Since our “white privilege” episode, my thoughts have crystallized a bit on this, so I’m hoping this simple formulation may help cut through some of our listeners’ confusion surrounding this issue:
“White Privilege” (or just “Privilege” in general used in this way) should not be taken as a claim about a mechanism behind disparities, but just a way of pointing out that the disparities exist, disparities that may not be obvious or seem important to you because you are not the one being disadvantaged by them. It is not a claim about what causes disparities at all, but a way of thinking and talking about disparities, which may or may not be helpful for particular purposes. Both opponents and proponents of the use of “privilege” rhetoric can fall into talking about privilege as if it were a literal mechanism of causation, and this obscures mutual understanding of what’s at issue.
What disparities is this rhetoric trying to call our attention to? Well, the ones described in McIntosh’s “Invisible Backpack” and shown graphically in Tim Wise’s “White Like Me” documentary. So if you want to argue that there’s no white privilege, then you need to deny that these disparities do in fact exist.
Now, there are a lot of claims made in those two sources, especially in Wise’s, which include claims based on historical interpretation like the one that anti-tax, anti-government sentiments really boil down to racism. While I agree with Wise in these instances, these are more matters of interpretation than objectively verifiable fact.
But many of the claims—e.g., about disparities in educational and professional outcomes, about treatment by police, about demographic distribution—are simply well-established facts. In our discussion, we talked about how it was strange to talk about a “privilege” of not being subject to a particular hardship, that using that term “privilege,” with its connotations of country clubs and landed estates and servants hovering around waiting to tie your shoes, is misleading and provocative. But if you believe that these disparities are real, important problems, then using some inflammatory rhetoric to make people aware of them is not a terrible idea, even if, strictly speaking, not being harassed does not fit under any dictionary definition of the word “privilege.”
The facts about disparities change over time, luckily, so for example, McIntosh’s 1988 claim that “7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race,” has (at least in the schools in my area; I can’t speak to Alabama or thereabouts) been addressed, and in fact schools are so very aware of this kind of thing that it can produce some irritated backlash in parents. My kids learned much more about Cesar Chavez then they did about George Washington, or Plato for that matter, throughout their grade school careers. But that’s OK: Their intellects are very well intact, and it’s better to overdo it a bit in harmless ways in correcting a historical injustice than to fail to address the problem.
Some of McIntosh’s claims speak to psychology, and amount to positive, non-obvious truths: “12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.” Now, this might sound presumptuous, like it’s assuming something about how each of us reacts to other people. How can these liberals know our hearts? But it’s basic in-group/out-group psychology that requires some vigilance to guard against: When a stranger of our group acts like a jerk, we tend to assume that it’s because the person is a jerk, but when someone of another group acts like a jerk, we tend to attribute this behavior to the quality of their group. And of course this cuts both ways: It is very much possible as, e.g., a rural white person or as an evangelical, to be stereotyped in this way. This is a key part of what racism today really amounts to, and doesn’t require that the racist have “hate in his heart” or would, if asked, actually affirm racist views. This kind of racism is of course much “better” than overt disrespect of the kind we associate with historical periods, but it’s a real thing, and the rhetoric of privilege is again supposed to call our attention to it.
Even less controversially, many of McIntosh’s claims have to do with the experience of minorities. “21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.” So even if you as a white person don’t hold any overtly racist views and are conscious of in-group/out-group psychological forces that might drive you to stereotype, and live in a community where most other white people are conscious in this way as well, the minority citizen may still feel this way. You might say, “Well, look, I’ve done all I can; I’m not responsible for how people feel in reaction,” but you can’t deny that this feeling is out there and widespread and represents a real problem unless you claim not to believe them when they say they feel this way (and how presumptuous is that?), that you think that those who express these sentiments are just some exceptional complainers and don’t in general represent the minority experience (so maybe you’d better talk to more minorities and see if they feel the same way), or maybe just don’t care how other people feel (in which case you’re a sociopath).
The notion that “white privilege” causes police to treat whites differently than blacks or causes any number of other disparities is literally nonsense. Saying this does not mean that I’m denying that the disparities exist, or that race is not causally involved, but neither systematically racist policing procedures or the racism of individual police officers is well described by their literal recognition of a privilege (which might require that they think in terms of privilege, instead of this being a designation applied by anti-racists after the fact) and changing their behavior as a result of this recognition.
But as a metaphor, as a way of describing a set of phenomena that we can observe but whose causes are complex and non-obvious, it’s pretty illustrative: It is AS IF white people (or men, or white men, depending on how you’re using the image) were walking around with an aura that granted them special treatment. Granting activists this rhetoric is granting them the use of an illuminating metaphor, but don’t get stuck on the semantics of the term. The argument should always shift to the specific claims being alleged, which include:
- That current disparities exist (you may want to argue with some of the statistics about disparities, but surely not all of them, right? …not if you accept that social science data collection is legitimate)
- That minorities feel condescended to and treated rudely in some situations (again, you could argue that in some situations, they’re being oversensitive or seeing malice where there is none, but are you really going to think you know better than they do about their own day-to-day experiences?)
- That historical disparities were horrendous (unless you have Holocaust-denier levels of intellectual vapidity, you’re not going to deny this)
- That historical disparities have relevance for current disparities (are you really so confident in the meritocracy of our society that you think that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow—or the subjugation of women or historical anti-Semitism or whatever is relevant to the case you’re considering—have left no legacy that should be in some way addressed now?)
- That in-group/out-group psychological forces are real (maybe just do the slightest bit of research to learn about this if you’re skeptical)
So, there’s lots of room still to argue about how and to what extent history affects the present, why the various disparities exist, how important they are relative to other social problems, how much influence things like media representation and the use of language have on prejudice, what are the appropriate means for trying to rectify the problems identified and whether they can be rectified at all. None of these arguments amounts, though, to dismissing all talk of “privilege” as offensive nonsense, which is the default position for anyone with a beef against political correctness or social justice warriors.
Privilege talk should not be that hard to understand: Whenever someone else has a problem that you don’t, you have the privilege of not having to in general worry about that problem. That’s really all there is to it. We can’t always be inclusive to everyone with every kind of problem in every situation, but neither should we let the overall volume of problems in the world simply overwhelm and harden us. Acknowledging that some one has a problem, or that a group of people tends to experience the same problem, doesn’t mean that this problem suddenly acquires paramount importance or claims our undivided attention or immediate action: An accusation of “privilege!” doesn’t mean that the problem being referred to automatically gets privileged. It doesn’t mean that you don’t also have problems of your own that deserve a hearing. Still, maybe next time you hear this, try to listen to the complaint and evaluate it on its merits, understanding that the complaining person is probably in a better position to understand the complaint than you are… you know, given that it has been your privilege to not have been subjected to whatever the thing is day and and day out.