If the title of this article led you to assume that its intent is to invalidate the concept of ‘white-privilege’, you are mistaken. White-privilege is real, and one would do well to study the concept as a tool for understanding controversies associated with institutional racism. However, this is not to say one can find no kinks in the concept of white-privilege that compromise its cogency. Nor is it to say that the perils of distortion and misunderstanding never arise when the topic of white-privilege comes up while attempting to diagnose and address systemic racism or individual instances of racial injustice. Whether in the context of classroom pedagogy, viral eruptions on social media, sparring between pundits, or general social commentary about trending news headlines, the concept of white-privilege is not without ambiguity in its implied meaning or in its application.
As an analytical tool, white-privilege is a useful concept that has much to say about systemic divisions in social enfranchisement between white and black Americans, though care must be employed in any such discussion because the nature of white-privilege is multi-dimensional. But as a diagnostic tool for identifying, evaluating, and chronicling the annals of racial injustice, the concept of white-privilege is vulnerable to ‘confirmation bias,’ which is the tendency to take into account only information that supports one’s preconception, while discounting or ignoring information that does not support one’s preconception. In statistics, one might also say that ‘white-privilege’ tends to be a ‘biased estimator,’ where bias is the difference between the estimated (or imputed) effect of white-privilege on social outcomes and the true effect of white-privilege on social outcomes.
For example, Peggy McIntosh claims in her highly influential essay on white-privilege that one example of white-privilege is that ‘[w]hen I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.’ Putting aside thorny questions about what exactly it means to say that people of a certain color ‘made’ a national ‘heritage’, suppose a white male student in a history class argues that Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States should not be on the curriculum because it is bad history. A teacher schooled in ‘white-privilege analysis’ might have a knee-jerk inclination to try to convince him that his objection is a symptom of ‘white fragility’—i.e. the objection to Zinn’s retelling of American history stems from a ‘privileged’ expectation that history be written by white oppressors rather than from the perspective of the historically disenfranchised. But it may alternatively be the case that the white male classroom provocateur believes Zinn’s People’s History is simply not good history, and that he has no objection to books written about the historically disenfranchised so long as they are rigorous, not prone to polemical agendas, do not (as historian Michael Kazin writes) reduce the past to a Manichean fable, and are more objective (which, as Princeton historian Sean Wilentz notes, is not the same as neutral) in the marshalling of evidence in support of a historical thesis. This is to say nothing of the possibility that the white male student may derive little or no comfort from the mere fact that people of his color ‘made’ his national heritage or civilization. In sum, white-privilege is a red herring when it comes to explaining his objection to Zinn’s People’s History.
Nonetheless, objections to how history is taught in the classroom may be rooted in a desire, conscious or unconscious, to protect and preserve white-privilege (e.g. one suspects that advocates of ‘white history month’ are a bit too wedded to white-privilege). Similarly, the expression of qualms, reservations, and objections to other endeavors aimed at the deconstruction of white-privilege may also be rooted in a desire to protect and preserve one’s white-privilege. This article does not dispute that white-privilege is real, or that it has a lot to say about systemic divisions in social enfranchisement between white and black Americans. But it also does not presume that it is so straightforward a matter to identify when white-privilege is at work, or how much it contributes to ongoing divisions in the social enfranchisement of white and black Americans, or what it even means to go about the deconstruction of white-privilege in our society.
In one of the most famous works of Western philosophy, The Republic, Plato develops the theory of Forms, one of the most influential ideas in the history of philosophy. Plato argued that reality consists of ‘Forms’ that contain the true and eternal nature of objects we perceive via our senses. In his famous allegory of the cave, he presents a scenario where prisoners are chained in a cave, facing a wall on which the shadows of objects behind them are projected onto the wall by the light of a fire. Seeing only shadows, the prisoners cultivate the illusion that the shadows are real objects, but if they were unchained and allowed to turn around, they would realize, after their eyes adjusted to the light, that it is not the shadows, but objects that project the shadows on the wall, which are real and true.
The allegory of the cave illustrates a fundamental distinction between truth per se and material representations of truth that we encounter via sensual experience. The world of sensation is a world of mirages, like the shadows on the wall. The real world is a fixed realm of abstract Forms (like the objects that project shadows onto the wall) that lend conceptual coherence to the objects we perceive in the material world. For example, consider a chair. There are innumerable kinds of chairs we observe in the world of sensation. Adirondack chairs. Aeron chairs. High back chairs. High chairs for infants. And so on. But what is a chair? With so many representations of a chair, how do we arrive at a universal understanding of what, in fact, a chair is? What is the essence of ‘chairness’? Whatever it is, Plato conveys the idea that the Form of chairness is accessible to our understanding, and that truth is to be found in the Form, not the individual chairs that represent the Form in the sensual world.
The Platonic theory of Forms has had a long shelf life as a framework for thinking about the nature of truth and reality. But though the tradition is still alive today, Platonic essentialism met its kryptonite with the birth of modern biology by Charles Darwin. Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection ushered in a revolution in how we think about the nature of biological reality. Modern biologists think about reality in terms of populations and statistics. For biologists, variation, not an abstract Form, is where reality is at. The most basic unit of biological taxonomy is the species, but a species is not a distinct, unchanging category (i.e. Form) of organisms; rather, it is a population of individual organisms who share enough genetic code to be able to procreate with each other (it should be noted that the definition of a species is a matter of some dispute among biologists). Individual organisms have a DNA blueprint hardwired into each cell of their body which contains the genes that govern the development of observable characteristics. Genetic mutations and sexual recombination provide a source of variability in genes which allows populations to adapt (or not) to changes in the environment. This interplay between environmental pressures and protean genes is the process by which evolution by natural selection works, and as a result, organisms and their observable characteristics do not stay fixed in form through the generations.
Before Darwin, as explained by the renowned evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, biologists were prone to ‘typological’ thinking, according to which ‘there are a limited number of fixed, unchangeable “ideas” underlying the observed variability, with the eidos (idea) being the only thing that is fixed and real, while the observed variability has no more reality than the shadows of an object on a cave wall, as it is stated in Plato’s allegory.’ After Darwin, only the tangible world of observable characteristics in individual organisms was real. If there is a unit of abstraction through which we understand the diversity of species, it is the statistical average, not an esoteric unchanging Form. A species is not a fixed type, but a population that changes over time. Mayr summarizes: ‘For the typologist, the type (eidos) is real and the variation an illusion, while for the populationist the type (average) is an abstraction and only the variation is real.’
To illustrate the point, Mayr invokes the case of race: ‘The typologist stresses that every representative of a race has the typical characteristics of that race and differs from all representatives of all other races by the characteristics “typical” for the given race. All racist theories are built on this foundation. Essentially, it asserts that every representative of a race conforms to the type and is separated from the representatives of any other race by a distinct gap. The populationist also recognizes races but in totally different terms. Race for him is based on the simple fact that no two individuals are the same in sexually reproducing organisms and that consequently no two aggregates of individuals can be the same. If the average difference between two groups of individuals is sufficiently great to be recognizable on sight, we refer to such groups of individuals as different races. Race, thus described, is a universal phenomenon of nature occurring not only in man but in two thirds of all species of animals and plants.’
In short, race can be viewed as an essentialist ‘type’ or a statistical abstraction. For the typologist, all individuals of a race conform to a type (e.g. white or black). Race is a conceptual vacuum that subsumes the complex variation among biological organisms into a simplistic formulation that treats a single trait, like skin color, as a signature distinction between, for example, individuals who are white and individuals who are black. In the words of philosopher Lawrence Blum: ‘the deeper meaning of race is the imputation of unchangeable psychological and behavioral characteristics to distinct groups.’
For the populationist, however, race is a biological characteristic rather than a biological type. It is only one trait in a blend of characteristics that collectively grant a unique biological identity to an individual person. If one treats skin color as a spectrum running from left to right, with ‘pitch black’ on the far left and ‘pale white’ on the far right, one can carve out segments along the spectrum of pigmentation. For example, one could carve out a segment on the left side and a segment on the right side. One could designate the left-side segment as ‘black’ because it consists of various shades of pigmentation darker than one would find farther right on the spectrum. One could then designate the right-side segment as ‘white’ because it consists of various shades of pigmentation lighter than one would find farther left on the spectrum.
In this example, race refers to a line segment, with the center representing an average of pigments distributed along the segment. But the cut-off point of a segment is ultimately arbitrary. Depending on the cutoff, and the eye of the beholder, a light-skinned ‘black’ person could also be considered white, or a dark-skinned ‘white’ person could be deemed black. Similarly, for other traits. Thus, according to Mayr, ‘the smallest individual of a large-sized race is usually smaller than the largest individual of a small-sized race.’ The same holds true for every other trait observed in an individual organism. Moreover, each specific instance of a trait will be above or below the population average for that trait, and it is virtually impossible for an individual organism taken as a whole to exhibit the average for every trait. ‘An individual,’ writes Mayr, ‘that will show in all of its characters the precise mean value for the population as a whole does not exist. In other words, the ideal type does not exist.’ Race is a statistical abstraction, a distribution of pigmentations, rather than a ‘type’ of human being.
The distinction between typological and populationist thinking about race comes to mind when I think about race in America. One may argue that it was typological thinking that explains how racism became so endemic in American society. The ugly truth is that, for centuries, ‘white America’ believed that white and black were distinct natures that could not be reconciled. Black was associated with an inferiority that rationalized the submission of African-Americans, and the white was associated with a superiority that validated white supremacy. This view stands in contrast with populationist thinking, whereby black and white are mere distributions of skin pigmentation which provide no inherent basis for distinguishing between white and black as distinct human natures. Skin color is no different from height, weight, and eye color as a biological basis of individual identity.
Fortunately, the populationist view has largely prevailed over the typological view in how our society understands the biological nature of race. America has made great strides toward a society in which men and women of all races are considered equal and endowed by their creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Racism, however, is still pervasive in our society. Examples abound, but perhaps the election of President Donald Trump is the most glaring example, as I hinted in this article about Trump’s initial refusal to disavow any connection to the white supremacist David Duke. Theories also abound about why it is still pervasive, but among these theories is the insistence that one of the systemic social forces driving racism is the ubiquity of ‘white-privilege’, defined in the influential essay by Peggy McIntosh as ‘an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.’ McIntosh lists forty-six examples of white-privilege, such as being able to shop in a store and be ‘pretty well assured’ that you will not be followed or harassed, to being ‘pretty sure’ that, upon moving into a new neighborhood, neighbors in a new neighborhood will be neutral or pleasant to you.
These alleged advantages, or ‘unearned assets’, constitute an endowment bestowed upon whites by the legacy of institutional racism, a systemic division of social resources and enfranchisement privileges between white and black Americans which has haunted America since the days of slavery. Typological thinking undergirded the belief that white and black were distinct and unequal human natures, reinforcing a society built on white supremacy. From this line of thinking arose a whole culture around the idea that whites and blacks were not designed to live together as a harmonious social entity, and that positions of social control ought to be delegated to people who were white. Black Americans were not meant to share in the privileges of social empowerment that whites enjoyed.
It should come as no surprise that, over the course of many generations, this arrangement gave birth to a complex skein of tacit perceptions white people have acquired about black people (and presumably vice versa, though as Lawrence Blum would argue, this does not imply moral symmetry). To the extent that these tacit perceptions inform the way white people treat black people in daily life (on average), one can easily conceive how black people may be ill-affected by the assumptions that white people make, consciously or unconsciously, that directly affect their sense of well-being, empowerment, and access to social resources—particularly since white social dominance in prior generations has created divisions in the allocation of resources among white and black communities which systematically benefited white communities; that these divisions persist to this day; and that they persist because of a set of systemic unconscious biases that people have about a class of people based on the color of their skin. As a simple hypothetical, if white people have historically constituted the majority of hiring managers in an industry, and many if not most hiring managers have been trained by experience to believe in false stereotypes that imply black people are not good employees, then a culture of discrimination has arisen that systematically denies qualified black candidates the opportunity to work in the industry, even if some hiring managers have rejected these stereotypes and decide to hire black candidates.
In other words, social divisions are based on a culture of ‘typological’ thinking that quarantines individuals based on race, either by the assumptions they make or by the assumptions made about them. A person is not a unique biological entity who happens to have ‘white’ or ‘black’ skin, but rather is a representative of a white or black race, and all his other characteristics, behavioral or morphological, cannot be understood without reference to the individual’s association with the white or black race. A person necessarily benefits or is disadvantaged based on assumptions made about him because of his race. Every individual is a representative of a racial ‘type’ and is judged accordingly, and his access to opportunity depends on the nature of those judgments. The biological ‘type’ institutionalized by racism in the past has become the cultural stereotype of contemporary racism.
It is insights like these which, in part, motivate the social justice crusade to raise awareness about ‘white-privilege’. If the legacy of racism is with us today in the form (no Platonic pun intended) of cultural stereotypes that reinforce systemic divisions in social empowerment between black and white, should we not aim to close these gaps by working to eliminate cultural stereotypes? Making people aware of ‘white-privilege’ is propounded as one way to do this. If white-privilege is a status based on ‘unearned assets’ bestowed by cultural stereotypes, whites should work to become aware of their privilege and do what they can to ensure the erosion of privileges that compromise the structural integrity of cultural bridges designed to welcome black people into the land of opportunity.
This sounds well and good as a matter of theory, but as is often the case in life, the devil is in those thorny details. Recently, I was reading an interview of Michael Dyson, a Georgetown professor and author of the newly-released book ‘Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.’ In the interview, he recounts a recent experience in which he ‘was outside of Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington at 3 a.m., and a young white kid is cursing the police, and I’m going, “Oh, my God, they’re going to shoot him.” And then it occurred to me that they wouldn’t — he’s a white kid. And what did I hear the police say? “Now, son, you’re clearly inebriated. You need to go home and sleep this off.” And I said to myself: “My God! This is what we want!” We can’t even afford a display of anger that many white people have.’
If I understand him, Dyson’s basic point is that the drunk white kid got off easy after cursing the police because he is white, and that a drunk black kid would not get off so easy. The consequences for the drunk black kid would be more severe (the cop draws a gun on him), and this difference in the consequences is an example of the ‘privilege’ afforded to white Americans that is denied to black Americans. In getting off easy, the drunk white kid ‘cashed in’ an asset from his ‘white-privilege’ account, and was spared the injustice of police abuse because he is white. He was able to purchase a night of inebriation free of worry (or at least ‘pretty sure’ that he need not worry) that his loose-lipped behavior may feed into cultural stereotypes that would trigger arrest, the drawing of a gun, or some other undignified and disproportionate treatment by the police. A black kid, however, would not be so lucky.
But here we arrive at a basic two-pronged ambiguity when ‘white-privilege’ is cited as the reason for a difference in social outcomes—in this case, what happens after cursing the police—for white and black Americans. First, there is the question of whether, in fact, the drunk white kid getting off easy is a reflection of white-privilege. Second, there is the question of what the prescriptive implications are if, in fact, white-privilege is at work: is the expectation of dignified treatment by the police a privilege to be taken away from white people? Or is this expectation of dignified treatment a right that should be expanded to black people? Should a white person divest himself of a ‘privileged’ expectation that he will be treated in a dignified manner by the police, or should he instead work to ensure that a black person can expect to enjoy the same ‘right’ to dignified treatment by a police officer?
First, let’s examine whether the white kid getting off easy is a reflection of white-privilege. In that moment when the white kid cursed the cop, a trigger goes off in Mr. Dyson’s head. He thinks the cop is going to pull a gun. Then he realizes the cop will not pull a gun. He sees that the kid is white. He immediately concludes, or believes, that the cop does not pull a gun because the kid is white. But how do we know for sure that this line of reasoning is correct? How do we know that a particular cop refrained from pulling a gun on the drunk white kid simply because he was white? Does it necessarily follow that he would have treated a drunk black kid differently? Moreover, if we assume that the cop would have treated a drunk black kid differently, does this necessarily mean a cop would have pulled a gun, or would he have done something less drastic, such as arrest him?
Ultimately, we don’t know. It’s a counterfactual. But based on the specific facts of this situation, it does seem that pulling a gun would be an unlikely occasion if the drunk kid were black. Ben’s Chili Bowl is a landmark eatery on U Street in Washington. I do not know what night Mr. Dyson found himself outside Ben’s Chili Bowl at 3am in the morning, but as someone who lived in the U Street area for more than three years, I have been on U Street in the wee hours of the morning more than a few times, and it was always on Friday or Saturday, when bars and clubs and eateries like Ben’s Chili Bowl, in a city like Washington, are prone to be open at 3am. U Street at 3am in the morning on a weekend is likely to be dense with traffic. A cop drawing a gun on a drunk kid, black or white, would immediately draw oodles of cell phone cameras to record him. Weekend crowds on U Street are also very diverse. This is no lily-white suburban scene. This is a cosmopolitan stretch of bars and clubs where young and sophisticated urban professionals of all races and ethnicities converge on weekend nights to let their hair down and live a little. Lines outside of clubs are long. Crowds of jaywalkers zig zag around cars stuck at red lights. Cabs honk. Parking is scarce. Drunkards howl. Laughter is strident. In this cacophonous anarchy, motives can be hard to discern, facts can be hard to pin down. Maybe this is when subliminal prejudices are most likely to manifest. Or maybe this is when allegations of prejudice are most likely to be apocryphal. Chaos rarely breeds clarity. 3am on U Street on a weekend night is a recipe for inebriation, hurly burly, and confusion. It is a combustible mix that can unleash the ‘lizard brain’ of entrenched prejudice. Or it is a chaotic scene with so many moving parts that conflicts arise not because an affront triggers innate prejudice but because the overall action is so fast and furious that cool reason cracks under the heat of the moment.
Whatever the case may be, the point is we don’t know. Unless we can read the cop’s mind, or conduct a rigorous interrogation after the fact, or force him to take a lie detector test, we don’t know exactly what motivated the cop to give the white kid a pass. It may be that he would not give a black kid a pass because of subliminal prejudice that compels him to treat a drunk black kid with less dignity than he would a drunk white kid. But without a more rigorous examination, we can only make assumptions based on what we see and how we interpret what we see. Mr. Dyson was one witness on the scene among many.
This example illustrates a key wrinkle in the concept of white-privilege. How can we tell in any given conflict or situation that white-privilege is a relevant factor, or the main factor, to consider? Part of the social justice crusade is to not only make us aware of white-privilege, but also to contest it—as the saying goes, to get white people to ‘check their privilege’. But this presumes that one can recognize when white-privilege is at work in real time. In their zeal for social reformation, social justice warriors on the scene may be quick to assign white-privilege as the reason for a drunk white kid getting off easy, ignoring other circumstances and other factors that may explain why the police let him off easy. But this reductionist approach replaces dialectic with ideology and tends to assume guilt until innocence is proven. At 3am in the morning, a cop may simply have been tired and approaching the end of his shift and reluctant to overreact to the random curses of one drunkard amid a large crowd of late-night revelers. If he has been on this beat awhile, the cop has probably become a bit jaded at the sight of drunk kids loping through the streets of one of the busiest weekend nightlife areas in Washington, D.C. Or perhaps the cop has the kind of laid-back personality that does not take affront to foolhardy dipsomaniacs stirring the pot at 3am in the morning.
Or perhaps it is, in fact, the case that the cop is a hothead influenced by cultural stereotypes that would lead him to believe a drunk black kid deserves to be treated differently than a drunk white kid, even in an area of large crowds where drastic actions like drawing a gun are likely to generate a whole lot of witness accounts. But honesty requires that we acknowledge how little we can infer from the anecdote conveyed by Mr. Dyson about a specific encounter between the police and a drunk white kid.
Writing about the related issue of whiteness studies, George Washington University historian Eric Arsenen writes that ‘whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings.’ One can make a similar claim about the reflexive tendency to attribute white-privilege to situations where it may not belong. This reflexive tendency makes one susceptible to confirmation bias. Mr. Dyson sees a drunk white kid cursing the police and fears the police will shoot him. Then it occurs to him they will not shoot him because he is white. He assumes a drunk black kid would not get off so easy, and attributes the discrepancy in treatment to white-privilege (though he does not explicitly invoke the phrase ‘white-privilege’ in recounting this anecdote). But by failing to consider alternative reasons that might explain why the police did not rough up the drunk white kid, or shoot him, Mr. Dyson falls prey to confirmation bias, i.e., assigning more weight to evidence that supports a hypothesis and less weight to evidence that does not support a hypothesis (in this case, he does not gather any evidence that does not support his hypothesis; he simply observes the interaction between police and the drunk white kid and assigns all the causal weight to white-privilege).
It is almost certainly true that the likelihood of encountering police abuse is higher for a drunk black kid than for a drunk white kid, and the difference in the likelihood of abuse is a clear case of white-privilege. But in this specific anecdote, Mr. Dyson simply assumes that the drunk white kid getting off easy is another instance of white-privilege at work, rather than the result of encountering a cop (or cops) who does not overreact to drunkards brandishing curses at 3am in the morning. He also does not consider the possibility that, even if the cop lets the drunk white kid off easy because he is white, it may be that being white is not the only reason the cop lets him off easy. The cop might think to himself, ‘well, this kid is pushing the line, but he’s white and I’m getting to the end of my shift.’ By invoking only white-privilege as an explanation, Mr. Dyson falls prey to estimation bias, i.e. omitting other explanatory factors, thereby overestimating (or perhaps underestimating) the true effect of white-privilege on the cop’s decision to let the drunk white kid off easy.
As stated above, however, this is not to deny that white-privilege is real. In the case of estimation bias, white-privilege is still a relevant factor (just not the only factor). Also, a deeper point implicit in this discussion is not what actually happened, but the revelation that, as a black person, Mr. Dyson’s reflexive thought was to expect police maltreatment when he saw a drunk white kid cursing the police. I don’t presume to speak for all white people, but being white, I would have no such reflexive expectation. In a previous article I wrote about white-privilege, I told the story of being stopped by a cop while walking in a neighborhood where a chase was on for a robbery suspect. I instinctively cooperated by allowing the police officer to look through my bag, and was allowed to go free. I never felt I had reason to panic. Cooperate, and all would be well. The same aplomb does not come easy to a black person.
This difference in knee-jerk reactions strikes me as an essential point about white-privilege. I do not live with the burden of expecting police abuse as a matter of course. Indeed, when Harvard economist Roland Fryer recently found no systemic differences in the probability of a white or black person getting shot by police, he called it ‘the most surprising result of my career.’ Unlike Mr. Dyson, or Mr. Fryer (who is also black), the average white person probably doesn’t worry about getting shot or roughed up during an encounter with the police, and this reflexive lack of concern is backed up by the data, a point I address in another article I wrote entitled ‘what a white man has to say about race in America’.
But if perception is reality, it is still important to raise the doubts above because they have a bearing on how we think about what to do about white-privilege. White-privilege is often deployed in conversation in a tone that implies it should be taken away. Hence the phrase ‘check your privilege.’ But checking privilege may not always be the morally-sound antidote. If we are talking about rights rather than privileges, then the focus of the discussion should be how to cultivate a society in which black people take for granted the rights that white people take for granted. Rather than ‘check your privilege’, the goal is a society in which cops give both the white and black kid the benefit of the doubt, rather than a society in which the cop refuses to give the benefit of the doubt to the white person simply because he does not give the benefit of the doubt to the black person (as if two wrongs make a right). The issue is to expand rights to those who don’t have it, not take it away from those who have it. As Lewis Gordon writes: ‘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?’
Lawrence Blum dissects this point by drawing our attention to subtle distinctions within the concept of white-privilege. He outlines three kinds of privileges. One privilege involves being ‘spared the injustice’ of a particular social outcome, like being stopped by the police without due cause. A second privilege is being ‘unjustly enriched’ by a particular social outcome. For example, ‘if police are too focused on looking for Black lawbreakers, they might be less vigilant toward White ones, conferring an unjust enrichment benefit on Whites who do break the laws but escape detection for this reason.’ Finally, a third kind of privilege is ‘when one benefits from one’s position, in a manner that one does not deserve from a moral point of view, but, in contrast to the previous two categories, the benefit is not related to an injustice suffered by the disadvantaged group.’ For example, native English speakers in an American classroom have an advantage over students not fluent in English. This does not involve discrimination, although it is not without a moral responsibility to ensure that non-native speakers are treated with dignity.
The point of drawing these distinctions is not simply to alter, or unnecessarily complicate, the semantics of the discussion, but to force us to think carefully about how to address the inequities associated with white-privilege. If a cop pursues a black suspect because he is black, even though he is innocent, while the true perpetrator who gets away is white, the white perpetrator has been ‘unjustly enriched’ by the prejudice exhibited toward the innocent black suspect. In this case, ‘check your privilege’ makes sense. The guilty white person should turn himself in. But if a drunk white kid is not arrested or shot for merely cursing the police, he has been ‘spared the injustice’ of ill-treatment by the police. In this case, ‘check your privilege’ does not make sense (unless we mean to say the drunk white kid should get himself shot to make a point). ‘Spared injustice’ should by a right bestowed to everyone, not a privilege to be taken away from white people.
This ‘deconstruction’ of white-privilege into a litany of privileges and rights provides us with an opportunity to summarize the problem I have with the concept of white-privilege. Reading my objections, one schooled in ‘white-privilege analysis’ may be inclined to devalue or invalidate my opinions by dismissing them as a display of white fragility or whitesplaining. I am, after all, a white male who is skeptical that white-privilege is a robust concept, or at least a concept that does not have kinks in its armor. But I am not denying that white-privilege is real. I am instead trying to gain a clearer understanding of what the concept of white-privilege entails. In an article on ‘what a white man has to say about race in America,’ I write that the conversation about race does not necessarily make progress if a white male is told to shut up and listen. This is not about resenting an appeal for me to shut up and listen, but about what happens once I’ve listened. Am I simply to be told what to think? That is not helpful, since it strikes me as axiomatic that rote learning pales in comparison to asking questions and having occasional disagreements and carrying on with a healthy skepticism, all of which are key to any honest discussion and analysis, and are also among the most effective ways to cultivate active interest in a subject and ultimately to build awareness and understanding.
In the case of white-privilege, I may not be an expert, but having read a fair amount of literature on white-privilege, I do not think the concept of white-privilege is impervious to critical objections. Plato argued that the Form constitutes true reality. He distrusted the sensual world as one distorted by the illusions of variation. As a student of Darwin, I am inclined to trust the complications that come with a world of variation. The conversation about white-privilege often seems to treat the concept of white-privilege as a kind of Platonic Form, a fixed reality that is self-contained and coherent and true. But in the real world, experiences vary. They are made up of an amalgam of causes and effects. Parsing through all the moving parts of an individual experience is usually more difficult than social justice warriors let on when they impute white-privilege to social outcomes. One must take the time to consider alternative factors at work in any given instance of purported injustice. Otherwise, someone like myself gets confused about whether white-privilege really explains why a drunk white kid, and not a drunk black kid, gets off easy after cursing the police at 3am in the morning on a crowded U Street in Washington, D.C.
This is important if we wish to avoid confusion about what we are trying to achieve as a society. If white-privilege is not simply an abstract Form of systemic advantage, but instead a litany of rights and privileges, it does not always make moral sense to ‘check your privilege’. It is also not entirely clear what a white person is supposed to do about those cases in which he does exercise privilege, consciously or unconsciously. If we are talking about rights, the goal should be to expand these rights to everyone, not take them away from white people. If we are talking about privileges, it may make more sense to ‘check your privilege’, but even then, it may depend on the privilege. For example, one can legitimately question whether some of the privileges listed by Peggy McIntosh are, in fact, advantages that every white person would consider a privilege (e.g. going into a music store and being able to find music of one’s race represented; it stretches credibility to assume that every white person going into a store derives satisfaction from the assurance that music of his race is represented, if he even understands what that means).
In short, white-privilege is real. But it is not so easy to know what it is, and when it is at work.
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