Some Thoughts on White Privilege

Vibracobra, on the feminist blog Mind the Gap, blogs about white privilege and white feminists:

You might be familiar with the video that Sudy (of A Womyn’s Ecdysis) made a while back, showcasing a collection of comments by self-identified feminists in people’s comments threads, some of which are pretty horrifying.

Anyway, inspired by a recent post on male privilege here, I think it might be a good idea to make a few similar points on white privilege, based on the personal experience of some of my friends and acquaintances. Some of these points might not occur to us that easily. After all, one of the things about privilege is that, the more privileged you are, the more confident you feel that you don’t have to question your privilege. So, here are a few points, which I hope will be as much of a wake-up call to you as they were for me.

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28 Responses to Some Thoughts on White Privilege

  1. 1
    Thumper says:

    The flipside of privilege is envy. Why should anyone question their privilege? That question has yet to be answered satisfactorily, especially considering that it is such a sliding-scale concept.

  2. 2
    Eliza says:

    So, wait…this person is going to use a male privilege checklist that is unabashedly based on a white privilege checklist as a jumping off point to write a white privilege checklist? Um…ok

  3. 3
    Thumper says:

    Why not, Eliza? After all, the statement “one of the things about privilege is that, the more privileged you are, the more confident you feel that you don’t have to question your privilege” shows just how self-referential the entire concept is. It is all about manufacturing guilt trips where there should be no guilt whatsoever.

    This whole thing boils down to the question: “Are you alive? If so, then consider yourself privileged.”

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:

    Thumper, please leave this thread.

    Your content is basically null, which I would be less worried about if you hadn’t decided to reply to Eliza with a non-sequiteur trying to drag her back to null content. I think the conversation will be facilitated by your absence.

  5. 5
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Well, Thumper’s complaint is a fair one, if clouded – the way that people discuss priviledge is quite condescending.

    “Of course you’re priviledged. You can’t see that you’re priviledged. You simply don’t have the ability to see that you’re priviledged.”

    If you tell someone they’re privileged, it is an attack – after all, being privileged opens one up for egalitarian adjustments in the interest of fairness. It also devalues the achievements of their lives.

    Then you follow it up with the idea that they’re simply not enlightened enough to observe this privilege. That only you, the enlightened outsider, can properly explain to them this concept. It’s an insult, and it also means you don’t have to listen to them because they don’t have the perspective that you do, which deepens the insult.

  6. 6
    Petar says:

    I’m with Silenced on this one. I will have the same reaction to anyone arguing that I am privileged that I would have to anyone challenging me. I will endeavor to prove that I am better than them, and the cost to their self-esteem be damned.

    I do not deny that being a white male (most of the time, I would fail the brown bag test some summers) has made things easier for me. So? What the Hell does anyone know about what I have had to go through to get where I am? What does give them to right to point it out? Call me on my racism, if I let it show. Call me on my misogyny, if it exists. But for a long time I have lived with a rule that I am not about to abandon: “No constraints on the response to a deliberate, unprovoked attack”.

  7. 7
    christina B says:

    I don’t think it is about manufacturing guilt trips.

    Priviledge and the refusal to acknowledge it (be it white, male, economic or some other variety) is key to maintaining beliefs that racism and sexism don’t exist. A white person who has never experienced racism directly (from either side) is probably more likely to believe that we have succeeded in erasing it. A man who has never been followed home at night and has never been told by a friend or sister about being followed home is more inclined to believe that it isn’t a common occurence and therefore no big deal.

    Also, without ever putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, which is basically what the original author asks the readers to do, one may continue thinking “well, so racism/sexism exist, but they can’t really have that much of an effect on someone psychologically. It’s just an excuse.” In this sense, priviledge inhibits fighting racism and sexism by providing an excuse not to fight them (the effects aren’t that bad, people are just using them as an excuse).

    Furthermore, in order to create a more egalitarian society, it is necessary to eliminate priviledges. In order to eliminate them, we must recognize them first.

    I’m sure that some people do “attack” others that they feel are priviledged in order to make them see their priviledge. I’m sure it also happens that no matter how tactfully and softly you try to put it, certain people will ALWAYS feel attacked. However, neither of those is a compelling reason to shut down the entire conversation. If anything, they should generate conversation about how to discuss priviledge more effectively. I think that talking about differences in everyday experiences is a good place to start the conversation.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    I wanted to respond to this thread, but everything I would have said, Christina has already said better.

    I find Petar’s point — which can be summed up “privilege exists, but no one should ever point it out” — to be particularly bewildering.

  9. 9
    Petar says:

    I believe that one should attack the actions of those who let prejudice affect their actions. If you believe that one particular manager is promoting a white guy unfairly, talk to the manager. If you see someone who’s guided by his racism, try to convince him he’s wrong. But taking it out on the beneficiary of privilege rubs me the wrong way.

    And of course, this is just my own opinion. I have never encountered prejudice I could not deal with. Maybe if I’d had it bad enough, I would feel different.

  10. 10
    Ariane says:

    I must admit, the black/white, male/female privilege situation feels a little trivial to me compared with food/no food. I am privileged. I was born into a family with enough to eat and a history that resulted in a loving, supportive environment for me. Have I specifically benefited from white privilege, or specifically been denied due to male privilege? I don’t know. It seems we should be aiming to share our privilege instead of aiming to remove it. Perhaps then there would be less defensiveness from those “accused” of privilege.

    For each of my well-fed kids, I aim to feed another, and to raise my kids to do the same and more. And like Petar, when I see an -ism, I attempt to remove it, in myself or in an institution.

  11. 12
    Mandolin says:

    Whatever’s wrong, Radfem? Is it the fact that the comfort of the white/male folks needs to trump sociological discussion that might actually illuminate the way oppression works?

    Silly, Radfem. The goal of true progressives isn’t alleviating oppression. It’s allowing white boys to feel good about themselves while they wank.

  12. 13
    Radfem says:

    Yeah, something like that. I’m just too tired to play this game today.

  13. 14
    Gwen says:

    Why not, Eliza? After all, the statement “one of the things about privilege is that, the more privileged you are, the more confident you feel that you don’t have to question your privilege” shows just how self-referential the entire concept is. It is all about manufacturing guilt trips where there should be no guilt whatsoever.

    This whole thing boils down to the question: “Are you alive? If so, then consider yourself privileged.”

    It’s like…non-priveleged privelege!

    Oh wait, no it’s not.

    *sigh*

  14. 15
    nobody.really says:

    Wow. Of all the stuff on this blog that might provoke people, a discussion of privilege? Well, here’s one guy’s discussion.

    1. I don’t know everything. I kinda doubt that you do, either. This is the human condition, as far as I can tell. Ideally we could all acknowledge our mutual ignorance and no one would need to feel especially embarrassed to acknowledge it.

    Among the things I don’t know is, what is it like to be you? To live your life? Similarly, among the things you don’t know is what it’s like to be me, and to live my life.

    2. Lacking perfect knowledge, I muddle through the best I can. Inevitably this involves a lot of guessing. Sometimes I guess right. Sometimes I guess wrong, and discover that fact to my chagrin – whoops, that chair wasn’t strong enough to hold me after all. Sometimes I guess wrong but never discover this fact because my guess is never tested – that chair looks strong enough to hold me, but I really have to be going now, so maybe I’ll sit in it later.

    Over time I develop a working hypothesis of the world. I derive this hypothesis from everything I experience. A large part of what I experience is my own life, so that’s likely to form the basis of that hypothesis. But I also experience the depictions of other people’s lives in the media: cave drawings, folk tales, dirty jokes and Harry & Louise political ads. All of these things get incorporated into my working hypothesis – including the idea that a given chair is strong enough to hold me.

    So far, so good. Now the sledding gets rougher.

    4. While I expect that we are all ignorant of each other’s circumstances, we are not all equally ignorant. For example, I just got passed up for a promotion to Accountant II. My fellow accountants gather around to commiserate, ‘cuz they’ve all been there. They understand my circumstances.

    Or so they think. They fail to understand that I am, in fact, a spy from al Quieda trying to break into corporate files that are only accessible to Accountant IIs. Al Quieda has grown impatient with my lack of progress in gaining this access, and has given me until the end of the year to produce something valuable for them or to face “the consequence.”

    Ok, that’s a pretty dramatic example. But it illustrates the idea that we don’t really have an equal understanding of each other’s circumstances. I understand a lot about the life that the other accountants face, whereas the other accountants may have a lot of assumptions about my life that just aren’t accurate. So when my colleagues pat me on the back and tell me that I’m sure to get the promotion next year, they fail to appreciate that I may never see next year. I know they mean well, but honestly THEY JUST DON’T GET IT and their ignorant blather is only adding to my stress. And it doesn’t help that I just broke my chair.

    I am, in a word, a minority. Whereas my fellow accountants have built their working hypotheses of my life based on their own lives plus re-runs of Leave It to Beaver and The Office, I know better than to base my assumptions about their lives based on my own life. In this sense, I am not prone to the same errors that they are.

    To be sure, this self-awareness does not render me immune to similar errors. Based on my working hypothesis of other people’s lives, I make casual remarks about homosexuality to Julie in Human Resources and Maxwell in Physical Plant, ignorant of the fact that they’re gay. This may explain why I didn’t get the promotion. And why I can’t get anyone to fix my chair.

    5. At last we arrive at privilege. I understand “privilege” to refer to the cumulative effects of the confluence of two dynamics: 1) Majorities are less aware of the circumstances of minorities than vice versa. 2) Society tends to be designed to benefit people in power and, all else being equal, majorities wield more power than minorities. If a majority of people lived in wheelchairs, I would expect that a lot of things would be designed differently. They aren’t, and they aren’t.

    I find no moral or emotional content to either of these assertions. They strike me as simple, rational dynamics of a world of majorities, minorities and limits.

    But let’s look at these two, value-free dynamics from the perspective of the minority: 1) They’re not getting the same benefits of society that majority groups are. And 2) members of the majority don’t even acknowledge it.

    This is the dynamic that people try to illustrate when they create lists of “privileges.” The goal, as I understand it, is to help members of majority groups understand circumstances that minority groups face, especially circumstances that place minorities at a disadvantage relative to majorities.

    Is there moral or emotional content to this? Ideally, no. Yes, members of majorities are clueless, but for no special fault of their own. The white motorist may be ignorant of how traffic signs have been altered to speed his drive through the black neighborhood, even at the expense of the black kids’ safety. And the black motorist may be ignorant of how the emissions from his car are affecting the climate in Alaska to the detriment of the Innuit kids’ safety. Ignorance does not equal malice. But similarly, innocence does not equal harmlessness. Harm can arise regardless of intent.

    In sum: “Privilege” is not an indictment of any individual. Privilege merely refers to the jillion ways, big and small, that society is tailored to facilitate the interests of the powerful including, all else being equal, the interests of a majority rather than the interests of a minority.

  15. 16
    Sailorman says:

    The interesting thing to me is the unspoken aspect of a “privilege check.”

    I, for example, am supposed to acknowledge my privilege. Which I do, literally speaking, without a whole lot of difficulty. Given my life and my situation, I’m obviously privileged over most folks in the U.S.–not to mention the rest of the planet. And to the extent that we focus on “earning” it, much of my privilege is/was either out of my control, or follows from things which I didn’t do. IOW while I can claim to have “earned” some of what I have (not everyone with my background ends up doing what I did) the reality is that I was much more able to earn that status because of my background, upbringing, etc., and a goodly amount of luck.

    But that’s the easy part, yes? Realizing that you won the “birth lottery” isn’t all that hard.

    The hard part is what you think I should do about it. So if you’re thinking “ah, Sailorman acknowledges that he’s privileged, therefore he should ____” this is possibly where we will part ways.

    Generally, I find that a demand to ‘acknowledge” my privilege is really a demand to do something beyond acknowledging it. There is generally a belief, inherent in the demand, that I’m supposed to change that: in essence, that things are supposed to be neutral and that I have more than I’m “entitled” to.

    So a call to acknowledge my privilege, or to “check” my privilege (in the context in which is it commonly used) might mean to “stop talking,” or to “drop that subject of questioning,” or to “admit that this fact is true,” or something similar. In my experience, it almost never means to, literally, acknowledge my privilege.

    And the question of whether I would/should concede to someone else as a result of my assumed privilege over them (whether it’s a conversation, or the ‘right’ to have an opinion on a certain matter, or the ‘right’ to have a particular opinion)… well, that’s not as obvious as “acknowledging” privilege. At least not to me.

    That’s why these things break down so fast, I think. The question of whether or not we should be encouraged to generally redistribute ‘power’ and/or ‘wealth’ to achieve balance is one of honest debate (though anticapitalists would disagree with me, I suspect). The question of whether or not we should redistribute those things on an individual, per-conversation level is equally if not more open to debate. And of course, the issue of who gets to have a say on how the redistribution would work (if it should happen at all), and who would “give up” how much is damn well debatable, especially at an individual level: it’s not “should men generally refrain from saying ____ in conversations with women because men generally are privileged over women(*1)”, it’s “should this particular man refrain from saying _____ in this particular conversation with this particular woman because he is privileged over her(*2).”

    Unfortunately, asking for a debate on, or insisting on debating those subjects is itself frequently considered a privileged (e.g. improper) act. Which seems a bit circular, or perhaps a priori:
    “You’re hiding something”
    “No, I’m not.”
    “That’s what people say when they’re hiding something.”

    But the irony about the a priori part is that it is true: the ability to insist on a balanced deck, or a fair game, “or I won’t play” is the mark of someone who doesn’t HAVE to play the game, like it or not. The ability to boycott a store is the mark of someone who doesn’t HAVE to shop there, and who has the ability to go somewhere else. And so on.

    But who wants to play with a loaded deck? I don’t. As I said earlier, acknowledging it is the easy part.

    (*1) a fact which I think is clearly true

    (*2) or, alternatively, “…because men are privileged over women.” Both of those work: a claim can be supported by the general rule as well as the specific rule. However, it’s more difficult to support a specific demand with a general rule, I think.

  16. 17
    Kim (basement variety!) says:

    “should this particular man refrain from saying _____ in this particular conversation with this particular woman because he is privileged over her(*2).”

    This seems like a faulty example. Generally this isn’t the problem, but instead what men are saying to other men ABOUT women (plural or singular) that is perpetuating privilege. It’s giving silent approval to maintain the status quo and to keep women (or minorities) as other through use of language and privilege amongst themselves.

  17. 18
    Mandolin says:

    Oh, Sailorman is probably complaining about being told that sometimes he’s talking out his ass when he thinks he knows what he’s talking about. “Privilege check” in those circumstances means “examine why the fuck you think you know this supposedly ‘common sense’ set of facts.”

  18. 19
    joe says:

    Thanks Mandolin. Now that I know it’s just a personal complaint I’ll ignore what Sailorman has to say from here on out in this thread.

  19. 20
    Sailorman says:

    Didn’t take long for the snark/insult comments to come out. Do you mind if I write my own “fuck”-based comments? Good. Sigh.

    Mandolin Writes:
    February 21st, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Oh, Sailorman is probably complaining about being told that sometimes he’s talking out his ass when he thinks he knows what he’s talking about. “Privilege check” in those circumstances means “examine why the fuck you think you know this supposedly ‘common sense’ set of facts.”

    Right, and “would you explain that” or “I don’t think so” means “examine why the fuck you think that you’re right instead of me,” hmm?

    Because yeah, I’m human. I make mistakes, sometimes; I talk out of my ass, sometimes; I act like a fuckhead, sometimes. And (surprise, Mandolin!) so are you–yes, you, too sometimes make mistakes, talk out of your ass, and act like a fuckhead. Ain’t it grand? Welcome to humanity.

    So given that there’s about as much chance of “I follow what Mandolin says without question” as there is for you to “follow what Sailorman says without question.” What are you, the fucking Privilege Pope or something, to have a judgment of yours go unchallenged? I don’t think so.

    I suspect that you wouldn’t believe me if I told you that you were being an idiot. Or if you were making an assumption about me that was wrong. Or much else, actually.

    But although I may disagree with you sometimes, I don’t think you’re unintelligent… so you must know that you’re wrong with regularity, just like the rest of us humans. Right? And you must be self-knowing enough to realize that (whatever your own reasons for doing so) you don’t generally accept that type of “do what i say” shit from many other people, and probably less from people who you’re in the process of disagreeing with, hmm? Or people who regularly refer to your position in, say, insulting terms?

    Because I can’t help but note that your whopper of a post is, at heart, a simple insult. What the fuck is your point, exactly?

  20. 21
    Sailorman says:

    Kim (basement variety!) Writes:
    …This seems like a faulty example. Generally this isn’t the problem, but instead what men are saying to other men ABOUT women (plural or singular) that is perpetuating privilege. It’s giving silent approval to maintain the status quo and to keep women (or minorities) as other through use of language and privilege amongst themselves.

    I agree with you about the perpetuating aspect, and that the man>man conversations are a, if not the, main source of the problem. But that’s not really the context I was talking about in terms of a call to acknowledge/check privilege.

    And incidentally, I agree that that a peer-peer privilege check is often extremely effective. The thing of course that makes it effective is that there’s no hidden agenda: it removes the natural tendency to assume that the person who brings it up is doing to so to “win;” or that they are overly biased in their assessment. Neutral or friendly parties are assumed to be more accurate and the party who is the recipient of the correction is therefore automatically more receptive.

  21. 22
    Kim (basement variety!) says:

    And that’s exactly it, Sailorman; for me, when I hear people say “What can I do about my privilege”, I think it starts by speaking out at times when it’s hard. By not only not participating in, but by actively denouncing acts of marginalization, even the subtle ones, when we are faced with them.

    To provide an example/context:

    For me, as a white feminist woman, one of my steps in that direction has been through speaking out clearly whenever I hear comments about abortion. This is especially true when I hear white people making comments about abortions and low income women or minorities. I give them a moment to say their piece, then explain very clearly that many people have had abortions, including myself and that I don’t regret my decision, and that using it as a way of shaming and making value judgments on women of any sort is both stupid and blind.

  22. 23
    Sailorman says:

    I have similarly found that men listen to my “don’t be sexist” or “why are you saying that to/about my child,” etc. comments with a level of acceptance that I expect would not be present were I a woman. That’s considerably less brave then your example though.

    (and I have to ask: what does “basement variety” mean?)

  23. 24
    Kim (basement variety!) says:

    It’s kind of a joke/identifier. The house we live in is extremely large, with a garden level floor that serves as a two bedroom ‘in-law’ apartment. My family (myself, my husband and two daughters, Sydney and Maddox) live in the bottom portion of the house, and upstairs is:

    Ampersand
    Bean
    Charles
    Elkins

    And Jake (not squid, though he has also been part of the household at different points in time).

    I had mostly been a lurker in the early years of alas, but when I decided to start commenting, there was another Kim posting, and I didn’t want to cause excess confusion.

    The larger ‘community’ that makes up our household has actually had several Alas posters as part of it, and is frequently referred to as ‘The Ennead’, which was the college name given to the household at a point when it had 9 members. At this point it is communal-light, but none-the-less still an intentional family.

  24. 25
    Mandolin says:

    “Because I can’t help but note that your whopper of a post is, at heart, a simple insult. What the fuck is your point, exactly?”

    Nope, not a simple insult. A clarification of what the issues are at stake, and what your behavior has been in other threads. The use of the word “fuck” does not actually mean that the statement is valueless, but thanks for retreading the civility canard.

    The post also clarifies how I and others have used the phrase “check your privilege” to you in other, recent circumstances — not as an insult, not in the ways you enumerate, but as a way of signaling to you when you’ve got your blinders on.

    It’s interesting that the statement “you have your blinders on” is construed in various comments in this thread (moving past Sailorman, for the moment) as an insult and/or a way of trying to oppress people. That right there is one of the essences of privilege.

  25. 26
    Sailorman says:

    I’ll join you in the move to a general scenario:

    “I think you have your blinders on, because…” is neither an insult, nor an especially problematic phrase. Neither is “I think your position is incorrect, because…” or “I think that your statement is privileged, because….”

    Assuming that one is willing to explain the “because” part within reason, then a statement about privilege is no different, no more insulting, and no more demanding of blind acceptance than any other statement.

    However, the phrase “check your privilege” is frequently lacking the “because” part. (When it DOES have the “because” or the explanation, it’s a very different scenario. And in that context, it tends to get a similar reaction as does any other “I believe you’re incorrect, because…” statement. Not necessarily an IDENTICAL reaction, because there’s a moral component(*1), but certainly a similar one.)

    Why? Because everyone has their own definition of what “privileged” means, and what actions can/should be called privileged, sort of like everyone has their own definition of what “feminism” means and what actions can/should be called antifeminist (to avoid derailing, I’m deliberately leaving race out of the example other than here, but “racist” and “racism” are also in that category as we probably all are aware.) To use four random blogs: does anyone think that the same behavior would be viewed the same way on Twisty, BitchPhD, Alas, and Feministing?

    The other issue is that “privileged,” like “sexist,” is often used as a synonym for “incorrect.” But as we all know, they aren’t the same thing. This means that when someone responds to an argument solely with a claim of privileged, it’s not always clear whether they think the argument is incorrect+privileged, or correct+privileged. In either case, the privilege aspect is rarely, by itself, a complete answer to the argument against which it is presented as an answer, and it is presented as if it is. It’s a conversation killer, akin to “shut up and listen.” (and the person making the “call” knows that. An argument that is wrong and ALSO privileged is sort of super-wrong)

    So the question is, what level of trust or blind faith is the person who “calls” a privilege check demanding? And is it reasonable for the “caller” to make that demand?

    Maybe there is in the context of a classrom, where authority is generally given to the instructor. But in a normal conversation? I don’t think the rules are the same. If you and I each “know” that thing are true, I don’t think that either of is

    In my experience, there’s an unfortunate correlation between two factors:

    1) The level of trust demanded; basically the level of “I say you’re _____ so you’re ____”
    and
    2) The tendency to claim that a challenge of the statement by the accused or a claim that the statement is accusatory or insulting, etc., is itself a manifestation of privilege.(*2)

    Because we are all human, we all tend to have the same tendency to use what power we have effectively if we can. People who are privileged tend to use that influence to advance their argument, in a manner that’s not rationally related to the argument. Similarly, people who are in a position to “call” privilege checks (a different type of influence, but depending on the context a very powerful one) ALSO tend to use that influence to advance their argument, ALSO in a manner that’s not rationally related to the argument. It’s human nature to use what power you have.

    Both of those practices are bad. Both should stop.

    To temporarily use myself as an example again, though hopefully in a manner that will allow us to communicate politely (not interested in rehashing uor earlier, more unpleasant argument. I’vehad enough unpleasant discussions to day in real life.):
    If I think I don’t have my blinders on (or any other thought, for that matter), and that your judgment is incorrect, I may also be right.
    If you think that I have my blinders on (or any other thought, for that matter), and that my judgment is incorrect, you may be right.
    I should not be able to defend my belief by simply claiming i’m right.
    You should not be able to defend your belief by claiming you’re right.

    And so on.

    (*1) This is pretty important. There IS a moral component to privilege, which doesn’t attach to most purely logical arguments. Privilege isn’t just presented as erroneous, it’s presented as bad. That’s part of why the defenses manifested are different. Think what you will of privilege, that’s an individual choice–but it is to be expected that people’s reactions to a moral condemnation will be different.

    (*2) Which, as I said above, can well be the case. But to flip things for a moment: If it is privileged to demand an explanation of an accusation (as some have claimed)… isn’t it, then, even as or more privileged (or if you prefer a different word, “problematic,”) to reach a judgment regarding someone’s actions or morals, and expect your judgment to be respected without challenge?

    Expecting someone to believe me without question is obnoxious–and I know I certainly do it on occasion, though I try not to. If someone expects me to believe them without question it’s equally obnoxious. And when it’s a negative moral judgment, for which the stakes are higher, then both of us tend to view it as even more problematic.

  26. 27
    sylphhead says:

    I must admit, the black/white, male/female privilege situation feels a little trivial to me compared with food/no food.

    Every single issue on this goddamn continent is trivial compared to mass starvation, including the ones you care about.

  27. 28
    sylphhead says:

    Mandolin, I think your position would be clearer if you would say what the expected reaction to a call on privilege is. Is it:

    1. A written acknowledgment of privilege?

    2. Change in tone?

    3. Change in position?

    4. Something else?

    I also think there’s a difference between telling someone that they’re privileged and telling someone is adopting position X because they’re privileged. Because the latter can easily be taken as a tautological way of saying that their position is incorrect. It’s the same reason I’m deeply skeptical of other loaded frames (such as the neurologically incorrect “logical” versus “emotional”, for one).