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Ramble: The Straw-man of White Privilege


Lately I have been reading about this concept of “Check Your Privilege” and seeing things such as “If you don’t have to think about it, it is a privilege.”

Generally the concept of “Check Your Privilege” is aimed at those that are “White” and those that are “Male.” Because automagically “Whiteness” and “Maleness” confirms some mystical powers on those that are defined as “white” and “male”. And the elite are thus “white males.”

Now I do accept that bias and racism does exists. My difficulty is the concept of “white privilege” is basically a straw-man argument designed to distract from the reality of most peoples lived experience – no matter the color of their skin. A straw-man argument is one that exaggerates, misrepresents, or just completely fabricates the points so  it is  much easier to present another view as being more reasonable. However this is a form of intellectual dishonesty that serves to undermine honest rational debate on a topic.

Cheryl Harris describes whiteness as a form of property, which confers privileges on its holders. In “Whiteness as Property,” Harris writes, “The wages of whiteness are available to all whites, regardless of class position – even to those whites who are without power, money, or influence. Whiteness, the characteristic that distinguishes them from blacks, serves as compensation even to those who lack material wealth. It is the relative political advantages extended to whites, rather than actual economic gains, that are crucial to white workers.”
— Cheryl, Harris (1995), “Whiteness as Property”, in Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, New York: The New Press, p. 286, ISBN 1-56584-271-5

While “white privilege” is an interesting academic thought exercise one aspect that is overlooked is that there are degrees of “whiteness”. Not all light skin people are treated as white and generally these light-tinted folks are given labels such as white trash, hillbillies, red-necks, and other descriptors meant to capture the low-status of these folks. Harris would seem to argue that anyone that can be classified as “light-skinned” is inherently blessed by the pinkish glow of their outer dermis.

The concept of “white privilege” imagines that north america society is a tiered cake arranged in discreet color layers starting with angel food-cake on the top and descending down into double dark-chocolate on the bottom. The societal reality is closer to it being a marble cake with swirls of white and dark mixed throughout the cake – and then topped with a creamy rich white icing on top. From the outside this marble-cake would seem to confirm that whiteness is indeed the key to success – when the reality is the white topping is more about the historical economic privilege of the elite European colonialists maintaining their economic head-start.

Yes the mixing of the marble is still uneven – so the cake is still darker on the bottom. However, more important than simply assigning “whiteness” is the understanding of the unbalancing impact of historical economic power that is still retained by a thin elite few. And yes they are mostly white. And mostly men. But their power actually flows from the control over things that are green and gold – economic clout to do as they please when they please. This is more about the eternal class disparity that has a historical white bias – and that economic power is a barrier that is harder to breakdown.

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8 responses

  1. I don’t quite grasp the point you are trying to make. Privilege isn’t only an academic exercise and thinking so reveals your privilege. Your swirling colour of whiteness also doesn’t matter much when you consider the privilege throughout history and our contemporary times of just being born male.

    Sigh.

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    1. I didn’t say privilege was an academic exercise. I was deconstructing the academic concept of “white privilege”. And yes I didn’t address the gender issue. However for you to claim I have any privilege shows your own bias and the secure economic privilege of your upper-middle class status. And that is my key point: wealth is the true source of privilege. Not race. Not gender. Not religion.

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    2. I don’t understand the point you are making. So being born a male is privilege? Specifically a while male? But white female doesn’t get privilege?
      On the topic of white – it is a disservice to the whites who are born in poverty (i.e. Appalachia) and pull themselves out through hardwork, only to have it labeled “privilege”. Or the poor Eastern European immigrant who does the same thing.
      On the topic of woman vs man, I strongly agree with the studies that show that it isn’t so much a discrimination as it is a cultural nuance. I have a wonderful 3 year old daughter who I very much want the best for. Why is it that at her birthday party she receives gifts of toy kitchens, purses, credit cards, and pink items galore (some of the worst ones were from women). While my nephews receive Legos, building blocks, and clothes of varying color. From an early age we brain wash young girls into pink and Susie Homemaker. We teach them to be pacifists. Yet then get upset when they don’t receive the raise at work, but Johnny got his! The difference is often that Johnny went in and demanded the raise (as he was taught from an early age to be aggressive, a go getter) while Susie went in and politely requested a raise if it wouldn’t be too much to ask for (as she was taught to do). Are we surprised at the outcome?
      Bottom line is, life can be whatever you make of it. I will continue to work hard in my life to benefit my family with the belief that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I will also do my best to instill in my daughters the same mentality.

      “If you think you can, you’re correct. If you think you can’t, you’re also correct”.

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  2. I think properly stated as privilege in general… inequity, which seems to me to be the heart of so many problems. White, other colour, whatever… how about western privilege?

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    1. Oi! First World problem 🙂

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      1. Yup. And sigh. There we are.

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  3. Ahhh yes. I don’t know if the phrase is meant to say that you as a white male get magical papers and can get everything without working for it, but I think it’s meant to point out that the system is flawed and people who are a certain races or genders have disadvantages that a white male may not have to deal with. It doesn’t mean stuff is automatically easy for a white male, just that a white male doesn’t have to worry about racism or sexism (and a few other issues depending on gender identify and whatnot) to the same extent. Sometimes people who are used to privilege forget that. And that’s why people may be quick to remind us that we’re in a position that society views as “better off”.
    Anyway! I’m sorry to hear you’ve been bothered by this, I can understand how if could be a bit frustrating 🙂 I found your thoughts on it highly interesting if it helps!

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    1. I understand that aspect of the concept – the problem is it is a blanket assessment and so in itself it becomes a stereotype and a racist/sexist judgement. The concept imposes a mythology that all those labelled as white and all those labelled as males have it easier. And that is simply not true.
      Although interesting you flip it around so that some races and genders have an inherent disadvantage and imply that disadvantage exists all the time for all members of the group. And that again would be false. That is again stereotyping just the other direction. .
      Do you think I have never experienced racism? Or sexism? Status is a moving target in a culture – did you ever watch “All In The Family” – a TV series from the 1970s and 80s. While it was a comedy it captured the cultural bigotry of the time. The concept of “whiteness” is very narrowly defined for main character of Archie Bunker. Eastern Europeans are not “white” in his world.
      My issue isn’t the grain of truth in the concept my issue is the “check your privilege” concept is being wielded as a big stick to stifle real dialogue and real change. It is a tidy little simplification that does nothing but assign guilt.
      Remember that at one time the Irish were not considered “white” at all.

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