Last weekend I went on Twitter to find that the hashtag #MyWhitePrivilege was trending. I have given a lot of thought to the meaning behind “white privilege” for years now, trying to understand both sides of the argument. Is this phrase helpful or detrimental?
Privilege is defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. I was brought up to believe that attributing privilege to a group of people is the very definition of racism. Moreover, is there such a thing as white privilege and should my white friends carry the approximate guilt it deserves? Or, taking it further, should I recognize the privilege of my fair skin though I am not white?
I am of mixed race—black, brown and white. I grew up in a family of different skin shades and it never dawned on me that anyone in my family, or outside of it, was more privileged or more oppressed. I never saw skin color as anything more than a color. No privilege, no damage, no benefit, no disadvantage. You may call me naive or unaware, but what if it was simply that no one told me I was to believe that a person’s skin color played any significant part in their identity?
As a child, I had a very simplistic way of viewing the world: when bad things happened to people, I took them as bad things, and when good things happened to people, I understood them as good things. If somebody was bigoted I viewed them as a narrow-minded idiot, and everyone else was given the benefit of the doubt. There was never a group of people who I perceived as the perpetrators, with an immutable characteristic that I blamed for any misfortunes.
While I understand why some may feel that acknowledging a “privilege” might help those who feel they lack such privilege, I would like to argue the opposite. How would you feel if you are poor and all your rich friends constantly acknowledged their “rich privilege”?
The truth is that we are all born with some privilege, whether we are born in the United States or are born in communist China, whether we live in a safe neighborhood or in a crime-ridden neighborhood, whether we have higher or lower IQ’s, or whether we are welfare babies or trust fund babies. Aligning our privilege with skin color or any other immutable characteristic is nothing but toxic.
How can we, in clear conscience, suggest that the superficial things about us, such as the amount of melanin in our skin, is somehow the thing that determines our ultimate success in society? I can't think of anything more disheartening than that. Would Oprah be better off were she white? Would Barack Obama have been a more effective president were he white? Would Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos face more challenges were they black? These are questions we cannot answer. They are simply unquantifiable.
Besides the practical challenges such ideologies pose, statistics do not support the idea that race relations improve by taking these measures. Interestingly, when President Obama (a black man twice elected into the most powerful position in a predominantly white country) started pandering to minorities and playing identity politics, the perception of race relations in the US tanked. There are two ways of interpreting such data. The left suggests that President Obama’s sometimes racially charged rhetoric brought to light existing widespread racism. The right suggests his talking points may have exacerbated the problem. Either way, the data seems to show that President Obama tore open the wound of race to exploit resentment for political purposes. But whatever the intentions, the results haven’t been favorable.
How is it at all helpful to look for discrimination and offense everywhere, rather than believing in our own ability to change our outcomes? Even if we do face challenges, don’t we disempower ourselves by blaming things we cannot change?
Another thing that worries me is that it is the white upper class liberals who are pushing the privilege talking point. If blacks rightfully see themselves as capable of taking charge of their own lives, why are white liberals telling them they can’t, due to outside forces and discriminatory behavior? I am extremely skeptical of this. This is what we call in political science “the problem of representation”—a group speaking for another group usually takes more extreme positions than the group they represent.
The reason I cannot accept the “white privilege” slogan, has nothing to do with my personal empowerment or loss. It has everything to do with the fact that by doing so I am telling my black brothers and sisters that no matter what they do, their skin color is a disadvantage, and it will always be. They will always be disadvantaged because they will never be like people like me. And that isn’t something I believe.