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.
Alexandre Zani says
I think you’re missing an important part. Privilege also includes the idea that these inequities are so built-in to the structure of our social interactions that seeing them in very hard. As a white person, I breath white privilege every day and so in the same way that I won’t notice air unless I pay very close attention to it, I won’t notice privilege unless I pay attention to it. And this is important because it breaks my model of the world in a systematic manner.
Imagine you are building a fire. Well, you know that with a lighter, you can set fire to a piece of paper. That has always been true in your experience. Now I tell you that I tried that and it failed. I must be lying surely. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. But I’m not lying or an idiot. I tried to light a piece of paper on fire in a vacuum. Since you breath air every day, you would never think about that. (Unless you learned about it specifically in say, a science class) Privilege works the same way.
Let’s consider say, police shootings. I have had a bunch of interactions with police officers and I have learned a lot from those interactions. I have learned that when I just walk by, police officers leave me alone. I have learned that they are always courteous. I have learned that they only pull over people who have done something wrong. (The only times I’ve been pulled over were when I was speeding or had inadvertently done an illegal turn) I have learned police officers certainly don’t point their gun at me. Ever. I can imagine when they might point a gun at me: if I’m acting in a threatening manner.
Now, I see that a black man was shot. So I apply my model. Witnesses claim the black man was acting peacefully. Wait, that can’t be right. Every time I acted peacefully, the police officer was courteous and perhaps even helpful. Witnesses claim the black man was pulled over without any cause. That can’t be right. The only times I was pulled over, I had done something wrong. He probably did something wrong. But of course, there is a variable my model doesn’t take into account. Since I built my model using only data from a white person interacting with law enforcement, I can’t just blindly generalize to a black person interacting with law enforcement. That’s called biased sampling in statistics.
The above two are the same thing. Some things are so pervasive of your experience that unless you pay very close attention to them, you won’t notice that they shape your understanding of the world in a systematic way. You have air privilege. You go about your life just assuming air without even realizing it. I have white privilege. I go about my life assuming whiteness without even realizing it. In both cases, when our assumptions are wrong, we make mistakes. Aerospace engineers need to go beyond their naive intuitions and remember there isn’t air everywhere and that some things don’t work as expected when there isn’t air. We (who are white) need to go beyond our naive intuitions and remember not everybody is white and that some things don’t work as expected when someone isn’t white.
Being black is kind of like being in a vacuum. People who never experience it don’t understand what is likely to happen to you. (Unless they sit down and think about it.)
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, Alexandre. I’ve made some additions to the post in reaction to this. What you’ve said here is a great way of illustrating privilege, but doesn’t I think counter my claim that privilege is a metaphor and not a literal, causal claim. Even in your example, you’re not saying WHY a black person was pulled over more by police, only that it does happen, that white people have trouble believing this, and the notion of privilege captures well both aspects of this phenomenon. But using the term privilege here is not going to convince a Sam-Harris-type rationalist that you’ve given “evidence” for systematic, disparate treatment that was caused by racism, which was what I had in mind when writing this.
Mark, your distinguishing between causal mechanism and consequence is a breath of fresh air, really helps me sort out problems I was having with the conversation.
Alexandre Zani says
Thanks Mark. I think the post was actually quite good even to start with. (And should have opened my last comment with that.)
I still think that saying “white privilege caused this white police officer to shoot this black person” can be meaningful in a number of ways. If white privilege represents a systematic difference in the experience of whites and non-whites which causes systematic differences in the models of the world that whites and non-whites have, we should also expect it to result in systematic differences in the actions of whites and non-whites. In other words, the bias introduced by his biased experience might cause a police officer to shoot.
Other examples of the same thing would be social workers evaluating poor parents when the social worker has a middle-class background. A social worker with a middle-class background might have learned that being on time at a meeting is a simple thing and that failing to do so consistently is a sign that one either does not care or is simply a flake. But of course, a poor person might have to work an unpredictable schedule or be at the mercy of unreliable public transit. If you frequently show up late at meetings with them due to work and public transit and they read that as you being irresponsible, and therefore make an adverse decision against you, that is their middle-class privilege causing that adverse decision.
When you build your model of the world from biased samples, it will be systematically biased and therefore, so will your actions. If we call the bias in your model of the world “privilege”, I think it makes sense to say the bias in the actions you take based on that model the effects of privilege.
Ryan McManus says
So showing up late to meetings with social workers who you are only involved with because of disparity (presumably) is because you beat down ass has to take the subway while the privileged white people drive their SUV’s to the court house on time to meet with their social workers.
Can you explain the staggering and disproportionate amount of violent crime committed by blacks against whites ;murder, rape, assault and robbery, specifically using your white privilege model? I know you can I just want to see you articulate that horse shit and have a lol.
I’m off to take a special white peoples bus to my skilled trade job that has erratic hours.
Luke T says
I’m not a big white privilege apologist myself, Ryan, but I think you’ve managed both a non-sequitur and straw-man argument here. You might try working on your dissent some, respectfully, before trying to take this thread off the rails… like happened the last time PEL addressed same subject matter.
Alexandre Zani says
> So showing up late to meetings with social workers who you are only involved with because of disparity (presumably) is because you beat down ass has to take the subway while the privileged white people drive their SUV’s to the court house on time to meet with their social workers.
No. If you re-read the paragraph you were responding to, you might notice I am speaking of middle-class privilege in it. Something a lot of white people do have, but a lot do not and plenty of non-whites have it. White privilege and male privilege are probably most often discussed in the US, (probably because of how common they are) but pretty much any aspect of you which leads to disparate outcomes can have the characteristic of privilege. There is straight privilege, black privilege, female privilege, cis privilege, trans privilege, education-related privilege, class privilege, etc… You can also have privilege in certain contexts but not others. You have white privilege in the US, but probably not in Japan. (Or maybe you do, but its nature changes radically) And of course everybody has all sorts of privileges at the same time.
And no. I don’t have an explanation for the crime rate, white-on-white, black-on-white, white-on-black, black-on-black or otherwise. I’m sure there are others who can answer your question. Though you may want to ask it a bit more politely if you actually want an answer.
Jennifer Tejada says
I am unsure where you are getting your numbers, Ryan. I know statistics can be tricky and misleading, but everywhere I have ever looked seems to disagree with your assertion. I’d love to look into that issue more, but I would really want the actual data to be presented before chasing the idea down if it’s not even true. According to my cursory google search – it’s not a thing. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say that there is some way to look at the data to make it seem as though there is more black on white crime committed and that that particular way of analyzing the data would be of use in some way, but I can’t just take your word for it.
Alexandre Zani says
According to this 2013 FBI data (Google search was “crime rate race of victim vs perpetrator” first result. I’m not cherry-picking.) homicides at least tend to be within race and within ethnicity. If I had to bet, I would say it’s the result of de facto segregation along racial lines. Crimes are social relations (albeit extremely damaging ones) and so I would expect crimes to follow the same sort of statistical bias that other social relations do.
Jennifer Tejada says
Alexandre- this makes the most sense to me because I’ve always learned that most homicides are between people who know each other – and generally speaking this falls along racial segregation lines. I’ve never really heard people talk about white on white crime. Certainly black on Black and it always seems to be a little shady and bias IMO. If you want to discuss how blacks are more frequently incarcerated and for longer periods of times than whites who commit the same crime, that would make sense to me. This isn’t exactly something I generally speak about or debate about. I find myself way out of my depth in any topic related to race. I feel like I’m just doing all I can to overcome all my shitty biases that follow me around. But it really does annoy me to no end when someone, such as Ryan, makes a claim that is clearly so rude and ignorant and unsubstantiated and then just leaves. Why? I am as sympathetic as you can get at being frustrated by the term white privilege. It isn’t something I feel really does a whole lot to improve the situation but what do I know. But this is ridiculous and I’m guessing this is the kind of person who trolls for the term white privilege and then just rants. I’m guessing I’m foolish for allowing it to bug me.
Okay, Mark, i can’t say i buy your argument whole. Assuming it truly isn’t a causal claim, (this is the way McIntosh was introduced to me), and it just represents disparity among races. It strikes me as very counter productive to have such conversation, because you’re defending a view of white privledge which doesn’t even exist. Meaning is use and no one talks about privledge this way(except for you- ha ha).
So revamping a conversation about privledge in the way McIntosh did seems like it will follow the same trajectory of turning into being used as a causal claim. i understand we can’t live in a vacuum without nuance, but seriously what productive mechanism could this talk serve that it wouldn’t immediately destroy by becoming popularized for being polarizing?
Mark Linsenmayer says
Hi Andrew, I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.
During our episode on this, I was trying to get folks to explore the use of this as rhetoric, but the conversation kept coming back simply to the facts of the disparities. The relevant causal argument would not be whether these disparities are caused by privilege, but whether they are caused by racism, which I think is a difficult question to get at in detail, just because there are so many disparities in question, so many different systems involved, so many potential causal claims. And in some cases, you may not even have to reach agreement on the causes in order to address the problem: Racial profiling among police being the a case in point. The solution to this is new policies and a thoroughgoing commitment among law enforcement for enforcing these policies. You don’t have to (and won’t be able to) get policemen all navel gazing and confessing their underlying racism: you just have to fix their behavior.
Privilege has the advantage of glossing over all of that. It lays out the ways in which things suck to be a minority, points out that the rest of us are lucky to not have to think about those things, and suggests that if we dwell on how lucky we are in that respect, that will go SOME way in ensuring that we won’t actually contribute to that suckage.
But since many of the problems are systemic, personal guilt and self-awareness won’t solve them, and one of the points made in our episode on this (characterized by the McWhorter reading) was that excess fixation on this metaphor of privilege can lead to people feeling that they’ve “done all they can” simply by keeping their privilege in mind, when in fact the most significant disparities are not the kinds of things that can be solved by individual expressions of virtue of this kind, but require sustained, positive action, typically involving institutional reforms.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Let me try one more time; I think I’ve got what you were trying to say now.
I think that I’m not proposing a re-definition of the word (the use of the word) but a clarification. Talking about our privilege not to be subject to the disparities and the privilege not to have to hence think about the disparities is exactly how the rhetoric is used, and this is what I’m proposing.
I’m saying that a causal use goes beyond those (appropriate and accurate) uses of the rhetoric.
On my use, you can’t reasonably say “there’s no such thing as privilege” (which is what those opposed to the rhetoric say).
But you also can’t abuse the rhetoric as some SJWs would like by pointing to various injustices and BLAMING them on privilege. Privilege qua white people’s not having to recognize certain problems certainly plays a causal role in those problems not receiving the social attention that would bring about change, but it doesn’t cause the underlying problems themselves. You didn’t hear anti-slavery advocates or 50s/60s civil rights leaders using this rhetoric in pointing out the root causes of the ills they were trying to address.
There is so much guilt-feeling, repressed and non-repressed hostility, emotional blackmail, hypocrisy on all sides of the racism/white privilege issue that we need a new Nietzsche to write a Genealogy of White Privilege or a Genealogy of White Racism. I don’t live in the U.S., but from a distance, the issue surpasses my powers of analysis.
The problem with the term “privilege” is that it has been hijacked by unscrupulous ideologues that have absolutely no respect for academic rigor or honest inquiry. The concept of privilege obviously has some genuine substance to it that is worth exploring. But when a general audience hears it used, it’s more often than not being used by someone that thinks slurs and slander are acceptable (often preferable) alternatives to careful argument and honest debate.
Most white people don’t have any trouble in recognizing the existence of racial injustice (historical or current), but it may be that the term “privilege” has been too completely abused to be persuasively or even productively used around a general audience.
Amir Zaki says
Thanks, Mark. I have been thinking along these lines for quite some time. Privilege, in and of itself, is not only a relative term, but it is also merely a description of a circumstance or phenomena. However, it’s often leveraged, by the left sadly, as a shorthand for calling someone out, dismissing a point of view, standing in for an actual rebuttal, etc. It is invoked in the way that calling someone a racist or a bigot is invoked, as a way to derail what is being discussed to who is doing the discussing. Weak sauce tactic.
I find many problems with the use of privilege – the most important being the inherent judgement of the term itself. Privilege is a special right or benefit given to a certain group of people. For example, why should being treated respectfully by the police be something special? It should be the norm. To address privilege suggests that the police should now start treating everyone poorly. Adding white to privilege also suggests all white people are treated well by the police, something that is clearly not true. It would be equivalent to say black handicap as to say white privilege. You don’t though, because of the intrinsic judgement in the word. If you won’t use black handicap (or whatever group you pick), then don’t use white privilege. Besides, you already used a better word numerous times above: disparities.
You say it is a rhetorical device, but I think it backfires as one. For example, take a poor white man whose parents split and is out of work then tell him to check his white male privilege – let us see how he reacts. Oh wait, we already know – he votes for Trump.
Hello. There is an insightful book you may be interested in by Reni Eddo-Lodge (UK black female author) called ‘Why I’m no Longer Taking to White People about Race.’ The book deals with feminism, class, white privilege, includes cited research, bibliography and index. The book pulls no punches. I, as a white British male (of which ethnicity I have no idea because I’m never asked about or encouraged to think about it!), I found this book to be a really useful book to read. I agree, there is structural/institutional White Privilege based on a hierarchy of skin tone colour: White at the top, blackest of black at the bottom. As a British male, I was brainwashed and indoctrinated from the day I was born into this. I was also brainwashed and indoctrinated into patriarchy and that white boys are the best. It takes time to work through this, getting information from here and there. How we get out of this is by talking and listening and learning and dismantling privileges based on skin colour and gender. Skin tone privilege can be found, for example, in Jamaica where a lighter brown skin is ‘preferred’ to a darker brown skin. Why? Because, the lighter the skin tone, the more power, positive opportunities etc is available. Maybe, we should call it ‘Lighter Skin Tone Privilege?’
I have found the concept of white privilege to be misleading, unsound and loaded with logical fallacies for many reasons. I hope to write a more complete response at some point, but I can summarize by observing that each individual possessing a unique set of characteristics which may be advantageous, disadvantageous or neutral in different situations. I don’t question that being black is a disadvantage in some situations (for example, driving a car when many police officers see black men as potential criminals).
But there are many non-racial characteristics that convey advantages or disadvantages:, intelligence level, economic background, social skills, level of attractiveness, having been raised in an emotionally heathy family vs. a dysfunctional family etc.
Placing so much attention on race promotes the belief that one’s place in society is determined almost exclusively by skin color. In the real world, there are too many black people with happy productive lives and white people with miserable lives to conclude that race is the main determining factor.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
I am somewhat puzzled by your comment. The title of this piece is called, “‘Privilege’ Is Not a Causal Claim.”
Mark was very careful to draw a distinction between the causal role of privilege and it’s use as a rhetorical device.
Hence, I fail to see how paying attention to race – especially from within the context of a more comprehensive understanding of “privilege,” necessarily “promotes the belief that one’s place in society is determined almost exclusively by skin color.”
Mark explicitly makes this point at several instances in the essay and in the comment section.
For example, he says:
“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.”
In the comment section, he further argues:
“The relevant causal argument would not be whether these disparities are caused by privilege, but whether they are caused by racism, which I think is a difficult question to get at in detail, just because there are so many disparities in question, so many different systems involved, so many potential causal claims.”
I think that the basic argument in Mark’s essay and in discussions of “privilege” is a pretty simple one…almost idiotically simple. The claim is just that people are exposed to different types of experiences based on the social categories that society puts them – like, for example, their race, gender, class, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, physical abilities, etc.
That seems pretty non-controversial to me. For example, men don’t have to be mindful and fearful of other men in the same way that women do. If you’re a man, you either recognize this or you don’t – this is a privilege or unearned benefit of being a man – you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to. On the other hand – out the concern for well-being, if you are a woman, you are confronted with the necessity that you almost always be vigilant with regard to men.
Hence, if this much is recognized, then one can see that women cannot move and act as freely as men do in public spaces and in the workplace. Further, we can see that this necessary vigilance also curtails the level free actions that women can access and/or burdens them with greater costs/risks should they decide to act outside of socially proscribed “feminine norms.”
Consequently, simply being a woman doesn’t necessarily (causally) determine one’s place in society, and likewise for men. Nonetheless, we can see that being a woman impinges on one’s ability to be in the world in ways that are limiting and in ways that most men do not experience. Calling attention to this is just a way to ask that we put ourselves in each others shoes every now and then, try not to participate in the kinds of biased thinking and acting that helps to promote the limiting of the autonomy of others, and that we just try to give each other a more fair shot at just being in the world.
Does racism cause all of the ills in the world? – No, of course not!
Does racism affect the way that people live their lives and experience the world? – Hell yes!
We can recognize that fact, build bridges with each other, and try to put an end to that kind of nonsense by recognizing and working against the fact that some people are unfairly burdened and forced to face struggles when they shouldn’t have to.