I often refer to the question of privilege in the pages, so I thought it would be helpful to spell it out. Of all that I have written, this is the one essay I would encourage you to print out and discuss with your friends.

Privilege is utterly invisible to most whites and perfectly, constantly, daily, painfully obvious to almost all minorities. It provides whites with a place in the social hierarchy, a belief in upward mobility and a sense of identity – they can know who they are because they are not “the Other.”

Privilege is the advantage of having views that define the norm for others. It tells whites that their experience is objective, universal and “non-racial,” while blacks can only represent their own racialized experiences. We speak of “African-Americans,” but never of “Euro-Americans.” Language, more than law, reveals who is part of the polis and who isn’t.

Privilege allows white people to universalize, to claim that “black people are also prejudiced,” to claim that racism is fluid, one day (or era) benefitting whites and another day benefitting blacks. While the notion of individualism declares that we all need to see each other as individuals (everyone is different), the privilege of universalism declares that we all need to see each other as human beings (everyone is the same) and subtly functions to deny the significance of race and the advantages of whiteness.

Simultaneously, whites learn that they are individuals and not part of a racially socialized group. The privilege of individualism erases history and allows whites to view themselves as unique and original, unaffected by the relentless racial messages in the culture, to distance themselves from other, “bad” whites. Whites are privileged to invoke these seemingly contradictory discourses – we are either all unique or we are all the same – interchangeably. Seeing themselves as individuals outside of race frees whites from the psychic burden of race in a wholly racialized society. Race and racism become “their” problem, not “ours.”

Privilege allows white conservatives to judge social welfare programs as “unearned income” and identify their own economic situations as reflecting only hard work and virtue, while ignoring the reality of inherited capital and generations of structural inequality. It allows white liberals to see blacks as “underprivileged” without seeing themselves as “overprivileged.” It allows poor whites to favor cultural advantages over economic interests, to identify as white rather than as poor.

Privilege allows whites to confuse responsibility with guilt. If “my ancestors didn’t own slaves, then I’m not guilty, and I don’t have to do anything to transform the system.” Rejecting guilt, they also reject the responsibility to understand how slavery’s legacy offers them privilege. It allows them to deny that racism is ultimately a white problem and that the burden for interrupting it belongs primarily to white people.

Whites are privileged to have selective memory, to “remember Pearl Harbor / the Alamo / 911,” etc, while admonishing minorities to “move on, not dwell on the past.” Rejecting personal responsibility on race, they feel privileged to demand that minorities accept such responsibility on economic matters (“take care of your own needs without expecting government help”). In other words, whites are privileged to personalize rather than systematize.

Whites are privileged to claim an intellectually level playing field, to debate and disagree with perspectives that challenge their worldview, when in fact they don’t understand those perspectives.

Privilege allows half of all whites to believe that blacks enjoy economic parity with them, 61% to say the average black has equal or better access to health care than the average white, and 85% to say that blacks have just as good a chance to get any housing they can afford, despite the contrary views held by the great majority of black people. This means that whites are privileged to say to blacks, in effect, “I know your reality better than you do.” 

Whites are privileged to choose when, how and how much to address or challenge racism. In discussions of race, whites are privileged to use the language of self-defense, to position themselves as being attacked – and thus as superior – to blame others, to falsely position their discomfort as dangerous and to demand more social resources such as time and attention. Indeed, whites believe that they are victims of racism more often than blacks(http://now.tufts.edu/news-releases/whites-believe-they-are-victims-...).

Privilege allows whites to choose segregation, to assume that “good” neighborhoods and “good” schools are euphemisms for “mostly white,” that the quality of white space is largely measured by the absence of people of color, especially blacks.

Since whites rarely need to build up the cognitive or affective skills to allow for constructive engagement across racial divides, they often experience “white fragility” when forced into such conversations. Privilege allows them to respond in ways that function to restore their emotional equilibrium: resistance toward anyone who triggers their reaction, shutting down and/or tuning out or indulging in emotional incapacitation. They may say that they don’t feel safe, when in fact they simply don’t feel comfortable. This stance trivializes and perverts the reality of history – addressing blacks about safety allows them to ignore what it means from a position of societal dominance. Complaining about safety when merely talking about racism is a way to refuse exploration of alternate racial perspectives and to reinforce their unexamined white perspectives as universal.

Ultimately, privilege allows whites to not think about privilege. It allows one to not have to think about race every day, not be perceived as either hyper-sexual or lazy, not be racially profiled, not assume that in driving through certain areas one will be stopped by an officer inquiring as to one’s intent, not be viewed with suspicion when shopping, not be unfairly treated when buying a home, not have to work twice as hard to prove oneself, or not be denied job interviews. It is the freedom to avoid being stigmatized by the actions of others with the same skin color. It allows white politicians and professionals to nothave to transcend racial stereotypes. It allows one to not worry that an officer will shoot when one’s hands are up.

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Comment by John Lundwall on April 18, 2015 at 10:49am

Dear Barry, this will be my last post here. I do not mean to offend, but truthfully almost every definition of white privilege you offer is a logical fallacy. Whenever social policy is predicated on logical fallacy endless suffering is the result. My point in trying to obtain actual social policy from your definitions was to show, ultimately, the heartlessness those policies would represent. 

It does absolutely no good to replace one form of neurosis (the fundamentalism of the right) with another form of neurosis (the fundamentalism of the left). Your heartfelt reasons for addressing this terrible issue with logical fallacies are not sufficient for their ultimate ends. Therefore, it is true, I reject them. If we are going to tend to the soul of the world, we have to drop our socio/political prejudices. I believe you are sincere and truly want to help your brothers and sisters of the world. But your worldview will make needless enemies of those who also want to help.

Comment by Barry Spector on April 17, 2015 at 4:17pm

Mr. Lundwall: I wrote these essays (and my book) out of a profound sense of grief about the world my grandchildren are inheriting. There is no part of my explication of white privilege that I haven't discovered in myself, although I have learned most of it from people of color. I most certainly did not write about the subject to engage in abstract philosophical debates about definitions.

People of color are dying on our streets every single day because white people, in our desperate attempts to remain innocent, refuse to acknowledge our privileges. You want solutions? Good. Begin with yourself: speak from your heart, not from your head. If not, please find some other philosophers to pontificate with, not me.

 

Comment by John Lundwall on April 17, 2015 at 2:37pm

I should also say, the strength of your definitions as well.

Comment by John Lundwall on April 17, 2015 at 2:35pm

I understand the article was not about solutions. However, the solution part of this worldview is the prominent thing to discuss. Show me your solutions for your definitions of white privilege and I will show you the weakness of your definitions.

Comment by Barry Spector on April 17, 2015 at 2:25pm

Alexandar -- You rightly point out one aspect of privilege as applied to foreign affairs. Serbs were the first and possibly only white people the U.S. has bombed since World War Two. Few note how many non-white nations -- over forty -- we have attacked since 1945.

Comment by Barry Spector on April 17, 2015 at 1:17pm

So apparently you agree that privilege exists. But before we can talk about solutions (which in fact was not the intent of the article. The intent was to identify a condition that all white people share, regardless of their beliefs about race), I'd like to know what you mean by its "intellectual paucity." And what exactly is your position on this issue? It's easy to make quick criticisms about someone else without revealing anything about yourself.

Comment by John Lundwall on April 17, 2015 at 1:00pm

No. Not at all. What is your solution for each of the "definitions" of white privilege you invoke? Tell me your specific social, economic, and political policies you would implement and enforce as a result of your definitions. That's all I want to know. 

Comment by Barry Spector on April 17, 2015 at 12:55pm

Is John Lundwall implying that since I "failed to articulate a solution" to the problem of white privilege, it doesn't exist? 

Comment by Gus Brunsman on April 17, 2015 at 11:00am

Barry,

There's a saying: If you're going to speak the truth, keep your horse at the door.

Thanks for speaking.

Comment by John Lundwall on April 17, 2015 at 10:49am

The intellectual paucity of your argument will be revealed when you articulate a solution for "white privilege," which you failed to do. 


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