canada, but I found it very eye catching in my travels to some Latin American countries how the people featured in magazines and advertisements were clearly different from what you could see in the streets.

  4. While I understand the annoyance at poor whites being told they’re privileged, that of itself doesn’t refute ‘Privilege theory’. If the theory was true, and something called ‘structural whiteness’ was a meaningful descriptor of how society operates then the coal miner should just suck it up and then complain to the riches whites for denying them their rightful share of someythey had no right to. What makes the theory nonsense is that ‘structural whiteness’ is nothing more than linguistic wibble, that the theory relies on an almost childishly simplistic view of human identity, and as the article beautifully points out relies on a confusion between rights and privileges.
    If you listen to McIntosh speak what strikes you is the narcissism. She seems far more interested in the virtue gained from a self flagelating self loathing about her ‘whiteness’ than she is about challenging injustice.
    It’s a theory which can only lead to navel gazing, and political inaction.

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    1. While it’s true that the annoyance of poor whites doesn’t refute the idea of white privilege, I feel that it is important to acknowledge, because I see this concept and the underlying philosophy to be one of the main factors driving the white working class to the political right. As left wingers increasingly embrace an identity politics which strips people of their individual identity and places us all within a group-based classification people continue to retreat into their tribal identities. This is intensely frustrating to me because true liberals for the last several centuries, who embrace Enlightenment values attributing to us all individual worth and dignity, have been working to tear down these arbitrary distinctions. Now, the more radical modern left-wingers are working to undo this progress very rapidly.

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      1. I understand and agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, but care needs to be given that it doesn’t appear to just tip over into a white identity politics. One of the consistent attacks on critics of identity politics is that they really just want minorities to shut up and go back in their box.
        Given that Trumpist populists do want exactly that, ensuring it’s clear it’s the pernicious theory that’s being attacked, not any form of existing injustice defended is really important.
        In fact one of the most powerful arguments against these theories is they’re actually useless at challenging the injustices they claim to be concerned with.

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  5. “The coal miner who drags himself home every day, having worked himself one step closer to black lung, returning to a family for whom he has failed to provide, is understandably annoyed at being called privileged.”
    It is from that sense of entitlement that white privilege grows. Why would the coal miner think he is entitled to a job that provides for his family? It is only because of the access he has to that job by way of his privilege. Furthermore, the “forgotten” American, aka fat white middle America, has been hit hard by poverty and opioids because they were complicit in their own demise; for 200 years they pillaged resources, took land, trees, coal, minerals, oil, anything they could get their hands because they felt entitled to the benefits from it all. And they didn’t get it fair and square. They put arbitrary barriers in place so that others (non-whites and women) couldn’t participate equally. It is with that compound interest they live with privilege.

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    1. It is that oppression which we should be focusing on, not foisting the sins of the father onto the son. By talking about human rights we quickly see that those arbitrary barriers are reprehensible, and work to eliminate them rather than persecuting people who had nothing to do with putting those barriers into place to begin with.

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    2. “American, aka fat white middle America, has been hit hard by poverty and opioids because they were complicit in their own demise; for 200 years they pillaged resources, took land, trees, coal, minerals, oil, anything they could get their hands because they felt entitled to the benefits from it all”

      Some pretty old people working at white dominance for 200 years. Are you sure they’re even people? I’d be suspicious of any claims that they are. Maybe they’re warlocks or sorcerers or something?

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      1. they’re witches. I’ve seen them dancing naked by a bonfire outside the village, consorting with the devil and speaking in tongues.

    3. Why would someone believe they’re entitled to a job that provides for their family? Because it’s a fundamental human right, not a privilege.
      Yours is the logic of an endless cycle of accusation and grievance with the only organising principle being power.
      If you think what you’re arguing for is justice, then you’ll need to explain it as currently your argument just seems incoherent.

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      1. “Because it’s a fundamental human right, not a privilege.”

        This proposition is simply wrong, no matter how many socialist politicians assert it. What you forget is that a Right is not a free standing property of an individual. Every Right is the correlative of a Duty. Right and Duty are the inseparable terms of a single relationship which is Obligation. There is no Right enjoyed without a Duty owed, and vice versa. They are the two faces of a single coin called Obligation. To have a job is to be employed by someone; and that is so whether you are employed consistently by a single employer for whom you work exclusively, or are employed sporadically by several employers who might more usually be called customers. To say that you have a Right to a job is to say that at least one someone, somewhere, is somehow under a Duty to employ you. The question immediately arises: who is this someone and how did he/she/ae become obligated to you so as to give you the Right to be employed by him/her/aer and to place him/her/aer under a Duty to employ you? I will tell you now, I have been reading the moral arguments of the Left for more than 40 years, and I have never yet seen any attempted justification of that proposition which held up under logical analysis.

        1. Yes, this is absolutely true. The more important thing to focus on is this: we cannot ever under any circumstances condemn someone for the crimes of his forefathers. White people, to the degree that they benefit from the oppressive actions of their ancestors (and not all do) are not guilty of those crimes.
          What we must do, as rapidly as possible, is eliminate any impediments that are placed in people’s way that have anything to do with their ethnicity, sex, identity, or any such immutable characteristic because these are clearly wrong.

    4. Again, that expectation to a job is one of rights.

      Article 23.

      (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
      (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
      (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
      (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

      http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html

  6. Excellent article! Especially this section:

    “The idea of white privilege seemed insulting and inaccurate to many white people in communities hit very hard by poverty, obesity, the opioid epidemic and a thousand other horrors. The coal miner who drags himself home every day, having worked himself one step closer to black lung, returning to a family for whom he has failed to provide, is understandably annoyed at being called privileged.”

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