by Zoë Abernethy
The 20th century brought about the civil rights movement, three waves of feminism, and many other important social justice initiatives; in the 21st century, the effects of these initiatives are evident in changing policies and attitudes towards groups that have been historically oppressed and/or persecuted in Western society. A concept that has become quite widely accepted in this time is the notion of white privilege.
The term white privilege is used to describe the fact that white people enjoy a certain degree of respect, comfortability and trust in day-to-day life that is taken for granted as normal; however, this ‘normal’ is not allotted to visibly racialized individuals. The way I was taught about white privilege (and the way many others are) is through Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” metaphor. McIntosh’s work on white privilege has enabled the concept to make its way into mainstream culture. McIntosh describes white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” While she does stress that this privilege is unearned, and that it’s important not just to acknowledge it, but to work to lessen or end it, we seem to be stuck on the acknowledging part and have not moved forward to the ‘ending it’ phase.
Before we continue, I want to clarify the aim of this article. While I am somewhat dismissing the language of white privilege, I am doing this not because I think that white people aren’t treated better because of racism, but because the language of privilege warps our understanding of the problem and how to solve it.
Much of the trouble with the concept of white privilege and the way that it’s discussed is that it places too much emphasis on individual white people and the fact that they are privileged, rather than the fact that others are not. A privilege, by definition, is a special right or advantage that is only granted to a certain group. Hence, this term really just means that white people hold the ‘special right’ of not experiencing racism in their day-to-day lives. Understanding this illuminates some of the limitations of conceptualizing racism within the language of privilege.
So when we say that someone has white privilege, we are really just saying that they are free from having to experience racism. How is this a privilege? Not experiencing racism is supposed to be a basic right, but for racialized individuals, this right is too often infringed upon. By framing white privilege as a ‘privilege’ rather than a right, we not only imply that it’s impossible for everyone to not experience racism, but also overemphasize the fact that white people disproportionately enjoy this right, instead of the fact that far too many others do not.
This over-emphasis on the privileged individual often mystifies the sources of the problem. Discussions and critiques of white privilege often consist of condemning white people for being privileged, which can explain the stance taken by some white people on this topic; that they didn’t choose to be white and therefore privileged. This also leads to discussions of what it means to be privileged, how to calculate how privileged you are, and what you’re allowed to talk about and advocate for if you’re privileged. However this discussion of racism manifests within the language of privilege, it continuously revolves more around white people than what’s actually happening to people of colour because of racism. Privileged white people are not the actual problem, even if they effectively embody it. As such, the energy being channeled into condemning white privilege needs to be re-directed towards critiquing the system that has allowed, if not enabled, racism to persist.
Of course, resentment towards white people is more than understandable, and those who embody this injustice or perpetuate it are easy targets for this resentment. It makes complete sense to want to condemn someone for being unaware or in denial of this systemic inequality that continues to persist in society, because it is undeniably wrong that some people never have to think about racism while others are forced to every day. However, we need to make it clear that when we talk about white privilege, we are talking about systemic racism, not a fault of the white individual.
By simply telling someone to “check their/your privilege,” it is effectively implied that acknowledging that you’re privileged is enough in and of itself, which can even allow people to use privilege as an excuse for their ignorance, so long as they acknowledge it and apologize (think about Justin Trudeau’s recent blackface apology). Even if privilege isn’t used as an excuse, checking your own privilege and getting others to do the same is just agreeing to not flaunt the unjust power you currently hold, which doesn’t accomplish much in the name of ending racial inequality. In a sense, this line of thought implies an acceptance of this unequal distribution of power.
In some more dramatic cases, this can turn into what is termed ‘white guilt,’ where white people try to renounce their privilege in the name of ending racism. If this doesn’t exemplify the counterproductivity of over-emphasising the individual in addressing the basic rights we refer to as white privilege, I don’t know what does. Not only is it impossible to renounce white privilege, since no matter how you self-identify, other people will see and treat you as white, but the point of discussing privilege is not to make white people feel guilty for not having to experience racism and try to give up this right. The point is to identify this unjust distribution of power along racial lines and work to end it. I think we can all agree that nobody should have any less rights in society, if anything we should all have more.
As tempting as it may be to focus on the ‘whiteness’ of white privilege, this practice is pushing the fight against racism slightly off-course. Not only does this approach make some people hesitant to acknowledge their privilege, it also distracts from the core issue: the persistence of systemic racism in contemporary Western society. Perhaps instead of directing our rightfully justified anger towards ignorant individuals, we should direct it towards this system that enables, if not necessitates, the existence of structural inequality. We need to expand our current discussion of white privilege and acknowledge that systemic racism is fundamental to the concept. Only then can we begin to work towards solving it.