Author Topic: What Happened to White Privilege  (Read 1001 times)

Doctor Foorums

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What Happened to White Privilege
« on: March 04, 2015, 10:51:11 PM »
About a week ago, at the university where I teach, I was giving a presentation at a student-organized and student-run conference on the meanings of being an ally for social justice. This was the third year in a row that I presented at this conference, which is put on by a student organization dedicated to educating students on "diversity" issues. This year, I was invited to say something about Asian Americans. My presentation was on how stereotypes are really just popular stories, and I concluded it in what I thought was a clever way by saying that there is really only one story of racism: white supremacy. I made the point that attendees shouldn't aspire to be allies on behalf of Asian Americans but that they should be allies in the fight against white supremacy. And that means identifying white supremacy, speaking out against white supremacy, using the words, naming the consciousness that controls our lives as people of color and as white people. I ended the presentation and asked for questions. One of the organizers of the event, a polite young white man, raised his hand. "White privilege is a serious problem, too, right?" he asked.

I want to be clear that I am gladdened by this young man's commitment to talking about racism with his peers, and I mention him here because our exchange led me to give more thought to why white privilege has become such a thing. I've been teaching about white privilege for over a decade, and it has been a thing in academia for much longer than that, but I'm pretty sure that it didn't become a broad cultural thing until Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart started arguing about it on TV this fall. It doesn't really matter that O'Reilly doesn't think that it is real, or that the academic literature on it is thirty years old, or that people of color have been talking about it in other ways for hundreds of years; the very fact that white people who aren't college students, recent college graduates, and professors are talking about it has brought it into a new kind of existence. However, when a social institution as influential as mass media gets to shape the meaning of white privilege, then I get more than a little anxious.

At the same time, I'm not sure that the social institution in which I participate most directly--education--hasn't also done its part in making white privilege a thing, and I mean in a bad way. In some of my classes, I discuss a process called reification, which is when an idea is turned into a "thing" that has the semblance of real existence. "Race" is a classic example of reification. The idea that skin color is socially meaningful was turned into a thing, an essence--"Negro," "Caucasian," etc.--believed to exist in the real world, even in human bodies. Reification collapses the complex, historical relationships that were part of the idea ("white people are better than black people") into a simple concept or word that hides the relationship and therefore disguises how power works. These days, "race" is as quotidian and matter-of-fact a way to describe human bodies as hair color and height. I fear that the way that institutions now talk about the impact of racism on white people is through white privilege, a reification that has stripped the term of its relationship to white supremacy. For a long time, I was as responsible for this as much as anyone.

Most of us in my generation (and the one that followed, I suppose) were introduced to the concept of white privilege through Peggy McIntosh's iconic essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." McIntosh's metaphor of an "invisible knapsack" conceptualizes white privilege as a possessive phenomenon--it is stuff that white people "have" (that people of color do not "have") that can be pulled out of the knapsack and used as a resource, which no doubt it is. White people have the assurance of not being followed around stores; they have the ability to buy bandages that match their skin color; they have the expectation of seeing other white people in charge; they have the freedom not to be burdened by race. I think that this metaphor is an extremely useful way of thinking about the meaning of being white in our society, and I was and still am tremendously impacted by this essay. But I also think that the possessive dimension of white privilege has become the dominant, institutionalized way of conceiving how racism impacts white people.

Because it is unthreatening, the possessive dimension of white privilege is the reason why white privilege is a popular way for white allies to talk to other white people about racism. The story might sound like this: "We have something that people of color do not. Let's work harder so that they get these things too." Similarly, I suspect that most of my students who self identify as being straight experience little dissonance when advocating for gay marriage. One reason is that their advocacy does nothing to decenter their own experiences as straight people who value marriage. "We have access to something good. Gays, lesbians, and bisexual people should have access to this too." (I wonder if it would be more troubling for these allies to advocate for the end of institutionalized benefits for married people.) As long as white privilege is reified as something apart from white supremacy, white experience remains central to human experience, and racism is the story of some people not having as much stuff as other people.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, Chris Rock explained why he has so much trouble with the term "racial progress":

    "When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, itís all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now theyíre not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. [ . . . ] So, to say Obama is progress is saying that heís the first black person that is qualified to be president. Thatís not black progress. Thatís white progress. Thereís been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years."



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Re: What Happened to White Privilege
« Reply #1 on: May 19, 2015, 04:32:52 PM »
Interesting read, thank you for posting it.
" I have seen shit that'll turn you white! " Winston Zeddmore