White privilege is bogus.

Before you write me off please read the next sentence.  I know white privilege exists and I’m committed to understanding it better.  I’m committed to helping others understand it and finding the right ways to address it.  That’s why I have such a problem with the term.
Understanding privilege and systemic racism and disadvantage is uncomfortable and difficult.  So it requires high-level self awareness and intelligence working in concert. 

Self-awareness is necessary to allow for the necessary empathy for another person’s vastly different life experience. A certain level of intellectual aptitude is necessary to comprehend the myriad systemic and personal impacts related to  privilege and the the historical events that are impacting present day behaviors. 

These requirements alone mean that understanding and spreading the concepts of  privilege is an uphill battle – and we’re making it even harder on ourselves.

We’re making it harder by calling it “privilege.”  Surely, the term “privilege” is accurate by definition.  But think about it in practice.  What comes to mind when you think of the word “privilege”?  For me, it is a rich white kid getting access to things that others can’t.  While, this image works for the term, there are a number of flaws in it.  For example, poor people enjoy white privilege as well.  But I think the biggest problem with it is that this term turns off white people.  Think about it – it’s not a natural human inclination to admit one’s own advantage. 

White people are the ones who need to understand white privilege most.  They are the ones who are in the best position to address the negative impacts of white privilege and eliminate it where possible.  The same is true for male privilege, and straight privilege, and female privilege, and so on.  So, let’s use a term that doesn’t leave the target audience feeling alienated, attacked, and on defense. 

Could white “perspective” work?  How about white “experience”?

The concept of privilege applies to many people and impacts us all on a daily if note constant basis.  In order to spread the concepts and interventions as effectively as possible we need to be intentional in our language.  As the english teacher from my well-funded, mostly white, public high school taught me, “Words have meaning.  Use them with care.”

Peace be the journey,

Matt Kreiner (a white guy)
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2 thoughts on “White privilege is bogus.

  1. Dear (White Guy) Matt,

    I am so glad you know white privilege exists and are committed to understanding it better. I am also glad you know that “white people are the ones who need to understand white privilege most.” As a fellow white person, this makes me incredibly relieved to hear because there are some things I have learned as a white person about my privilege that may be helpful to you. I am on a life-long journey and like forgetting that I breathe air, I often forget the immense amount of unearned benefits my skin gets me. Here some things I could do (for example) as a white person (who may want to forget I was white):

    1. I could (if I chose) use words like “turn off” to describe and dismiss a reality that in innumerable and HUGE ways will benefit me as I move through the world (including my physical, mental, and financial health). I could (if I chose) say that the reality of confronting my own daily benefits from structural racism was “inconvenient.” I could assert that it was just “not natural” for me to have to be aware of inequity and take some responsibility for it (this would make a really uplifting t-shirt about social change).

    2. I could be THIS dismissive about a word because the reality is that the real losers in this system will never be me– because I am white. I don’t even have to imagine the bigger “turn off” that (for example) a Black man in this country might face as his odds of getting kicked out of school, getting sick and dying earlier are much greater than my white counterparts. (See: http://www.vox.com/2014/8/25/6052871/why-white-skin-works-better-than-most-medicine)

    The thing is Matt, bogus means “sham” or “fake” (Webster). I think there are plenty of tangible, daily examples that remind us that white privilege is quite real. Now, you may find this reality inconvenient or a word that makes you actually have to think a bit, but that certainly doesn’t make it imaginary or “bogus.” I agree, words do have meaning and they should be used with real care.

    In our Social Work Code of Ethics (6.04) we are called to: prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person. To me–racism is unnatural and a turn off. Economic inequality is unnatural and a turn off. As social workers we are called to look at ourselves, the communities we live in and begin to work for a more just world. For me, that involves knowing that while (like global warming) I didn’t single-handedly create this fire called structural racism, I am in the mix of it all. If we as white people took it upon ourselves to really deal with racism, we would live in a transformed world. Let’s figure out how to do that together.

    Best,
    Dr. Fisher-Borne (White Lady)

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful response Dr. Fisher-Borne! My intention with using the word “bogus” was to draw attention to the term “white privilege” and raise the question: is there a different term we could use that would make the concept more accessible? Your response made me realize that I could have been more careful – and more effective – in getting to that main point of my post. I appreciate the feedback and will be more intentional on the next one.

      Related to the point you raised about our responsibility to strive for a transformed world – I have begun to internalize Time Wise’s description of this responsibility from page 23 of his book Dear White People, “I know we aren’t to blame for history – either its horrors or the legacy it has left us. But we are responsible for how we bear that legacy, and what we make of it in the present. There is a difference, and it is not a small one, between guilt and responsibility, however much and however long we may have confused the two concepts, treating them simply as synonyms. Guilt is what you feel for things you have done, while responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person you are.”

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