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December 16, 2009

White "Privilege"

I'm writing this because it came up in a conversation I had with some friends recently. I don't want to get back into race blogging, but I've been thinking about making this distinction between "rights that not everyone has" and "privileges" for a while. And now that it's actually come up, I think I should put it out there.

In the conversation, my friends, who are white, protested that white people mostly don't use white privilege ... at least the white people that they know: by implication, the "good" white people. I was a bit shocked, and said, in essence, yes they do, all the time. They gave each other the "I'm not going to dispute this with a POC even though she's wrong" look. I couldn't shake off the feeling that we'd been talking at cross purposes ... again.

So I went back later, when there was an opening, and started talking about what I had meant by "white privilege." And judging by the reaction (listening rather than disputing,) my friends clearly had been working with a different definition of "white privilege" than the one that I was using. They also had clearly been working with the idea that "white privilege" referred generally to one thing, and that one thing was absolutely negative, and something all people could do without.

Their definition of "white privilege" seemed to be the one  in which "white privilege" becomes a less murderous version of "racism." Somehow -- not sure how -- all whites have access to white privilege, but only the bad whites actually use it. And when they use it, it's always a negative thing: pushing non-white opinions aside, taking credit for the work of POC, ignoring POC voices, etc. In this definition of "white privilege," the privilege is like an arsenal to which you have a key, but which you don't ever have to enter, much less take weapons from. This is the most basic level of understanding of white privilege.

But there are more levels to this issue. The next level of understanding white privilege, beyond the actively malevolent racism most people think of in the race debate, is "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." If you're unfamiliar with this idea, please read the article. In essence, the knapsack is about understanding that white privilege isn't necessarily something you choose, but something white people are born into (in this society) and walk through life with, without ever realizing it. The knapsack demonstrates that there are aspects of white privilege that you have no choice about. The article says that you can choose to give up your privilege, but it doesn't say how. And, really, how do you give up the privilege of, say, "taking a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race?" That's not a privilege you can give up or fail to use, because it's a privilege that is bestowed upon you by others, not one you take for yourself.

There are two dichotomies happening here that are confusing the issue. The first dichotomy is between active use of privilege and passive possession of privilege. Most white allies have no trouble understanding this dichotomy. (If you do, read "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" again.) But the second dichotomy is between a privilege that is good to have, but that nobody needs, and a right that everyone needs and should have, but which not everyone has.

So, at the third level of understanding white privilege, you have to understand the difference between those things that should be given up by the "privileged" and those things that should be extended to everyone, and NEVER given up. Here's where the term "privilege" gets very confusing, because we associate it, in our hysterically class-phobic society, with upper classes and that great American sin: unfairness. A "privilege" calls up images of yachting, and private tutors, and ivy-covered neo-gothic compounds in which secret societies choose future presidents at the age of 19.

"Privileges," strictly speaking, are things that are either earned, bought, or inherited. They are not "rights." Back in school, our teachers would make a distinction between  what we had a right to (an education, to walk down the street) and what was an earned privilege (a driver's license, permission to leave campus during school hours.) But when we talk about "white privilege," we're talking about a complex of things, not just the one thing. This complex includes (but isn't limited to):

  1. The ability to get away with tormenting and discriminating against people of color in small and large ways: from lynching and job exclusion to racist media representation and social stereotyping
  2. The ability to ignore the complaints of POC about being tormented and discriminated against; in essence, to live in a world in which this kind of discrimination doesn't need to breach your consciousness
  3. Easier access to "privileges" or luxuries, that are more difficult for POC to access, such as admission to clubs and elite schools
  4. Relatively unobstructed access to universally acknowledged rights, such as good health care, decent education, a fair chance in applications for jobs and schooling, decent housing, freedom from harrassment and danger, opportunities to thrive.
  5. General social acceptance of the legitimacy of what you say and do
  6. A sense of entitlement to fair or good treatment, that allows one to take effective action to receive fair or good treatment
If you'll notice, numbers 1 and 2 are simply negative: "privileges" that exist solely in a society in which a racial hierarchy exists. Without a racial hierarchy, numbers 1 and 2 would be impossible. They are solely bad, and are the most obvious form that a racist society takes. It's relatively easy to avoid number 1 if you are racially conscious, and relatively easy to tackle number 2 as well, which many white allies do by simply never disputing POC complaints of racism, and by making an effort to pay attention to racial discussions among POC. (It's a start, anyway.) I think we can all agree that these "privileges," if that's really what they are, can be done away with without further concern (were it only that easy!)

Assuming that number 3 is true (and I'm not asserting this unequivocally), this is where we're dealing with the actual "privileges" of wealth, status, and social power. As long as we are people living in groups, there will be such privileges. It's impossible to get rid of them. I don't argue with people who say that these kinds of privileges are unfair, but I'm also not super-exercised about acquiring them for everyone. I'm more interested in making sure that everybody gets a decent education, than in making sure that everyone gets a shot at getting into Harvard. These are privileges that people can resent, but until everyone has their basic rights and freedoms, these privileges won't--and shouldn't-- be the main business of social justice movements, because they sit above the basic rights that social justice movements are still trying to gain for everyone.

And that brings us to number 4. These things are called "privileges" because not everyone has them. But what they really are is rights. This is where the "white privilege" discussion really starts to get tangled up. Because these aren't "privileges" and they aren't things that white people who have them should give up. You can achieve social parity by taking away whites' ability to discriminate against POC. But you can't achieve social parity by blocking whites' unobstructed access to, say, a good education.

Now, of course, no one is blocking whites' access to these things. But the language of "white privilege" constructs this very simple dichotomy between things whites have that they shouldn't have, and things POC don't have that they should. So when greater access to jobs and schools results in a white person not getting the place they wanted, they revert back to this paradigm of access to a job or school being a "white privilege" that has been taken away by POC. They don't realize that:

  1. it was never a privilege, it was a right;
  2. the right wasn't getting the job or the school acceptance but rather having equal access to it;
  3. and that the right wasn't taken away by a POC, but rather extended to POC in general, thus making the pool of applicants larger and the chances of getting in smaller.

This is where the language of "white privilege" really starts to fail.

Numbers 5 and 6 are more complex still. Having what you say and do generally accepted as legitimate is a good thing. It's one of those things that POC should acquire, without whites having to give it up. But on the other hand, it's also not a right. We don't have the right to be believed. We don't have the right to be considered credible. We don't have the right to have all of our actions applauded. This, above all, is a privilege in human society that must be earned. The injustice isn't that people must earn credibility, it's that in disputes between members of different races, some people automatically have greater credibility and some people have an automatic lack of credibility, in both cases, unearned. In this case, social justice would not be automatically granting everyone credibility, but rather making sure that everyone has an equal chance to earn the privilege of credibility.

This is supremely hard to do because you can't mandate conferral of credibility. You can't tell people who to believe and who not to believe.

And number 6 is even more complex still, because the feeling of entitlement to speak up or act on behalf of yourself hangs, to a great extent, on the possession of number 5: a chance to earn credibility for yourself. POC who grow up being smacked down every time they speak up for themselves, being disrespected every time they act for themselves, will not feel entitled to speak out or to act. A lifetime -- and a community full -- of this experience, results in situations in which whites and POC are discussing or negotiating, and, because of this sense of entitlement, whites always speak up first, setting the terms of debate, and unknowingly using their greater credibility (yes, the credibility is general among whites and POC) to get more of a hearing.

POC antiracists tend to be very conscious of number 6, but number 6 is the one that white allies have the most trouble with. Because the strength to speak out and to act comes hard for everyone. It's an unequivocally good thing to learn to speak and act. And generally, people speak up when their rights are being abrogated in big or small ways, or when they have a chance to get what they really want, at no one's expense. But, at the same time, this is one "privilege" that whites often have to give up to vouchsafe POC access.

I'll give you an example, which I think I've mentioned on this blog before: I helped start and was involved in an Asian American arts festival for several years. The all-volunteer festival organizers were grouped into curatorial teams, with a team leader for each group taking point. The year after I left, a white man, who was friends with a lot of the organizers and spent most of his social time with them, joined the organizing committee, and became a member of the visual art team. When the festival coordinator asked for a team member to step forward and take point, no one did. So this white man, after some hesitation, did step up. It was apparent to him (he told me) that someone needed to do it, and that none of the others were going to step up.

He didn't know that in an Asian American group, you'll never know how much people will hang back, partly out of various Asian politenesses, and partly out of that POC lack of credibility and empowerment mentioned above. Working with a POC organization centered around self-determination is a long process of empowering yourself and others to take responsibility. Furthermore, this festival was specifically designed to give young adult As Ams an opportunity to empower themselves by doing. He didn't know that, when I was the festival coordinator, getting folks to step up to be team leader was a multi-step process, involving announcing it at a meeting where no one spoke up, calling team members individually later and asking if they *might* be willing to take point, then bringing it up again at the next meeting and delicately negotiating among the now two or three people who really wanted to do it, but hadn't spoken up before. He didn't know that, far from being frustrating, the process of empowering young folks to step forward is exhilarating, and wonderful to watch in all its slow, agonizing glory.

But, once he spoke up, there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that anyone else would touch it. The visual arts team leader is traditionally the person who gets up at the gallery opening and welcomes the audience. And since the gallery opening was the first event, and the official kick-off to the festival, that year we had a white man welcoming a mostly Asian American audience to an Asian American-organized festival of Asian American artists. It was quite a message, let me tell you.

When I talk about empowering people to step up and speak up, it's something they have a hard time understanding, coming from me. I'm a very assertive, step-up-and-speak-out kinda gal, both online and off. But what they don't see -- and what folks in my own community even don't see, is what it took to get me here. I've always been an assertive loudmouth: it's in my nature. I used to walk into neighbors' houses as a toddler and start talking to them in Chinglish, completely undaunted by the fact that they had no idea what I was saying. But early on in school I started getting smacked down verbally, and sometimes physically, by my peers and by my teachers and other adults. I got smacked down for everything: for speaking up at all, for being a child, for being unfeminine, for not being white, for speaking up at the wrong time or for saying the wrong thing or laughed at for saying it the wrong way, for having an outsider's point of view, for NOT having an outsider's point of view, etc. There was always SOMETHING to smack me down about, but it was almost always ultimately about not wanting to hear from me, because I didn't belong. By the time I was ten, I heard my father explain to some strangers whose children I wouldn't play with: "She's shy. She's not really shy, but she acts shy until she's known you for fifteen years." By the time I got to college, I had to learn how to talk to strangers at all, and one of the biggest revelations of my freshman year was that I could go up to people and just talk to them without being slapped in the psyche.

In college I started exploring identity issues by myself. There were a few Asians and mixed Asians around, but they (literally, no joke, no metaphor) ducked their heads and scuttled sideways away from me if I tried to talk to them about any issues. When I tried to talk to my white friends, they very simply and confidently denied everything I said. The conversations usually never got past my insisting that they not call me "that tall Chinese chick" since I was "half-Chinese." (By the way, don't call me that! ;)) "It's just a way of describing what you look like," they'd say dismissively, already losing interest in the conversation.

It took me five years of living in Germany and reading every identity lit and theory book I could get my hands on to find any confidence in my own point of view; everyone denied that my perspective had validity, so why would I think I was right and everyone else was wrong? And I came to the Bay Area, where there were a lot of Asians and mixed Asians, and spent a couple of years on online discussion groups with people like me, before I really felt comfortable speaking up on any of these issues, both within and outside of my community.

It took me, in fact, until I was past thirty to really feel like I could speak up in confidence and dispute other people -- particularly white men -- without getting hysterical or feeling smacked down. And I still get over-aggressive. Over-aggression is the reaction of someone who is afraid that she will be unsupported and attacked when she speaks up. And that fear is justified: it was my usual experience for the first thirty years of my life, and it's only because I'm a natural assertive loudmouth that I was able to (mostly) overcome it.

(Think about that the next time you think a POC is being overly loud, angry, assertive, aggressive, or just generally hysterical. Maybe they are. And maybe they need to be, to speak up at all. And the POC you'll see speaking up and taking leadership positions are often (not always) people who, like me, are natural assertive loudmouths who reconnected with their voices after discovering that they were externally silenced for political reasons. It makes for an explosive kind of leadership.)

Back to working in POC groups: The example of the white guy who stepped up to a leadership position that put him in the forefront of a POC org is relatively rare. But lesser examples of this happen all the time: for example at panel discussions organized by POC groups with mixed audiences. Often, when time comes for Q&A with an all-POC panel, the first audience members to raise their hands are white. It's not that they don't have the right to speak first, but whoever speaks first gets to set the terms of debate, and often gets to set the topic for debate. There are times when it's better to hang back and let the debate go someplace where you didn't want it to go, for the sake of the greater good.

This is what I was talking about above when I was discussing "white privilege" with my friends: those moments of mild culture clash, where whites are doing the unequivocally good things they were taught and empowered to do -- stepping up, speaking out, volunteering, taking responsibility -- not realizing that they are stepping on POC's opportunities to do the same. This is the one area in all of the above where whites would have to consciously give up a "privilege" that is good and beneficial so as to protect the empowerment of POC. 

And it's a hard thing to do, to keep your mouth shut and your rump in the seat, to trust that eventually someone will speak up or step up ... and that if they don't, it's their right--their privilege--to fail.

In breaking this down, I'm realizing that it's not just a battle of definitions we're talking about when we talk about "white privilege." It's a failure of nuance and complexity. And, yes, there is genuine sacrifice asked of white allies here: the sacrifice, in fact, of some of your most precious rights. Because white allies tend to be politically conscious activists who have had to go through a process of empowering themselves to speak and act. For these allies, finding themselves in a world where everyone had the same rights and privileges as they did would be no hardship -- quite the reverse in fact. But giving up -- even only occasionally -- the right to speak and act so that others may have it ... well it doesn't necessarily make sense. And it's not going to feel right.

This is what happened in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when Malcolm is approached by a young white woman who asks him what she can do, and he says "nothing." He acknowledges later that it is true that she couldn't do anything from within a self-determinist black power movement, but he was partly speaking out of bitterness. And it isn't true that she could do nothing; she could be active for social justice in white communities. This is not the perfect solution. In my world of anti-racism, although we seek to create and maintain safe POC-only spaces sometimes, the ultimate goal is an integrated -- not assimilated -- society that respects and celebrates difference and offers equal opportunities to all. In such an ideal world, no one would have to shut up and sit down, no one would have to keep to "their own" community to be active,  no one would have give up their own power to protect someone else's.

But we don't live in that world yet, and sometimes, compromises that feel wrong have to be made.

That's all for now, except to say that there is a lot of hurt in all of this activism, and there's plenty of hurt to go around. Even when no one is trying to hurt or exclude anyone, the dictates of a certain kind of justice means that sometimes allies have to step back to let Others step forward. Not doing so doesn't mean that they are bad people or racists, but that is sometimes what POC mean by an exercise of white privilege.


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This is a totally fascinating, yet completely resonant post. I've been thinking about the roles of white people with privilege recently and what they can do and even I balk at the idea of telling them to sit down and shut up. But sometimes that does feel like the right thing to do!

Thank you for this exceptionally lucid and helpful post.

Strictly speaking, you can obtain social parity via the destructive route. It's just that doing so is an exercise in cruelty and futility. Some people don't see it as such, or see it as justice to subject whites to cruelty, which is (simplistically put) where a lot of racism aimed at whites comes from. Of course, in most Western societies whites are the majority, so there is no ability to enact this form of racism in a systemic fashion.

You quoted Malcom X - you might be interested in this quote:

"Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn't a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument."

Jhameia, I think one thing is true: we each can't tell the Other -- across the great divide -- if and when they have to do the hard thing. All we can do is talk about these issues to our allies, and trust to people to find their own way.

I think POC need to talk to each other, very clearly and stringently, about not stepping over that line of appearing to take rights away from white allies.

And I think it's up to white allies to really take notice, and talk to each other about when it's time to step back, sit down, and shut up.

Dorothea: thanks for dropping by!

moritheil: thanks for putting the quote there; that's exactly the one I was talking about!

No you CAN'T obtain social parity via the destructive route. I call it the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" route, after the idea in Marxism that the proletariat must rise up and crush the bourgeoisie for a time before parity is achieved. It didn't work for them, and it didn't work in Israel, either. Look at how long it took for Israelis to turn their "parity" into oppression. About five seconds.

And there is no "racism" aimed at whites, at least, not on an institutional basis. Although I have some arguments with this definition, I do accept the basic definition of institutional racism as "power + prejudice." Please be careful when tossing around accusations towards POC activists of "racism." I've seen POC "ganging up" on folks, but I've seen people from ALL walks "ganging up." It's bullying, but it isn't necessarily "racism."

And, although I've definitely met white people who went to predominantly black or Latino schools and were bullied there because they were minority whites, in most cases, as adults, when whites are bullied by POC for being white, they HAVE SOMEPLACE SAFE THEY CAN GO TO WHERE THEY WON'T BE BULLIED OR DISEMPOWERED FOR THEIR RACE. POC, on the other hand, are often bullied and disempowered and discriminated against in their own communities, AS a community. The community itself isn't a safe place to be because it's a magnet for oppression.

THAT's why "racism = prejudice + POWER." Please be careful with your language. Here, on the internet, all we have to communicate with is language.

You're making me think again. It's an unfamiliar sensation, but I think I'm getting to like it.

How are you, Wendy?

I'm fine thank you Claire: I'm just a bad correspondent at present because I'm determined not to be a whiny middle aged miseryguts any more. Dad's doing reasonably well and was well enough to go down to my sister's as he'd wanted yesterday - my mum and I are off on Wednesday to join them for Xmas. Not writing much, but we're in the middle of setting up an office for me in the spare room, which should make a difference in the New Year. Congrats on the chapbook!!!

Thank you. Let's email soon, when you're more settled in! Happy hols!

I liked a lot your digression on "White Privilege". I am Brazilian, my skin is white and much to my chagrin, I look like my German grandfather, in spite of having some African Brazilian and Native South American ancestry. I really wish I had a lot more African and Native South American DNA. If possible some Asian DNA too. It is sad that one is always discriminated against. Some people here call me "gringo". They think that I should have a darker tan. I like the blues, but they say that is not enough.

You make a lot of good points, but health care is not a right, nor is a "good" education. Health and education are the results of effort. Now, white people can make efforts (that's how white ethnics became "white") with a greater expectation of reward than POC, and this is the core of white privilege. But giving up the results of effort (i.e. giving up money) so that others can have the benefits of others' efforts is doing more than dealing with white privilege: it's stealing other people's time. It's literally taking a portion of their life--the portion they spend working--away from them. My time, and what I do with it, is precious. You're going to have to do a lot more convincing than citing the UN's definition of human rights to convince me and a lot of other rights that their time and what they do with it belong to everyone else.

An addendum: I actually grew up in California. It's a place with a ton of Asian privilege. Just look at what rolling back affirmative action did at the UCs. In a lot of ways, ethnic whites have a lot less privilege in a state like Cali. to address than a lot of whites who were born then. When Asians in California are willing to give up their H1 visas and a portion of their money to train Mexicans in California who are actually native to the land, they can start telling whites about their privilege, I think. Do you have any idea how hard it is for a white guy to get a job in San Jose?

MM, education is a right in the U.S. Period. Go look it up. Our public education system has been going down the tubes in the past thirty years because of the rise of neoconservatism, but previous to that, it rivaled that of any in the world. Oh, and the UCs used to be government subsidized for Californians.

I don't know where you get the idea that health care isn't a right. Do you really believe that poor people deserve to die from simple, easily and cheaply curable diseases? If you do believe this, you're a horrible person. American children die every year from infections from TOOTH DECAY because their parents can't afford dentists, for one example.

Healthcare costs are artificially inflated because of our fucked up insurance and hospital system, NOT because healthcare really needs to cost that much. So people who are getting shitty public educations that don't prepare them for jobs, then go on to work low-paying jobs with no benefits, which don't allow them to afford outrageously inflated healthcare. This is okay with you? Are you really so simple-minded that you think it's a zero-sum game of medicine costing just so much, and people having to "work hard" to pay it?

And don't come to my blog and shit on Asians. Are you unaware that I'm Asian? And do you have any idea what the conditions on H1B visas ARE? They don't allow the holder to immigrate, nor to change jobs, nor to stay in the country longer than six years. The visa holder has to take what pay they're offered and what working conditions they find. If they object to their treatment by their employers, they can be fired, and they'll be deported. And no matter how well they behave and how hard they work, they can NEVER become citizens on this visa. Their spouses can't work, their children can't get in-state tuition. It's just like 1882, but higher tech. (You do know what I mean about 1882, don't you MM? If not, google "Chinese" and "1882" and educate yourself about Asian labor in the U.S.)

The visa benefits the holder only in getting them money for skills. Most of the benefit of giving visas goes to the corporate employers, who get highly skilled labor that they can control utterly, for cheap. So this wonderful visa you're treating as a great privilege is essentially indentured servitude. And you blame the Asians holding the visas. Do you imagine those Asians created the situation, or the visas, or the economies that force them to take these jobs under such hostile terms? If so, you're an idiot.

Oh, and by the way, you only get an H1B visa for specialized field -- usually something in the sciences. And people like you, who think that "education isn't a right," have allowed politicians to so destroy our public education system, that we literally don't have enough kids well enough educated in the sciences to get through college and grad school level in these. So we have to import science grads from other countries, like Asia, where they actually care about education.

Lemme guess, MM, you didn't study science, did you? Or history?

Oh, and don't mistake Asians enjoying the fruits of their own "efforts" for privilege. As long as disgruntled white guys like you get to shit on Asians for not being as poor and oppressed as other minorities, we're clearly not on the road to privilege.

And MM, it's hard for a white guy to get a job in San Jose because WE'RE IN A RECESSION. Dumbass.

Don't come back here with racist, ignorant arguments again.

Omg MM I don't want to hear how hard it is for you as a white man. *That* said, excellent post, it's always good to read and re read posts on white privilege. Anytime I go to a womanist blog, there's always another white woman who doesn't get it.
It's embarrassing, and no matter how many times it's explained to them, they refuse to listen.
No wonder why WOC don't trust white women. I get frustrated, but I can't imagine who much worse it is for woc to be whitesplained at again.:/

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