The Problem With "White Privilege" Discourse

It's a reductive and misleading framework for understanding race relations in America in the 21st century. And it undermines the principles underlying civil rights.

In the recent polemics over “critical race theory” in schools, one question that has repeatedly come up is whether children should be taught about “white privilege.” A few months ago, for instance, such a controversy erupted in Mancelona, Michigan, where high school students were given an assignment on the subject as part of an English class unit on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Today, to suggest that this is not a concept that should be taught as fact, or to question whether white privilege exists in 21st-century America, is to risk accusations of “white fragility,” being in denial about the reality of racism, or being an actual racist—and to get lumped together with Donald Trump’s fan base and other aggrieved white people.

But it’s possible to recognize that racism (the “old-fashioned,” not “woke” kind) exists in America and to believe that the “white privilege” framework is an extremely misleading and even counterproductive way to talk about it.

For one thing, “white privilege” discourse (which went mainstream around 2014 and was described as “suddenly a hot topic” by John McWhorter in 2015) inevitably runs up against the stark fact that plenty of white people cannot, in any sense, be described as “privileged”: they are poor, uneducated, struggling, and at the bottom of the social ladder.

Under true white supremacy, whiteness does confer benefits regardless of class disadvantage—much as, in feudal and aristocratic systems, nobility conferred benefits even on the penniless. The lowest “white trash” in the Jim Crow South—someone like Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird—still had social advantages over a black doctor, teacher, or minister, whom he could push around with impunity and over whom he would almost invariably be favored by cops, courts, and public officials. Not even Ibram X. Kendi, I imagine, would argue that this is true in America in 2021.

So how does “white privilege” square with class disadvantage? Here, the go-to explanation is that white privilege doesn’t mean you’re privileged in the conventional sense. As the resource page on “Whiteness” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture puts it: “Being white does not mean you haven’t experienced hardships or oppression. Being white does mean you have not faced hardships or oppression based on the color of your skin.” The reading given to students at Mancelona High has a similar passage: “Having white privilege doesn’t mean that white people have never endured challenges and distressing events. It just means that their struggles have not been caused by their skin color.” Likewise, Roderick Graham, associate professor of sociology at Old Dominion University, writes in the online magazine Dialogue and Discourse, “I often tell my students to imagine white privilege as the privilege of not having your race work against you.”

But “white privilege” discourse itself constantly contradicts these disclaimers. In the same paragraph, for instance, Graham defines “white privilege” as “the unearned benefits gained from being a member of the racial category ‘white’ in a white supremacist system.” (Unfair advantage and lack of unfair disadvantage are thus treated as interchangeable, even though they shouldn’t be.) The Mancelona High reading acknowledges that many white people face poverty and trauma, only to state in the very next paragraph that white people generally don’t have to consider race because “the world is set up for their convenience.”

Or take a widely acclaimed post made a year ago by Los Angeles Lakers player Kyle Kuzma:

White privilege is like an invisible backpack that every white person wears. You can take that backpack off, open it up, and pull out all sorts of shit. Get Out of Jail Free card. Job opportunities. Health benefits. Housing loans.

However, it’s difficult not to notice that there are plenty of white people who have none of the above. (At this point, “white privilege” starts to sound like Eddie Murphy’s 1984 “White Like Me” skit on Saturday Night Live, in which Murphy goes undercover as a white man and discovers that when there are no blacks around, whites get free champagne on city buses and interest-free bank loans with no proof of income.)

Kuzma’s metaphor is based on the “invisible knapsack,” a concept devised by feminist and anti-racist activist Peggy McIntosh more than 30 years ago. But when you look at McIntosh’s widely used “white privilege” checklist, it isn’t particularly helpful, either. Many of the “privileges” she lists are not tangible goods so much as psychic benefits of being part of the majority group (“I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared”), absence of discrimination (“If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race”; “Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability”), or absence of stereotyping (“I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing, or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race”). Some items seem badly dated. (“I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race” may have been true for most white Americans in 1988 when McIntosh wrote the article, but sounds quaint in much of the country today.) Some were probably dated even in 1988. (“I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.”)

Tellingly, the checklist’s few references to socioeconomic status reveal a staggering unawareness of class privilege, e.g.: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.” The possibility that many white people may not be able to afford housing in an area in which they would want to live does not seem to enter McIntosh’s mind.

Quite often, “white privilege” is defined more narrowly as absence of the disadvantages and prejudices that specifically afflict black Americans, from lower income to lower life expectancy to disproportionate harassment and violence by law enforcement. Yet Asian-Americans fare better than white Americans on every single one of those measurements. Nor do Hispanics fit neatly into the “white privilege” framework, with lower median household income but higher life expectancy compared to whites. (The data on police violence are even more complicated: While Latino men are at higher risk of being killed by the police than white men, the disparity is reversed for women.) In this sense, “white privilege” rhetoric offers an incredibly simplistic and reductionist take on a complex multiracial, multiethnic society.

But it also has other, more pernicious effects.

For one thing, equating the absence of discrimination, mistreatment, or injustice with the presence of “privilege” turns one of liberalism’s core principles—the existence of fundamental, inalienable human and civil rights—on its head, and thus subverts it. Not being mistreated, abused, or discriminated against becomes a special advantage, an unearned reward granted to members of a privileged group. This troubling aspect of privilege discourse has been picked up even by some commentators who share the “social justice” view of endemic racism in modern American society. In a 2013 essay for Al Jazeera, University of California-Merced sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza questioned the language of “white privilege” in anti-racist activism: not being presumptively treated as a criminal by the police or by shop owners, she pointed out, is “not something that should be considered a privilege” but simply “how things should be.” More recently, Naomi Zack, a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon who works in the area of ethics and race and sees police killings and harassment of young black men as a clear example of racial injustice, made a similar point in a New York Times interview:

The term “white privilege” is misleading. A privilege is special treatment that goes beyond a right. It’s not so much that being white confers privilege but that not being white means being without rights in many cases. Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right.

The equation of “not being discriminated against” with “privilege” also opens the way to attacking minorities which, by and large, do not experience discrimination as a severe problem. It implies, for instance, that there is such a thing as “Jewish privilege” if Jews in America are generally not discriminated against for being Jewish.  (Notably, while white supremacist trolls have openly floated that concept in a blatant attempt to co-opt the language of “social justice” for anti-Semitism, the social justice left has also dabbled in rhetoric that singles out “white Jews” for “upholding white supremacy” and failing to confront their “whiteness.”) The issue of “Asian privilege” has also reared its head, though social justice activists have also decried the concept as “harmful.”

Lastly, the “white privilege” trope leads to a decline in sympathy for underprivileged whites. This effect was actually confirmed by a 2019 study led by Colgate University psychologist Erin Cooley, which found that at least for social liberals, reading a short essay on white privilege and being asked to list two examples of privilege enjoyed by white Americans leads to a reduction in sympathy for a poor, unemployed, unskilled man when that man is described as white. The study received virtually no coverage outside publications critical of “wokeness.”

The same effect was on striking display later that year within a lot of the commentary on the movie Joker, whose struggling, isolated, mentally ill protagonist, Arthur Fleck, is on a downward spiral into madness and violence. The film can certainly be seen as progressive in the “critique of capitalism” sense: it has mostly rich “bad guys,” a downtrodden main character whose unraveling is partly blamed on budget cuts in social welfare programs, and a sympathetically portrayed “eat the rich” rebellion. (In fact, it received high praise from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, an old-fashioned class-focused leftist.) Yet numerous articles in the mainstream press depicted Joker as a “dangerous,” crypto-Trumpist right-wing screed because it asks the audience to sympathize with an aggrieved white man. (Never mind that Fleck is a “marginalized person” by any definition.)

There are plenty of other examples. Take one striking response to a 2018 Washington Post feature on white workers at a chicken processing plant where most employees are non-English-speaking Hispanics, titled “How does it feel to be white, rural, and in the minority?” Recode editor Rani Molla tweeted the article with the comment “Oh shut the fuck up” and sarcastically suggested an alternate title: “How does it feel to have every advantage and still be a whiny asshole?” Thus, “white privilege” discourse allows a Columbia School of Journalism graduate with a career at a series of elite publications—and a member of America’s highest-income ethnic demographic—to feel that she is “punching up” when heaping scorn on whites who are far lower on the socioeconomic ladder.

The social and economic disadvantages still faced by black Americans in 2021 are, absolutely, an important issue that needs to be addressed—whether these disadvantages are primarily the effect of historical, “legacy” racism or racial prejudice that still endures today. But if the conversation is about black disadvantage, then that’s what we should talk about. Reframing it as “white privilege” is rather transparently intended, despite all the denials, to appeal to white guilt and shame: the message to white people is not just “We need to do more to ensure fair treatment for black Americans” but “You have good things you don’t deserve.”

Is this message conducive to achieving racial equity? Or is it more likely both to promote well-intended but misguided remedies and to generate a backlash?

Coming up (paywalled): A detailed look at the Mancelona, Michigan “white privilege” class, and the pitfalls of “anti-racist” education. Subscribe here to receive it, as well as unlock access to all Arc content.