The Privilege of Checking White Privilege

If you’ve been white lately, you have likely been confronted with the idea that to be a good person, you must cultivate a guilt complex over the privileged status your race enjoys.

It isn’t that you are doing, or even quite thinking, anything racist. Rather, your existential state of Living While White constitutes a form of racism in itself. Your understanding will serve as a tool … for something. But be careful about asking just what that something is, because that will mean you “just don’t get it.”

To be sure, there is, indeed, a distinct White Privilege. Being white does offer a freedom not easily available to others. You can underperform without it being ascribed to your race. And when you excel, no one wonders whether Affirmative Action had anything to do it. Authority figures are likely to be your color, and no one associates people of your color with a propensity to violence. No one expects you to represent your race in a class discussion or anywhere else.

These are the basics of White Privilege, disseminated in key campus texts such as Peggy McIntosh’s foundational “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” [PDF] from 1988. It’s become a meme of Blue America’s mental software, recently focused by the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

But “White Privilege” is more than just a term these days. For example, some of New York City’s elite private schools are giving White Privilege lessons to their student bodies, teaching them, for example, that when affluent white students talk about their expensive vacations this could be hurtful to students of color from humbler circumstances.

The Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service kicked off its community meetings in Ferguson with White Privilege teachings. There are college courses, and even a yearly conference. White Privilege is suddenly a hot topic and cottage industries have sprung up around it.

However, one can thoroughly understand how racism works and still ask just what this laser focus on “White Privilege” is meant to achieve.

“This is messy work, but these conversations are necessary,” says Sandra Chapman, director of diversity and community at Little Red School House in New York City. Okay—but why? Note that the answer cannot be, “So that whites will understand that they are the privileged … etc.” That makes as much sense as saying “Because!” So I’m going to dare to ask a simple question: What exactly are we trying to achieve with this particular lesson?

I assume, for example, that the idea is not to teach white people that White Privilege means that black people are the only group of people in human history who cannot deal with obstacles and challenges. If the idea is that black people cannot solve their problems short of white people developing an exquisite sensitivity to how privileged they are, then we in the black community are being designated as disabled poster children…

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