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:
- 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.
- 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. Were they 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 Times “When 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.”
Mr 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.