Friday, April 18, 2008

saturday book rec : white privilege

There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem.

--James Baldwin

White Privilege: Readings on the Other Side of Racism, edited by Paula Rothenberg, is an essay collection that could serve as a handy primer on a side of white people that they should know more about. "White privilege" is a term that has gained some widespread currency over the last decade or so, thanks in large part to an especially lucid essay on the topic by Peggy McIntosh (an abbreviated version of which appears in this collection).

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, Baldwin was probably the most critical, incisive, and loving observer of whiteness that white folks have ever had the opportunity to ignore. In addition to writing such renowned novels on black life as Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and on gay white life in Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin published many remarkable essays on the people he and his fellow black Americans had been studying for centuries.

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, Baldwin said, are "still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. . . . White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this--which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never--the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed."

What Baldwin was asking for, far ahead of his time, was a collective release for people of all skin colors from the abuses of race, including those with hues labeled "white." White people are still labeled "white," but the significance of that status to who and what they are tends to be much more obvious to non-white people than it is to whites themselves. One result is that when white people participate in discussions of race with non-white people, the latter often feel dismayed by the lack of white self-awareness, because this lack causes all sorts of unwitting biases and blindspots.

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 America, "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race." Obama went further than perhaps any major politician ever has in acknowledging the anger and resentment of both non-white and white people. I think he rightly cited anger across the racial divide as a distraction from the real "culprit" that increasingly assaults most American lives, a class-based system that increasingly favors the rich, takes from everyone else, and uses racial issues to distract those who might otherwise band together and oppose those above them.

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.


  1. Thanks for posting a link to the article. It is the clearest description of white privelege that I've yet seen.

    I think it is misleading to call it privelege--although I can't deny that seeing it phrased that way caused me to think in a new and useful direction. Still, the wording implies that white people have the things on this list but don't deserve them, when really it is that people who aren't white deserve these things but don't have them. Most of this stuff is what ought to be par for the course.

  2. Yeah, d, I have often thought the same thing. I've even seen white people - who think of themselves as antiracist - using "white privilege" in that sense. The implicit definition seems to be "things that white people get to have over and above what everyone else generally gets," as opposed to "everyone else gets oppressed while white people get treated like human beings." So it seems to be an easy out for white folks - a way for them to talk about renouncing white privilege as though it were a form of spiritual dieting.

    I prefer "white supremacy," myself, and use "white privilege" more to refer to white behaviors.

  3. I agree, d, that McIntosh's article is especially clear, careful, and concise--that's part of why its been reprinted and redistributed so many times.

    Interesting distinctions, d and katie, on the concept of "white privilege." I also think that the term is on the verge of becoming well-known enough that it functions like a buzzword, emptied of most of its useful content as it takes on associations other than those meant by the people who initially promoted it. Like what happened to the term "feminist," which simply means a person who believes in equal rights for women, but has come to mean for most people a fire-breathing, man-hating, bra-burning bitch.

    I'd like to see a new focus on "white misery," but that's a problematic term too, since it could imply other types of misery for whites than the ones I'm referring to, that is, the costs for whites of having been trained into enacting whiteness.

  4. The problem with all this is that to many of the poor rural folks that live around here, you'd have a real hard time selling the idea of "white privilege." You'd sorta look like a fool.
    Mr. Obama has pointed this out on a number of occasions.
    I see white privilege everywhere I go, but I have the luxury of doing so.

  5. You're so right, SH. That's a big stumbling block, isn't it?

    How do you begin describing an "elephant in the room" to people who don't even know it's there? who don't even know what an elephant is?

    I think there are ways, though, of sort of working around to the topic in conversations, without exactly calling it "white privilege."

  6. I totally agree. I read this back in college and found it very informative because I had never been able to put a phrase to how I felt. Many of my white friends don't understand the privelege until they get an example of inequality. For example this weekend, my boyfriend had the "privelege" of getting paid 300 bucks to be an extra in a Nike commercial. All his buddies and their girlfriends went. He asked the casting director if he could bring me. "What does she look like?" she asks, "5'6, black hair". The casting director then asks "is she caucasian?" "No," bf says, "she's Mexican-American". "I'm sorry," she says, "no hispanics". Hmmm. Well that sucked. My boyfriend had never encountered a situation where we are not equal due to my skin color, even though I try to point it out to him through history and media. Yes yes, this wasn't *that* big a deal, but it was something I could not participate in because of the color of my skin where as he could. Which then leads to a discussion of identification . . . What if I had been a light skinned Latina like Cameron Diaz? What if I had been a black Latina? Why is it that identifying with a certain culture, makes me a certain color? Well, that's for another time . . .

  7. Perhaps the wording that should be used is "White socioeconomic capital" since "White privelge" may not sit well with some people.

  8. Thanks Anonymiss, that's a much more precisely illustrative term, but I'm not sure it would gain any more currency than "white privilege." "White misery," though, now there's a concept that might perk up some white ears.


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