Few phrases are more polarizing than “white privilege.” I live, write, teach, parent and work at the intersection of wealth, race, religion and politics, so I regularly witness how this phrase is accepted as true and rejected as utter horseshit, depending on the audience. Part of what makes my life so ‘beautiful ugly,’ to borrow a West Indian phrase, is the reality that every day I talk to people who do not believe the same things I believe about the world. We certainly interact with people whose experiences do not reflect our own in any way, but some of us are functionally isolated, and cannot conceive that other views of the world even exist. These distinct realities exacerbate the ever-expanding political divides we suddenly noticed in the fall of 2016, and we now seem to live in a world in which we cannot accept the lived experience of another, let alone understand terms that help explain such diverse realities.
White privilege is such a term: terribly helpful and utterly divisive. For folks who understand American culture as one that instinctively privileges whiteness, this phrase describes the result of a history of unchecked bias and power. For other folks in my community, this label is an aggressive attack and a callous dismissal of hard work. I have had the privilege of teaching about America’s history with racial divides, our fruitful attempts at protest, and our slow path toward acknowledgement and reconciliation to rooms full of people whose experiences share little in common. The tiny needle I try to thread, as a starting point, is to convince sincere but sheltered white Americans that our society is deeply racist and that white privilege is both real and not a personal indictment against them, while simultaneously not “losing”—for lack of a better term—the people of color in the room. At times, in trying to offer a working definition of white privilege, I sense a collective eye roll…from EVERYone. How do we learn to identify with, acknowledge and challenge a concept so critical to discussions about equity and reconciliation when we can’t even begin the conversation without losing everyone in the room?
One of the problems with talking about privilege is that we tend to think in terms both too large and too intimate. We use totalizing language about how people “always act,” resorting to stereotypes and worst-case scenarios. Not helpful. On the other extreme, we take any mention of history or statistics to be a personal indictment, as if anyone who acknowledges an unjust status quo thinks I am to blame for societal inequities. Also not helpful. Having experienced these two reactions, I think it best to first explore how cultural norms are established and eventually privileged, outside of a racial construct.
Can we admit we all experience moments of privilege? Privilege is a reflection of cultural preferences and power dynamics in any environment. Rather than articulating the role privilege plays in injustice, perhaps a productive line of inquiry leads us into micro-settings in which privilege plays a role. Consider Oberlin College and MIT. Given their draw to boundary pushing, artistic minds, or savant-esque math and coding brains, respectively, these two environments privilege very different types of people. If you are a person who seeks and celebrates beauty, who values counter-cultural creativity, then Oberlin might be the place for you. At MIT, on the other hand, the dominant culture values logic, systems’ thinking and order. While wonder and creativity certainly play a role in the way engineers engage the world, an emphasis might be placed on understanding and deconstructing, rather than on appreciating and creatively engaging. Those who view the world through an artistic lens are privileged at Oberlin. At MIT, a systematic, computational mind is privileged as superior.
The norms of these universities do not exist to demonize one type of person; instead, they are the natural result of perspectives shared by the majority stakeholders of each institution. Privilege, in that way, does not represent a moral good or reveal an intentional hierarchy that is foundationally rooted. Instead, the existence of privilege simply reflects a reality that certain people will receive a warmer welcome, an assumed sense of belonging, and the benefit of the doubt. People who do not share the perspective of the dominant group—whether because of their point of view, gender, language, ethnicity or race—face implicit and explicit barriers to being appreciated, valued and welcomed.
Privilege exists in every environment, and most observant people recognize the power of norms to protect the status quo and the privilege it provides to those who share the dominant culture. Indeed, at the micro level, many types of racial privilege exist. For instance, I know white women who try to connect with black colleagues in a majority black office, or black women who try to volunteer in a majority white Parent Teacher Organization, both of whom feel like there is an invisible barrier they cannot cross, relationships to which they do not have access. My point here is to remind us that the acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an aggressive claim. Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined.
When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease. White privilege is a phrase sometimes weaponized by those advocating to halt increasing inequities across our communities. Those of us who are troubled by polarization in society know that underestimating and simultaneously protecting privilege is the root of segregation and inequality in society. I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege. When I privilege my perspective on privilege, I sometimes spew the term out as an accusation against white or wealthy or male or Christian others. This is not helpful. Like a driver who ignores the impact of her choices on those with whom she shares the road, a person accusing others of white or wealth or male privilege, making no effort to continue a conversation or contextualize our places in society, is inadvertently privileging her perspective on privilege. My hope is that if we deconstruct the way we use this term, perhaps we can lower defenses long enough to encourage the open observation of our own areas of privilege, and then begin to ask at whose expense—if any—we maintain our place.
Next week I will discuss the realities of white privilege, the damage it does to all of us, and unpack the defensiveness and difficulty that follow our use of the term. If we don’t learn to keep the conversation going, we will never form a more perfect union.