The Bugaboo of White Privilege
I’ve had enough and just can’t keep quiet about this any longer. I’m sick of hearing people infer that if you are white, you are somehow privileged. Mitt Romney is, but that’s just one guy and I know he is because I lived in Michigan when his father was Governor.
My father kept his 1962 Funk and Wagnalls with him whenever he read, so he could look up words he didn’t know. I inherited the dictionary. When I began to hear and read about “white privilege,” I decided to start at the beginning and looked it up in Dad’s dictionary, but it wasn’t in there. I could find “white” and “privilege” separately, of course, but not together. It’s not that dictionaries don’t have compound phrases: White Matter and White Lie and many others appear.
I could only find a definition in two places: on Wikipedia and in the Urban Dictionary.
Wikipedia: In critical race theory, white privilege is a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses as much on the advantages that white people accrue from society as on the disadvantages that people of color experience.
Urban Dictionary: 1. The racist idea that simply being white benefits people in some unexplainable way, and that discriminating against white people is not only okay, but enlightened and necessary. The excuse some extremists use to justify pretty much any level of racism, as long as it is coming from people of color. 2. Essentially it’s the claim that being white affords one access to universal, institutional, or systematic advantages…” 3. A term used as a blanket condemnation of any success a white person may have.
Also from Urban Dictionary on white privilege: You cannot measure it, and it has no specific concrete definition to provide a basis for proof of its existence, it has not, and can never be proven to exist, but if you question it, you’re called “ignorant” (in reality you are a skeptic) and the fact that you questioned it in the first place is further proof that you have “White privilege.”
I like the Merriam-Webster’s Student Dictionary definition of plain old privilege the best: “A right or liberty granted as a favor or benefit especially to some and not others.”
So, we all know what is, is not, that it can never be proved, and that I’ll be called “ignorant” for bringing it up.
In the last few months, I began to hear more and more about white privilege in academic writings more and more. Then people would type it in chatrooms on the Internet. I was doing a blog radio interview when I noticed someone in the chat room had made a nasty comment about how my references to “we” meant those of white privilege. I explained that when I say “we,” I’m talking about Project RACE. I am not the spokesperson for an organization called “Project White Privileged People.”
I’m quite used to receiving students’ inquiries about whether I will agree to be interviewed for their middle school paper, masters’ thesis, or PhD. dissertation. Sometimes I can accommodate them, other times I cannot. We also get requests for multiracial candidates for all kinds of studies, which we usually post on our website.
One inquiry came in recently that went to the heart of white privilege. The working title of the dissertation is White Mothers’ Advocacy for their Biracial Sons and Daughters in US Schools: Colliding with White Privilege. Huh? She went on to explain that the study is to explore the ways in which white privilege impacts us white mothers while we are in the school setting with our multiracial kids.
What in the world is this woman talking about? No white mother I ever knew who advocated for her children ever needed strategies to deal with white privilege. It doesn’t matter if we are single, non-single, biological, or adoptive mothers, we are advocating for our multiracial children, not worrying about how white privilege, if there is such a thing, is impacting us. Why is academia going there? Are we supposed to be guilt-laden? For what? And by the way, not all multiracial advocacy moms are white.
Other queries we get are from doctoral students who are looking for very specific types of people for their studies. One I got recently I honestly thought was a joke. The writer explained that she was doing a study on biracial leaders. They have to be exclusively black and white, and have been in a leadership or supervisory role. Reading the long email, I thought she was looking for biracial leaders in the biracial or multiracial movement. Those of us in the movement know that we can count our leadership on one hand. Then I read it again and realized she just wanted black/white biracial leaders in any capacity, at work, church, or school. We don’t keep that kind of information about our members. But what really made me wonder about this one was that these multiracial subjects have to be living in places like Iowa and South Dakota. I wished her the best of luck. At least she didn’t have to worry about getting people who were dealing with white privilege.
I actually found, in my non-academic research for this piece, a “White Privilege Checklist” by Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. McIntosh describes white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Whoa, wait a minute. I decided to check into just a few of those items on her checklist to see how it relates to me, a white woman. Here we go:
#6: I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the food I grew up with, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.
#6 RESPONSE: Music shops and video stores have gone away, unable to compete price-wise with the big chain stores. I can’t find any of the food I grew up with at any local supermarket, and I have to drive an hour to my hairdresser, but he’s worth the drive.
#14: I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk with the “person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
#14 RESPONSE: Most of my business is conducted online or via cell or landline phone. I have no idea what race the person is who I talk to. Some have more ethnic sounding names than others, but I never assume anyone is anything.
#16: I can easily by(sic) posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
#16 RESPONSE: Why would I want to? Mostly I buy those things that have pictures of my dog’s breed on them. Yes, he’s white and lives a very nice life.
Where you find talk about white privilege, you often also unfortunately find references to white supremacy. I could find a lot of references on the subject, but this is not an academic paper and I don’t have to cite anyone. I will add a few juicy quotes just so all the professors know I really have been paying attention.
Quote #1: Stephanie M. Wildman (in her book Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America), “Many Americans rely on a social or financial inheritance from previous generations, an inheritance unlikely to be forthcoming if one’s ancestors were slaves.
Quote #1 Response: No way! I can honestly say I do not know one white person who received an inheritance. I do know one black person who did and it was a whopper. It’s ridiculous to think we (white people in this case) get fabulous inheritances from our families.
Quote #2: Thomas Shapiro argues that wealth is passed along from generation to generation, giving whites a better “starting point” in life than other races.
Quote #2 Response: See Quote #1 response plus you wouldn’t believe the number of white babies on WIC.
Quote #3: Deidre A. Royster in Race and the Invisible Hand,” Racialized employment networks can benefit whites at the expense of blacks.”
Quote #3 Response: The reverse is often said about affirmative action and quota systems
Quote #4: Patricia J. Williams wrote in The Alchemy of Race and Rights that “The Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood are the major unions among prison guards.”
Quote #4: All this time I was sure it was the drug lords. Who would know something like that, anyway? It’s hardly a Trivial Pursuit question.
Quote #5: Shelby Steele thinks that the effects of white privilege are exaggerated and that irresponsibility is a larger problem for blacks, who may incorrectly blame their personal failures on white oppression.
Quote #5 Response: Oh that Shelby. He was just sayin’….
Quote #6: Michael Davis wrote, “In about 30 years, whites will no longer make up the majority of the American population. Racial Supremacy or racial dominance is a social and systemic phenomenon; and is not based on relative population…So, when some white people begin to classify themselves as a ‘racial minority,’ given the pending demographic shift, we must be ready to have an open and honest dialogue about that topic.”
Quote #6: I hope he’s right.
One of my favorite sayings, and I wish I knew who originally said it, is this: Really, it all comes down to the bugaboo called money.
Academia has tried to discredit advocates for the past 22 years or longer. Are they really so insecure that they have to pick on the activists who get the jobs done so they can write their papers about us? I don’t know why they have to do so much academic posturing, anyway. One such academic was recently given an award for his lifetime of service to the multiracial community. The problem is that his “lifetime of service” consisted of writing one letter to one Congressional subcommittee back in 1993.
Academia ain’t always right. One academician tried to discredit me by publishing in her dissertation/subsequent book that I have a picture of myself with Newt Gingrich in my living room. Wow. For the record, no such picture ever existed in my home and I’m not a Republican—and never have been.
If the goal of some of the academics is to make us white folks feel discriminated against, maybe it’s working, but that’s different from making us feel guilty for being white. No one will ever make me feel guilty about being a white woman leader in the multiracial advocacy movement.
I think there is room for everyone to make a difference in the lives of multiracial children, but not by putting advocates down. Some people teach and some people do. We need more of those who do both. Come on in.