Want to start a fight? Put an honest white person and an honest person of color in a room together and tell them to discuss white privilege. “White privilege” is one of those phrases that means two totally different things to most white people and most people of color. Outside of colleges and and multi-cultural training seminars it is a complete conversation stopper that does nothing to illuminate anything and everything to sow seeds of enmity between races. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s a phrase that should be abandoned altogether.
“Now, wait a minute, Rebecca,” I can hear some of you saying, “you’re a white person married to an African American. You’ve even written a book which is enormously sympathetic to the perspectives and experiences of African Americans and quite critical of whites inability/unwillingness to deal with those perspectives and experiences. How can you speak so negatively of ‘white privilege’? Isn’t it just a reality?”
And that’s just it. If I as an extraordinarily sympathetic white person who can offer hundreds of examples of the ways that racism has affected my husband – who is just one man! – hear the phrase “white privilege” and get my hackles raised, then clearly there’s a problem. And frankly, I really don’t think that the problem is with me. The problem is with the language involved.
When the phrase “white privilege” is spoken, most minorities hear, “a pattern of treating white people better than non-white people.” However, I and, based on every conversation I’ve ever witnessed, most white people hear, “white people have it too easy. They have no problems. The world gets handed to them on a silver platter.” And the conversation stops right there. A lot of times the response by white people is to tell their own stories of being poor, overcoming enormous obstacles, being mistreated etc. Privilege belongs to the rich, the powerful, celebrities, politicians, royalty. Not white share croppers or immigrants or a white kids with an alcoholic father.
At which point, people of color say, “but you don’t have to deal with racism! You don’t have to deal with people following you through stores or refusing to hire you or housing discrimination. The cops don’t pull you over for ‘driving while white’! You don’t get stopped and frisked walking down the street in New York city! Don’t you see how privileged you are?”
And here is the problem; a privilege is something that you don’t have a right to. It’s something that is suspect. As Americans in particular, we don’t approve of the wealthy or powerful having privileges that others don’t. When the mayor gets pulled over while drunk, we expect him to be treated just like anyone else who drives drunk. We want him to be treated just like us. When we say that someone has privileges, we are saying that they get treated better than they should be. And very few white people think that they are treated better than they ought to be treated. It is one thing to say that minorities are not treated as well as they ought to be and something else entirely to say that white people are treated too well. And that, I believe, is why the phrase “white privilege” is such a conversation stopper.
Not only is the phrase a conversation stopper, but I believe it has an insidious tendency to create norms which are based not on how white people have always assumed they have the right to be treated, but based on the inferior treatment of minorities. When the town mayor gets pulled over driving drunk and is given preferential treatment, we don’t argue, “we should all be able to drive drunk and get away with it!” We say, “he needs to be treated like everyone else.” If the way white people are treated gets defined as an undeserved privilege, then we are – perhaps unintentionally – defining the way that minorities get treated as the norm that we can all expect. And frankly, I don’t think it should be a privilege to move about my world freely and without being treated as a probable criminal of inferior intelligence. I think that’s something that I and others should be able to enjoy regardless of skin tone.
In fact, I think that we have seen just that sort of downgrading of how we can expect to be treated. Our police are increasingly militarized and oppositional. We are electronically strip searched before boarding planes. Debtors prisons are making a real comeback. Especially since the economic downturn, Americans are finding that regardless of skin color, we’re all being treated more shabbily, have lowered prospects for prosperity and have less control over our government than ever before. In fact, my husband has been saying for a while now that he’s going to write a book called “We’re All Nigga’s Now”.
The question I would raise is whether that’s really what we want – that we all be treated equally badly? How about instead of “white privilege” we talk about American standards vs minority treatment? Being white shouldn’t be a privilege. I think that we can all agree on that. And I think that we should all agree that being a minority shouldn’t be a disadvantage – especially a disadvantage in terms of how one is treated. However, when the phrase “white privilege” gets pulled out, more often than not the whole discussion gets shut down and turns against all of our best interests. It’s a phrase that needs to be allowed to die.
UPDATE: Thanks to Pat for directing my attention to this in the comments below - Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi. I would just like to say – what he said. It’s a very good explanation of what people are trying to communicate when they talk about “white privilege”. I’m more sympathetic to the umbrage people take at the phrase than he is though.