White Privilege: A Rational Examination – Part 1

White Privilege: A Rational Examination – Part 1

I first became acquainted with the theory of white privilege in my first year of sociology. For those who have studied sociology at university it is extremely likely that you have encountered this theory in not only your introduction to sociology, but also within your quantitative and qualitative research methodology units. The reason for this is, there is a mountain of quantitative data from all over the world and a wealth of qualitative literature on the subject, a small sample of which I will provide within this series of pieces. In fact, there is such a solid sociological foundation for this theory that when social scientists undertake research that touches upon white privilege, they no longer need to evince its existence. It is somewhat akin to the situation in which an archaeologist or biologist need not prove the fact of evolution each and every time they develop a new theory that hinges upon it. In further similitude to the theory of evolution, the theory of white privilege, despite its solid foundation within social sciences such as sociology, social-psychology, economics and anthropology, remains controversial among those who have neither studied it nor taken the time to understand what it describes, how it works, and what exactly it means. The primary distinction between white privilege in the social sciences and evolution in the pure sciences rests upon the fact that unlike evolution, societies change over time. No wait, I didn’t express that correctly. Unlike the fact of evolution which will probably, if not surely remain a fact forever, statements about society are subject to the ebbs and flows of social change, and despite the persistence of white privilege, the times they are a changin’, as Bob Dylan so painfully yet astutely sang.

I have recently encountered furious resistance to the existence of the theory of white privilege among some of my followers on social media, who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. When I first tweeted a quote by the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart which read, ‘I want you to admit that there is such a thing as white privilege’, I started a veritable storm among my Twitter followers, with one social media pundit equating such an expression by a white man as being tantamount to “self-flagellation”.  I should state from the outset that I feel not one ounce of guilt for having been born white. Nor do I feel a sense of shame for having been born with the genes that just won’t let me reach six feet, although it is a source of mild anxiety when I stand next to my younger yet taller brother. But I shall return to this point in a moment – not the anxiety about being shorter than my younger brother, the fact about the denial of the existence of white privilege among some of my Twitter followers.

The resistance to the theory of white privilege may be the result of general ignorance mixed with various social and psychological pressures, depending on the individual’s psyche, and, also, their ethnicity – because it wasn’t only white followers who became outraged and offended over this tweet, but a number of black and minority followers too. I was accused of “paternal racism” for being a white person who had the insensitive nerve of raising this sociological observation. Thus, the denial of white privilege should not be seen as an exclusively white phenomenon, but one which cuts across ethnic groups, for a variety of social and psychological reasons that some scholars have touched upon in their research.  I have a number of personal hypotheses regarding what I perceive to be a new regressive anti-Regressive-Left movement on social media, however I am not in possession of sufficient evidence to conclude that such may or may not be a factor with regards to why some are erroneously associating white privilege with infectious memes such as #SJW. As an aside, I am not saying that “Social Justice Warrior” is not always an inaccurately ascribed pejorative label attached to those who kick and scream over petty or even possibly non-existent problems in society, but I have noticed that this meme is also being mindlessly employed to stifle discourse on serious social problems that do have substantial quantitative and qualitative foundations.

 

What White Privilege is Not

White privilege is not a reason to feel an irrational sense guilt for having been born with white skin in white majority countries. White privilege does not mitigate the observable reality that some minorities have it better than some whites, both socially and economically speaking. It does not imply that people who were born with white skin automatically owe something by virtue of an accident of birth to those who were not born with the same melanin deficiency (Melanin deficiency is a joke. Lighten up!) Further, white privilege is not a licence for minorities to indulge in fruitless and debilitating victimhood, because despite white privilege’s obvious and observable negative effects on social equality, victimhood has neither a role to play in resolving this inequity nor in helping the individual or disadvantaged groups overcome this obstacle. Finally, white privilege does not mean that an informed white person cannot discuss white privilege. In other words, beyond questions of an experiential nature, white privilege does not disqualify the informed opinions of people who happen to have white skin. You may laugh at such a ridiculous proposition, but I have had this very objection tweeted at me by someone who must have accidentally left their caps lock function on.

 

What is White Privilege?

So then, what is white privilege? First and foremost, it should be noted that white privilege is not an intentional conspiracy orchestrated by white people, despite what some overexcited and under-educated activists may have you believe. I should also preface the definitions furnished below with the caveat that some aspects of white privilege are simply the practical outcomes of societies with predominantly white populations. As an example, some minority activists have expressed anguish over the fact that white faces are represented more frequently than minority ones in television commercials and programs. Whilst this does reinforce white privilege, it is an unavoidable reality. It would make very little financial sense for a company to focus their marketing efforts on the smallest demographics. The same argument may be made with regards to certain education policies, and again, I am not arguing that white privilege is a positive thing in these regards, just that there are common sense reasons why majority interests form the majority interest, so to speak.

Peggy McIntosh first coined the phrase in the late 1980s within her seminal paper, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. However, the notion of ‘white skin privilege’ dates back to the civil rights movement in the U.S.  Although a vast volume of contemporary sociology textbooks and peer-reviewed journal articles and studies contain definitions of white privilege, with each varying slightly depending on the particular aspects or qualities of white privilege being highlighted by the particular social scientist, I will give you just four definitions from some of the most influential academics in the relevant fields:

Wildman draws upon McIntosh’s definition of white privilege, explaining:

‘…white privilege can be likened to “an invisible package of unearned assets.” The holder of this package remains oblivious to its presence, yet can reliably depend on its contents’. [1]

Further, Andersen and Taylor describe the role that colour-blindness plays in perpetuating white privilege:

‘Color-blindness thus hides what is called White privilege behind a mask: It allows Whites to define themselves as politically and racially tolerant as they proclaim adherence to a belief system that does not see or judge individuals by “the color of their skin.” They think of skin color as irrelevant. This view tends to ignore the structured racial dominance in society—White privilege—with its falsely assumed meritocracy and belief that racial barriers have been dismantled. Much of White America now sees a level playing field; yet a majority of Blacks continue to perceive it as still quite uneven. Persons of any racial background can now wear low-slung hip-hop clothing, listen to gangsta rap music, and root for their favorite majority-Black athletic team. This gives the false impression that racial barriers have fallen, but in fact White status (White privilege) remains (Kristof 2008; Gallagher 2006)’. [2]

In this definition, Andersen and Taylor highlight the structured racial dominance of whites in western societies, and, importantly, they discuss the delusion of a dismantled racial barrier, which, as I shall remark upon in a later part in this blog series, only helps to obfuscate the issues in need of address with regards to white privilege.

Johnson remarks:

‘In discussions about issues of race, be they in law, literature, sport, music, fashion or religion, in fact in all aspects of society, it is evident that whiteness is privileged, raceless and normalized, and therefore, cannot be understood in the same way as Blackness’.[3]

The important aspect of Johnson’s definition relates to the normalization of whiteness, which, as the data I shall present confirms, bestows various unearned privileges upon whites in numerous facets of predominantly white societies. Johnson’s observations are also relevant in that they highlight an important issue raised by critics of white privilege. Some remarks I have come across on social media are approximated within the following questions:

‘Why do we need a Black Lives Matter movement?’ ‘Why not an All Lives Matter movement, or a White Lives Matter movement?’

Questions like these betoken an ignorance of the fact that in predominantly white societies, whiteness is, generally, the normalized standard representation of the human being. A white guy is just a guy, but a black guy is, generally speaking, a black guy, whose color forms an extrinsically identifiable and inescapable quality of his identity as a person (Cue the third-wave feminist outrage for my use of a male example).

Finally, the following definition put forth by Delgado and Stefancic is important because it illuminates the distinction between white privilege and institutional racism:

‘White privilege is a form of racism that both underlies and is distinct from institutional and overt racism. It underlies them in that both are predicated on preserving the privileges of white people (regardless of whether agents recognize this or not). But it is also distinct in terms of intentionality. It refers to the hegemonic structures, practices, and ideologies that reproduce whites’ privileged status. In this scenario, whites do not necessarily intend to hurt people of color, but because they are unaware of their white-skin privilege, and because they accrue social and economic benefits by maintaining the status quo, they inevitably do’.[4]

If we are to combine the central concepts within each of the above definitions and add the obvious historical component that contributes to the existence of white privilege, as well as my initial caveats offered above, it might be reasonable to say that white privilege is:

An inherited and unearned package of social advantages that is unintentionally and in some regards naturally bestowed upon the white majority – which is the result of the social status acquired from an unbroken chain of historical events that have caused white people to become the majority – and which – continues to be perpetuated by the propagation of the delusion that western societies are living in a post-racial period.

To what extent, and in what ways, does white privilege advantage white people over “non-white” people? This question will form be the focus of parts two and three in this blog series.

 

 Read Part 2 – White Privilege: The Evidence

 

 

References

 

  1. Stephanie M. Wildman, The Persistence of White Privilege, ‘Washington University Journal of Law and Policy’, (2005), Vol. 18: Whiteness: Some Critical Perspectives, p. 246.
  2. Margaret L. Andersen (ed.) and Howard E. Taylor (ed.), Sociology: The Essentials, 7th Ed., Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2013, p. 232.
  3. Johnson, Reflections on Critical Whiteness Studies, 1999, cited in: Tomas Boronski (ed.) and Nasima Hassan (ed.), Sociology of Education, Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2015, p. 120.
  4. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, cited in: Laura Pulido, Rethinking Environmental Racism, in: Janice A. Radway (ed.), Kevin K. Gaines (ed.), Barry Shank (ed.) and Penny Von Eschen (ed.), American Studies: An Anthology, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 467.

 

3 thoughts on “White Privilege: A Rational Examination – Part 1

  1. Very interesting blog/article. Thank you. As an aside, as language creates and supports our ideas, and our language is created by our history. how can we move past this when (as you noted above) even using the male pronoun as a generalised pronoun forces us to reinforce that privilege? (Just a thought)

    It is going to be a long struggle.

    Keary

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