Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What Happened to White Privilege

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, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re 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 he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years."
Tim Wise said pretty much the same thing about "white denial," which is that it is a pathological condition. What they're both saying is that a white supremacy consciousness severely damages white people and that white people have a long way to go before they're psychologically healthy.

What I'm adding is that the concept of "white privilege" can be a short circuit that allows white allies to bypass any uncomfortable encounter with white supremacy, in name or in concept. It bypasses the prospect of their being psychologically damaged, of their having internalized superiority, of their being unable to reach their full potential. This is the reason why white allies should advocate against white supremacy: because it destroys their own humanity at the same time it destroys that of people of color, just in different ways and to different degrees. If white privilege comes in an invisible knapsack, then a white supremacy consciousness wrecks you from the inside; it is anti-possessive, something you should want to get rid of as much as you are able and never give to others. It is something far worse than a cancer because it can destroy the lives of people you don't even know.

I understand why white privilege is easier to talk about than white supremacy. For many, it can be hard even to say it; I stuttered the words for a long time, and they are still not a part of the vernacular at home or among my colleagues. Most of my students begin the semester associating the words with hate groups like the KKK and not everyday life. (Patriarchy, white supremacy's analogue in the system of sexism, is a lot easier to say and associate with everyday life, for some reason.) But I understand the move most of all because I taught my students that way for years. It was easy. There was a convenient list of privileges to discuss (the narrative portion of McIntosh's essay is just as important as the list, if not more). We connected them with events from our own lives, which is still a vital and liberating moment. But I always felt a bit unsatisfied after every class, perhaps because the learning seemed too easy. Too comfortable. I get a similar feeling when I'm having a conversation with a white colleague, and he or she, in a slightly performative moment, says something like "But I don't have to deal with (insert microaggression of your choice) because of my whiteness." What has become clear is that my unease in both situations has to do with possessive white privilege standing in for white supremacy.

White privilege is nothing more than applied white supremacy for white people. (Applied white supremacy for people of color is called racism.) Talking about Ferguson though possessive white privilege might look like this: a white kid has the assurance of not getting shot for doing what Mike Brown did. But that's not enough. We need to talk about why Darren Wilson felt that emptying his firearm into Mike Brown was an appropriate response to not having his assumptions and expectations satisfied. We need to talk about the seed of Bob McCulloch's condescension during his press conference. And the wellspring of the St. Louis Police Officers Association's vitriol against five St. Louis Rams for their silent, nonviolent protest. How else do white people respond to people of color when their assumptions and expectations for a situation are not satisfied? Is it a proportionate response? Is it a healthy response? What if the white person is not a police officer but a teacher or social worker? I hope that White allies continue talking about white privilege--but not at the expense of internalized white supremacy. I hope they talk not only about what white people have but what they have lost.


  1. David, thank you for sharing your thoughts-and for the resulting education. I empathize with several of your points. As someone who knows about privilege, it makes me uneasy to think that I've become apathetic about it, but I have. The plain truth will always be there, and to look at it in the context of something more powerful challenges and emboldens me to confront it even more. Looking at supremacy vs. privilege is frightening to me, especially as I think about the ongoing conversations I've had with other white folks. I agree that healing needs to happen and thinking that is the only way to make ensuing conversations (arguments?) palatable. But first, I need to start with myself. Thank you for helping in all of the ways you have, personally and professionally. Peace.

  2. Thanks for reading, Elina. Yes, confronting the internalized supremacy has always been the hardest part for me when it comes to class and gender. Scares me when it surfaces. Finding the right community makes all the difference for our well-being. So glad to stay in touch like this!