It’s not often that the concept of “white privilege” is the focus of the mainstream media. It took the shooting of unarmed black male teenager Michael Brown and the devastated community of Ferguson to show the world the brutality of systemic racism and economic inequality. Over the past few weeks, as the news media has highlighted incontrovertible data about the unequal treatment of African Americans, there have been several valuable articles and blogs about the way white privilege operates in our society today. To mention just a few, the New York Times, AlterNet, The Root, Salon, and Slate have published insightful commentary and analysis on the basic idea of whiteness and white privilege.
However, not surprisingly, we’ve also seen a considerable backlash to this discussion of white privilege. As Bill O’Reilly said recently during his editorial, “Talking Points does not believe in white privilege.”
This type of resistance to the idea of white privilege is what I’d like to focus on here.
There is a knee-jerk reaction by many whites to the notion of white privilege, and they think, “But I don’t feel privileged…” That’s where the resistance starts to develop because I’m not sure that anyone actually feels privilege as a sensation; therefore, it’s easy and convenient to deny. The resistance can build further when whites compare themselves to other racial groups. Even if they do recognize that they are treated better than members of other racial groups, they can chalk it up to deserving that benefit because of working hard, being smart, somehow earning this privilege. Anything else would fly in the face of the basic notion of the American Dream, that one has control over one’s destiny through hard work.
Bill O’Reilly proclaimed that “African Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do” not because of white privilege but because they lack “stable homes and an emphasis on education.” He argued that if African Americans “overcome obstacles” and take “personal responsibility,” they would be successful. The problem, he maintains, is with them, not with white privilege or anything systemic. (I will save his reference to “Asian Privilege” for a future blog post because it will take some time to critically examine the model minority stereotype he upholds.)
So, where does that leave us? I don’t anticipate ever changing Bill O’Reilly’s mind, but I do think for many other whites, we can get past this resistance. What makes the difference? I think history helps. I think if more whites understood the history of whiteness, and the way that whiteness has been used as a weapon, that would help. No white person alive today created whiteness or white privilege; it’s not about holding white people today responsible for inventing whiteness. Acknowledging that white privilege exists and that you benefit from it is not the same as saying you created it. In addition, acknowledging that white privilege exists does not minimize a recognition of how whites can also be marginalized, via socio-economic class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. However, denying that white privilege exists is a problem.
If we take the time to look at the history of whiteness, we will see that whiteness is not a stable, monolithic category; it’s crucial to understand that the question of who is allowed to be white varied from one historical period to the next, from one law or court case to the next. That history shows us that whiteness is not something natural or innate but something that society created, more specifically that those in power created to hang onto their power. White skin is not inherently meaningful, just like the shape of one’s ear is not inherently meaningful. Meaning had to be created and attached to whiteness, and that meaning evolved. For many years, the Irish, for example, were not considered white, and then that changed for a variety of social, political, and economic reasons. The same goes for Italians and many other groups. The definition of white evolved, and it’s still evolving. That means we can have some say in what it signifies; that means we can resist it, separate “white” from “privilege” and build a more just society.
(A few excellent resources on this history include: The History of White People, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, How the Irish Became White, and Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror.)