A note on white privilege

Thanks to Barry (Ampersand) the 16th Erase Racism carnival is up. It’s there I found a link to this powerful post from Naima: “It ain’t privilege, it’s injustice”. It begins:

a particular phenomenon in the immensely white Leftist circles at yale is a rhetorical and ideological obssession with the notion of White Privilege.

it is not uncommon to hear a white liberal campus organizer at yale say something along the lines of, “we white students at yale walk around enjoying a great deal of privilege because of the color of our skin – it is because of this privilege that we must work to uplift the citizens of new haven.”

…as a blactivist at yale, i have found it rare to emerge from an organizing conversation or meeting with a white peer without a guilt-stricken or self-righteous allusion to “White Privilege.”

I have a hard time believing that in 2007, any “white liberal campus organizer” would use the verb “uplift”, unless they did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek!

Still, I smiled when I read this. I had impeccable liberal credentials during my undergraduate years at Berkeley in the mid-1980s. My freshman year, I participated in anti-ROTC and “divest from South Africa” demonstrations. Later, I worked with groups that sought an ethnic studies requirement for graduation; that mandate was eventually put in place my senior year. In my ethnic studies classes (where I was often one of the only white men), I alternated between being adversarial and apologetic. Both served a purpose. When I was adversarial, I provided a helpful foil; when I was apologetic for my white privilege, I was demonstrating my good intentions, if nothing else.

I grasped quickly that white privilege manifested itself in a variety of ways. It had never occurred to me to question why it was that store managers never followed me around, worried that I would shoplift. It never occurred to me that it was unusual to have the first police officer to pull me over for speeding (when I was 17) address me as “sir” and let me off with a warning. It never occured to me that it was a huge confidence-booster to have most of my classes taught by professors who looked as if they could be my uncles or aunts. Realizing that the color of my skin gave me this unmerited privilege was eye-opening.

Of course, I quickly became adept — as many well-intentioned and earnest young white liberals invariably are — at bringing up my white privilege as often as possible. I said things like “I’m really becoming aware of how privileged I am” or “I never knew how many things I could take for granted because I was born with white skin.” I also began to believe that if I pre-emptively apologized for having this privilege, I could redirect the anger of “people of color” away from me and towards those “other white people”, the ones who weren’t as enlightened as I.

It’s almost axiomatic on college campuses that a significant percentage of white progressives are eager to expiate real or imagined guilt. One rather simple (and to many people of color, exasperating) way for white people to prove their progressive bona fides (and get rid of that pesky guilt) is to throw some acknowledgement of their own white privilege into virtually every sentence. It’s similar to what some young men do when they first start discovering feminism. These anti-racist newbies (of which I surely once was one) imagine that approaching virtually ever situation with an “I’m sorry” on their lips is one road towards the acceptance they crave.

The problem is that many young white liberals value expiating their own guilt over really getting rid of race-based privilege. Naima:

if the world were organized by “White Privilege” rather than “Racism,” a police officer might be especially kind to white people while nonetheless providing people of color with legal protection, aid, fairness under the law.

and so the white Leftists who think they are down because they have got the courage to lamentably declare, “We’ve got White Privilege,” it would be more accurate and truthful to say instead, “We are beneficiaries of racism,” or “We participate in a racialized system of oppression.”

how much more reluctant is the race conscious white activist to admit that his “privilege” has a consequence, that his whiteness is more than merely a personal reality about his own social power but is also an agent of violence.

Bold emphasis mine. That was me for a very long time. Talking about one’s own “white privilege” and, better yet, claiming to “renounce” it (as if that were genuinely possible), is immensely satisfying. It’s also more than a little self-centered. Reading this post, I’m reminded that all too often, the language of “white privilege” serves to re-center the discussion of racism away from its victims and back on to the sensibilities of the privileged and the powerful.

I don’t make apologies for my cultural whiteness any longer (see my “Happy White Boy” and first OKOP post on that subject). But of course, no one was ever asking me to apologize for preppiness or a long-term subscription to Town and Country. What the activists of color I’ve worked with have asked me to do is, first of all, be honest as North Star asks the white Yalies to be honest. It’s not enough to cop to white privilege — we who benefit from that privilege do so at the expense of others. In this case, privilege is a zero-sum game.

And of course, the real problem is that talking endlessly about “white privilege” reinforces its power. Endlessly lamenting something you think you wish you didn’t have simply makes it seem all the more potent.

0 thoughts on “A note on white privilege

  1. As a white student at Yale, I am not at all surprised that someone talked about “uplifting” the people of New Haven – lifting them up out of an impoverished, often crime-ridden situation. Perhaps it was a bad choice of words, but I don’t think it has to mean “lifting out of savagery” or “cultural uplift” in any way; it doesn’t seem like it has to refer to any specific racial group, either. There’s a value judgement there, but not a racial one.

    Addressing the meat of the topic: If, as I agree, whining about “white privilege” doesn’t fix anything, what should we be doing? If other people’s racism means that they assume black people are going to steal things and white people aren’t, what can I do about that?

    Why not admit that “white privilege” (or “being treated like a person”) can help in the fight to give everyone the same treatment? It’s always more influential to hear something from someone you respect than to hear it from someone you look down on already.

    So what’s wrong with using others’ subconscious evaluation of us as “okop” to further equality of all people? The existence of poor people doesn’t mean that the rich should burn all their possessions and live in squalor; it means that they should use the money they have to make the world a better place and to help bring the less fortunate up to that same level. The ideal is to get to a point where everyone is treated like a person.

    I have a feeling that I’m missing the point here, and I’d much appreciate any correction you could offer.

  2. Lisa, I think you’d get a better answer from asking the folks at North Star, who are more familiar with the New Haven dynamic.

    Look, I have no problem with OKOP noblesse oblige. I also know it can come across as infuriatingly paternalistic, and frequently ends up redirecting the conversation away from those who are oppressed. It’s not that white privilege isn’t a real concept, it’s that copping to one’s white privilege as an admission ticket to a discussion about race is, often, maddening to the very people who benefit least from that privilege. Far from indicating sensitivity, it indicates self-absobrtion.

  3. This post reminds me of CS Lewis’ discussion of “unselfishness” as a mistaken way to talk about the virtue of love. White liberal guilt still focuses on the white person – self-flagellation as self-assertion. Similarly, Lewis said “unselfishness” measures the morality of an action by how deprived the actor feels, not by whether the recipient is actually being loved or helped. No longer needing to justify yourself, or think about your goodness/badness, is how the gospel frees you to take care of others. A lot of what passed for liberalism when I was in college was this sort of self-indulgent breast-beating which didn’t accomplish anything – except to make it un-PC for me to point out the *class* privilege of folks who were laying a guilt trip on me! How hard it is to find ways to talk about group inequalities w/o the zero-sum egotism of identity politics.

    In defense of white privilege self-confessors, though, what is the alternative? NOT making that gesture of responsibility, in interracial dialogue, may come across as the kind of naive color-blindness that one found in Republicans’ discussions of “merit” during the 1990s affirmative action debates. (Confession moment: I was one of them!)

  4. This is a really excellent post. I think you did a great job both explaining the issue and pointing out that this kind of attitude is often one step in a larger process of unlearning racism.

  5. Thanks, labyrus. Jendi, I think the alternative to talking about “white privilege” incessantly isn’t to fall silent, but rather to be more specific — as the North Star post implores us to be — about the ways in which our privilege is really more about being complicit in oppression.

  6. Hugo, thanks for clearing that up – it makes a lot of sense now that I can look at the problem as being not about the concept of “white privilege” but about the obsession with it. Talking about it like it’s “just the way things are” does tend to discourage looking for ways to stop enabling oppression; it’s too easy.