I like to stick to talking mostly about matters of art, but politics has so infiltrated the art world that you can’t be an artist without being clobbered over the head with certain ideas; and your work and career are evaluated, bolstered, or derailed in accordance with them. One of the biggest, most contentious and divisive ideas of our day is “white privilege”. The main reason there’s so much controversy around “white privilege” is because it’s a misnomer. Specifically, “privilege” is used not in the traditional sense of the word – as extraordinary advantages well above the norm and conferred upon the exclusive few – but to simply mean “not underprivileged”, and only in respect to race. This causes a lot of confusion, which happens when you try to change reality by changing definitions of words, or use words too clumsily.
I’m sure I misuse a lot of words myself, but when words I know how to use are misused it bothers me. Anyone who knows what “literally” means may be annoyed when someone says something like, “it literally cost me an arm and a leg” or “I’m literally starving”. You may remember when there were thousands of tweets after Trump was elected claiming, “I’m literally shaking”. The term has come to mean its opposite – figuratively. It’s so misused that when I use the word “literally” I have to qualify that I’m not making a metaphor. It’s pretty much been killed, along with another formerly very useful word, “random”.
Random does not mean “very” or “interesting” or “unusual” or “novel”. There is no such thing as a “random building”. There was an architect and blue prints and a construction crew… It was deliberate. People have forgotten how to use the word, which is usually to say “at random”. Instead of saying, “I picked a random meal” (which means that someone who was blindfolded and spun around a few times threw together a bunch of ingredients in a pan and fried it up), one means, “I picked a meal at random” (I closed my eyes and pointed at the menu). When someone says, “That movie was so random” they don’t mean the director used a set of dice and a deck of cards to incorporate chance heavily in creative decisions. They just mean it was interesting or different. The word has been killed. Or at least it’s in critical condition.
When you change the meanings of words, or what people are allowed to say, this also changes what we are able to express to others, and thus eventually what we can and can’t formulate in our own heads. Some ideas become so pervasive that they are impossible to challenge, and “white privilege” is one of those.
“White privilege” is not a new idea spawned in Obama’s tenure of holding the rudder fast along the same course as his predecessor. It gained some ground the year of my birth, 1965, when writer, Theodore W. Allen, began to tackle the notion of “white skin privilege”. This raises another question for another time, which is the idea of being born guilty.
The more current popularity of “white privilege” is often traced back to 1989 and Peggy McIntosh’s seminal article: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. That’s 29 years ago, and so is the annoying use of unpack (“There’s so much to unpack here…”). If you were “woke” or awoken in the last few years, suddenly, when you fathomed the deep and pernicious force of “white privilege”, apparently you’d been sleeping for up to a quarter century. I got all this stuff in massive doses in grad school, and have had a quarter century to mull it over.
The crux of the argument for “white privilege” is a stunning logical blunder, which is to assert that if you are not underprivileged than you are privileged. I gather it became problematical to use the term underprivileged when referring to minority groups because it is deleterious, or a stigma. Therefore, if we can’t say a minority is underprivileged than the simple answer was just to say that the majority group was privileged. Everything else is essentially the same. The examples of “white privilege” are precisely the same as the examples of “black underprivilege”. And people who would have no problem accepting that blacks are underprivileged, and want to help alleviate the societal ills that contribute to that, balk at being called privileged themselves.
If we just switched out privileged for advantaged, which implies it is more of a relative designation (ex., you can have a slight advantage) there would be much less resistance. But privileged is an absolute, a status, and with it comes responsibility and accountability. When the oppressed rise up against the oppressor, if you are white, you are now the oppressor, even if you are working at Walmart.
If this isn’t already blindingly obvious, let’s go with an example. If it were socially insensitive to say that people are poor, because it’s pejorative, should we then ban the use of the word and instead say that anyone who isn’t poor is a tycoon? Of course not, because that eliminates the vast majority of people who are neither tycoons not poor. Notice how there’s no more middle ground when it comes to “white privilege”. You are either privileged, automatically, because you are white, or you are not privileged.
We will need a new word for the actually privileged: the people who have private planes, second homes in Martha’s Vineyard, go to private schools, have yachts, have power and influence…
Let’s look at Peggy McIntosh’s vanguard article detailing all the kinds of white privilege, and lets see if it’s not explicitly black (or other minority) underprivilege. There’s a list with 26 items. Here are the first dozen:
I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
This is the underprivilege of being a minority anywhere in the world. It’s not a privilege to be Chinese in China.
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
This addresses housing discrimination against blacks = underprivilege. Note: millions of white people can’t afford to live where they would want to, either. If one bothers to look at statistics, while 33% of black children are poor, and only 10% of white children are poor, there’s a lot more white children, and hence there are more total poor white children than of any other race in America (4.2 million poor white children compared to 3.6 million black children). So, there are lots of white people out there who can’t choose to live where they want.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
This presumes minorities are universally unwelcome in predominantly white areas, and also that it doesn’t go the other way around.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
This is addressing racial profiling against blacks = underprivilege. If it is a privilege to not be followed around, than the norm should be that everyone is followed around.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
Applies to all minorities anywhere in the world. It is an underprivilege. Would one really expect for 12-13% of the population to be represented 50% or more of the time?
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
Minority underprivilege probably about anywhere in the world.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
Minority underprivilege anywhere in the world.
9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
Presumed minority underprivilege. If you can’t find music by black artists, where the hell are you shopping for your music? It sounds like even when this was written in 1989, it was based on people’s experiences decades prior.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
Again, prejudice against blacks.
11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
More presumed prejudice against blacks.
12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
And more presumed prejudice against blacks.
If she just called these things black underprivilege, the controversy would largely vanish. These may all be true disadvantages suffered by blacks — is anyone denying it? — though some of them seem dated. I mean, if you can’t see a black person on TV, what channel are you watching? Also, the advantages attributed to whites seem like they apply to a mythical Beaver Cleaver reality. Can white parents protect their children from people who might not like them?
I’ve noticed a tendency for white people who are the most privileged by the real definition of the word to be the most invested in the idea of “white privilege”, quite probably because they are privileged anyway, and guilt, like misery, loves company and to be attenuated. Peggy McIntosh got a PhD at Harvard. Going to an Ivy League school is textbook privilege, but it’s not anywhere in her list of privileges. Prior to that she went to the University College of London. Getting an education abroad is a REAL privilege. How odd she doens’t mention her extraordinary educational privilege. And did she put herself through school or take out student loans? You gotta’ be rich to afford to go to those schools? Don’t tell me this is a rich person sidelining wealth as a measure of privilege and replacing it with a single race. Maybe she got scholarships and fellowships like I did, and took out student loans on top of it like I did. But, ah, to be in the ivory tower denouncing the privilege of the working people below!
Despite Peggy McIntosh’s seminal article on white privilege, the theoretical advantage of merely being white is NOTHING compared to the actual privilege of going to Harvard. White privilege is merely NOT being negatively impacted because of your race, but getting a PhD from Harvard is cashing in on actual privilege. Would you rather be able to get a bandage that matches your skin color (example #26) or go to Harvard? When it comes to real privilege, wealth and opportunity trumps race.
None of her examples represent white privilege because they don’t represent privilege at all. All she did was switch out underprivilege for privilege. If it’s a privilege, it’s exceptional above and beyond the norm and can theoretically be eliminated. So, for example, if it’s a privilege to NOT be followed in a store, than everyone should be followed in a store. If it’s a privilege to be pretty sure ones neighbors will be relatively pleasant, than we should all have unpleasant neighbors as a general rule. If it’s a privilege to not be stopped and frisked by the police without having committed any crime, than we should all be regularly harassed by the police. If it is a privilege to have a two parent household, we should all have one parent or be orphans. Obviously we are talking about underprivilege and we are denying the existence of hundreds of millions of people in America who are neither privileged nor underprivileged. We have cut the world into 2, made a black and white universe in a fit of radical intellectual reductionism.
Part of the problem of this is making or expecting average white people feel guilty for being metaphoric tycoons. You don’t need to feel guilty for being privileged if you are working class. The idea that you are privileged is preposterous. You are by definition working for someone else who is likely making more money off of you than you are making yourself. Is that privilege?!
The counter is that if you are working class and white you are still privileged RELATIVE to minorities (interestingly, even if they are demonstrably rich). This is not the case because you can’t eliminate the other end of the spectrum. If you want to say that someone working for minimum wage is rich relative to a homeless person, what about all those people with the yachts and private jets… What about kids who have a birthday party that costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars? What are they, Martians? You can’t take the actually privileged out of the picture.
How we use the word privilege also influences how we address social problems. If the problem is that blacks and other minorities are underprivileged, than the solution is to help elevate them and eliminate barriers to their development, success, and enrichment. But, if the problem is that white people are privileged, the solution is to cut down white people. One raises the bar of the standard of living for everyone, and the other lowers it.
I find myself wondering why this 30-year old, logically flawed concept has suddenly taken hold to the point where everyone is familiar with it, and grudgingly accepting it. Who does it serve? If privilege is no longer defined as wealth and power, than the responsibility for privilege is no longer with the wealthy, powerful, and connected. The blame for the state of the country is shifted from those running it, and the top few percent who have more than everyone else combined (real privilege), to white people in general. If people want to fight power, it’s no longer the banks, the military industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industry, Big Oil, multinational corporations, think tanks, lobbyists, student loan sharks, and so on that we must oppose: it’s the average white person. The global elite are no longer accountable for running the show, rather, it’s the white guy pumping gas and the white woman at the cash register.
Again, I’m not denying for a second that blacks are at a distinct disadvantage relative to whites, assuming all things are relatively equal (ex., we aren’t talking about millionaire blacks and homeless whites), and I’m well aware that this represents the lingering effect of grievous historical wrongs from slavery to Jim Crow. I’m saying that the absence of that is not privilege, just as the absence of debt is not a trust fund.
Let’s consider REAL privilege for a second. As the Occupy movement, and people like Bernie Sanders made people aware, America has the most radical wealth inequality in the developed world. No, it’s not between whites and blacks, but between the richest few percent and everyone else. Most the wealth increase in the last 30 years has gone to the top 0.01%. Look at this graph.
In the chart on the left, you see those colors flat-lined at the bottom? That’s roughly 80% of the population, and most white people. You see that red line on top ascending to the heavens while everyone else stays the same? That’s privilege.. Relative to the top 1%, everyone else is under-privileged. That’s the real show. That’s REALITY. Blaming privilege on average whites is like the serfs blaming the peasants for all ills in their society, and giving the aristocracy a free pass. And here I’ve pissed off the conservatives.
I sometimes wonder if perhaps the reason “white privilege” has been resuscitated after decades is that the notion serves the most powerful elites by taking eyes off of them. In other words, it’s a very effective decoy: a bogeyman and scapegoat. Perhaps this is just the effect, and not the cause. Hard to know for sure. Maybe it’s a calculated strategy to undermine the cohesiveness of the Occupy movement, which pitted the 99% against the 1%.
Everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender orientation or gender identification were united to stand up to the big banks and unaccountable, amoral business practices. That’s been swept under the rug to fight “white privilege” and “whiteness” among the peasants and serfs of today.
Noam Chomsky pointed out decades ago that the divide between the rich and middle class today is far greater than that between the aristocracy and peasants or serfs of the middle ages. We are the peasants and serfs of today, but with greater technology and living in an era where even dogs have more amenities than people of the past. “White privilege” serves power by obscuring this troubling reality.
We are now taught that essentially all ills of society are due to “whiteness”. Hence the assistant professor and Director of the Equity Center at USC, Charles H.F. Davis boldly stated, “whiteness and white supremacy must be, by any and all means, destroyed… white supremacist capitalist patriarchy must be destroyed.”
Any and all means necessary includes violence, and if “whiteness” needs to be destroyed by any and all means, than it really must be a horrible problem, the proverbial root of all evil. Of course Charles H.F. Davis and others make a distinction between “whiteness” and whites, but many insist the two are inseparable.
This should cause some cognitive dissonance when we see similar and worse problems in non-white countries (ex., China). In any non-white country we place blame on the people who are in charge, and not on the average citizens. Having lived in Asia for over a decade, in four different countries, the idea that the world’s problems are due to the racism of average white people, and not to the people actually in power, irrespective of race, is ludicrous. Chinese can’t blame the Cultural Revolution on the racism of the Chinese, and Cambodians can’t blame the genocide under the Khmer Rouge on Cambodian racism. There are outstanding instances of human rights abuses all over the world which have nothing whatsoever to do with “whiteness”.
The abuse of the word privilege props up other abused words, such as racism. Most of us Americans grew up thinking racism meant hating people because of their race, seeing them as inferior, and discriminating against them. Now it means “power plus privilege”. There’s that privilege again. It doesn’t mean that only a person who is in the top percent of wealth is a racist: it means only white people can be racist. Both power and privilege are now shifted to all whites, irrespective of actual power or privilege, of which most whites have neither. So, tucked into the new definition of racism is the concept that all white people necessarily have power and privilege.
You may have encountered the increasingly popular notion that the average white (or the poor one) is not only automatically privileged, but automatically a white supremacist. This relates to its opposite idea, which is that it’s impossible for a person of color to be racist. It’s not a major leap to go from “it’s impossible for POC to be racist” to “all white people are racists”. Indeed, professor of art, Naima Lowe, at Evergreen College said in a speech, “White supremacy … lives and breathes within every single white person standing here right now. I refuse to shut my mouth and let white people set this agenda. If what I’m saying right now pisses you off and makes you feel targeted and defensive. Good!” Notice here that the art professor is not making a distinction between “white supremacists” and white people, but rather insisting they are synonymous.
This is the same sleight of hand as saying if you are not underprivileged, than you are privileged: if it is not impossible for you to be a racist (if you are not a POC), than it is impossible that you are not one. And that is the evidence that you are one.
In reality, the vast majority of white people are neither powerful, privileged, racist, nor white supremacist. They are just average people themselves trying to survive against the odds, and compared to the actually privileged are the equivalent of serfs, or if they are lucky, peasants. They are no more responsible for the problems of America than are average Chinese citizens for the actions of the Communist Party. To say otherwise is to make a convenient decoy and scapegoat for real, undeniable, and unimaginable power.
No, saying this doesn’t make me a Nazi, a conservative, a Trump supporter, alt-right, or a Republican. I’m not against immigration, gun control, or abortion. I’m not for tax cuts for billionaires and Fortune 500 companies. I’m not a climate change denier, and I’m vehemently opposed to war. I’m not a “white identarian” and I wrote a piece about the Sad Racist Specter of Richard Spencer. I was for Bernie, and then when he was pushed out of the race, Jill Stein. I’ve been a far left liberal most my life, but can’t really feel comfortable with a movement that categorically demonizes and rejects me. Now I just think both sides are extremists, reductionists, and ideologues.
Lately my beef has been with the radical left, and that’s because the far right isn’t coming after me: isn’t insisting that I am bad; isn’t blaming the world’s problems on me; isn’t telling me to shut up; isn’t censoring art and shutting down shows; and isn’t making a target of me. Those things are really annoying, but, when it comes down to it, I’m still much more bothered by war and climate change. Yes, phenomenon which kill, impoverish, and displace millions of people are more pressing concerns than unconscious micro-aggressions, or being wrongly accused of necessarily harboring them.
The part where I’m supposed to be the privileged, racist, white supremacist, and all-around bad guy responsible for everything wrong with the world is as convincing to me as telling me I’m a space alien, or that I killed JFK. I just feel framed.
I will still use the words literal, random, power, privilege, and racist to mean what they meant when I was growing up, especially if the new definitions mean their opposites or function to reduce rather than expand how we think about or can express our understanding of reality.
If the goal is to end racism and curb excessive privilege, how can we do that if we’ve re-defined the words to mean something entirely different? We are fighting the bogeyman and belaboring a scapegoat while real power and privilege laughs its way to the bank.
[Codicil. As always, and especially with my more off-the-cuff rants, I am most certainly not right about everything. I am suspicious of anyone who is confident that they are, because that’s an indication they aren’t engaged with re-thinking and re-examining their arguments, conclusions, and their relation to them. My thoughts are a work in progress, and they are never more than a map superimposed upon reality, which easily transcends linguistics. I can’t know that much more than what I’ve directly observed, and so, broad conclusions are extraordinary extrapolations of thin gossamer. I may change my mind tomorrow. However, the same goes for the notions I am here attempting to dismantle. Sometimes taking apart a bad argument isn’t that risky or grand of an achievement, if that’s what it is ]