There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem.
However, among those who concern themselves with the topic, the effectiveness of telling white people that they have unearned privilege has come into question: if white people do come to understand that they have it, how many would really be willing to give it up? And what about the other side of white privilege, the costs for whites of their racial membership? Might addressing those costs as well, or even instead, be a better way to convince white folks that they have a stake in understanding their own whiteness?
An earlier writer, James Baldwin, devoted enormous energy to getting white folks to think more deeply about the racial sides of themselves. Writing during the mid-twentieth century,
Focusing with intensity and compassion on the job of waking up white folks to their own ways and to who they were, Baldwin illuminated psychic spaces that history and ideology had shut behind doors, spaces rarely explored even by whites themselves. White people in the mid-twentieth century had largely come to acknowledge that conditions for "Negroes" should improve, but for whites the problem was always about "them"--what to do with them and for them--instead of about white people, and how they needed to do some work on themselves. White people,
One good starting point towards white self-awareness would be Rothenberg's collection of nineteen short essays and book excerpts. Many of today's best observers of white folks are represented here, and they discuss much more than the topic of privilege. In addition to McIntosh’s foundational essay, Richard Dyer addresses the question, “Why do most White people not see themselves as having a race?” bell hooks explains that for black people, whites do have a race; she also notes that coming to understand this critical gaze on themselves can upset white people at first, since “they believe that all ways of looking that highlight difference subvert the liberal belief in a universal subjectivity (we are all just people) that they think will make racism disappear.”
David Roediger and James Barrett explain how white people got that way in the first place, and Karen Brodkin explains how Jewish Americans in particular did it more recently. As Brodkin writes, Jewish American soldiers returning from World War II benefitted from “the most massive affirmative action program in U.S. history,” the GI Bill of Rights, the benefits of which were “decidedly not extended to African Americans or to women of any race.” Other key voices, such as George Lipsitz, Charles W. Mills, Robert Jensen, and Tim Wise, also provide convincing evidence of the detailed benefits enjoyed by those with exclusive membership in the great white club.
Rothenberg divides the readings into four sections, the titles of which emphasize a particular word: "the power of invisibility" (which means, as the essays in this section explain, that whites commonly fail to see themselves as white, but also that such invisibility is empowering), "the power of the past" (the historical formations of whiteness and how they still benefit white people today), "the power of privilege" (how contemporary privilege works to empower white people), and "the power of resistance" (what caring, anti-racist white people can do to counter racism).
It seems, then, that in addition to being automatically privileged, white people are very "empowered" by their whiteness. However, this point can be a tough sell to those who are just trying to get by, and who don't see how they're hurting anyone. Learning about what whiteness lends to oneself is a valuable education, but it would probably be easier to swallow if accompanied by recognition and explanation of the downsides, for whites themselves, of being classified as white. And that would mean much more than just listening to uninformed complaints about the "reverse discrimination" of such things as affirmative action. Rothenberg is right to note in her introduction that "white privilege is the other side of racism," that it's the counterpart to racial oppression for non-white people. But whiteness has an opposing side for whites themselves, something that naturalist writer Wendell Berry described almost forty years ago as "white misery."
As Barack Obama noted in his recent speech on race in
But even in such a detailed dissection of current racial divisions, Obama had little time or space to address the misery brought on white people by their own racial membership. Failing to see the root causes of their own economic decline, and instead blaming their dwindling opportunities on the threat of blacks or Mexicans taking their jobs, is only one of many misery-inducing white misconceptions.
Nevertheless, among the many factors impinging on the lives of various sorts of white people, their racial membership itself is something that they usually take for granted rather than understand. And they do so even though their whiteness is something that almost always counts in their favor, rather than against them. The authors in Rothenberg’s book offer many avenues toward understanding by whites of their own privilege. I do wonder, though, what more it would take to push them beyond merely counting their blessings.
PS--If you're still wondering just what "white privilege" is, you could take a look at the 26 examples listed in this online abbreviation of Peggy McIntosh's essay; the full version has a list of 46 examples.