The Privilege of Checking White Privilege

When students are compelled to have “White Privilege 101” classes, we have every right to ask: Why, and for whose benefit?

03.15.15 10:45 AM ET

If you’ve been white lately, you have likely been confronted with the idea that to be a good person, you must cultivate a guilt complex over the privileged status your race enjoys.

It isn’t that you are doing, or even quite thinking, anything racist. Rather, your existential state of Living While White constitutes a form of racism in itself. Your understanding will serve as a tool … for something. But be careful about asking just what that something is, because that will mean you “just don’t get it.”

To be sure, there is, indeed, a distinct White Privilege. Being white does offer a freedom not easily available to others. You can underperform without it being ascribed to your race. And when you excel, no one wonders whether Affirmative Action had anything to do it. Authority figures are likely to be your color, and no one associates people of your color with a propensity to violence. No one expects you to represent your race in a class discussion or anywhere else.

These are the basics of White Privilege, disseminated in key campus texts such as Peggy McIntosh’s foundational “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” from 1988. It’s become a meme of Blue America’s mental software, recently focused by the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

But “White Privilege” is more than just a term these days. For example, some of New York City’s elite private schools are giving White Privilege lessons to their student bodies, teaching them, for example, that when affluent white students talk about their expensive vacations this could be hurtful to students of color from humbler circumstances. The Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service kicked off its community meetings in Ferguson with White Privilege teachings. There are college courses, and even a yearly conference. White Privilege is suddenly a hot topic and cottage industries have sprung up around it.

However, one can thoroughly understand how racism works and still ask just what this laser focus on “White Privilege” is meant to achieve.

“This is messy work, but these conversations are necessary,” says Sandra Chapman, director of diversity and community at Little Red School House in New York City. OK—but why? Note that the answer cannot be, “So that whites will understand that they are the privileged … etc.” That makes as much sense as saying “Because!” So I’m going to dare to ask a simple question: What exactly are we trying to achieve with this particular lesson?


I assume, for example, that the idea is not to teach white people that White Privilege means that black people are the only group of people in human history who cannot deal with obstacles and challenges. If the idea is that black people cannot solve their problems short of white people developing an exquisite sensitivity to how privileged they are, then we in the black community are being designated as disabled poster children.

On the American version of The Office, Michael Scott fakes a physical disability and solicits sympathy from black salesman Stanley, designating him as “disabled” by “obstacles” because of his color. “I am not disabled and neither are you,” grouses Stanley—and in the scene, he is the wise one and Scott is the buffoon. But those urging us to think about White Privilege are not buffoons.

Is the goal to urge people into activism against the conditions that afford whites their privilege? White Privilege spokespersons would surely agree. After all, the White Privilege Conference’s website noting that it is “About Creating Change.”

But two things seem hard to miss.

First, making a lot of the changes White Privilege tutors seem to suggest would tie us up into knots, especially in the educational realm. If no one asks black people to comment on racial issues, then the charge will be that whites are turning a blind eye to … White Privilege. As to discomfort from being suspected of being an Affirmative Action hire, to have any but the tiniest of criticisms of racial preferences is considered blasphemy, displaying an ignorance of … White Privilege.

I went to a private school in the ’70s with white kids happily talking about their vacations and lavish bar mitzvahs; some of them had VCRs before I even knew what one was. For what it’s worth, I did not feel hurt that I didn’t live on their scale. And in any case, what good would it have done to tell these white kids to not talk around black kids about their toys and trips? Wouldn’t that have implied that kids like me were pathologically delicate, and wouldn’t the next complaint have been that white kids were holding themselves back from the black kids, i.e. segregating themselves, ignorant of … White Privilege?

Second, it’s hard not to notice that amid the White Privilege rhetoric, the activist goal is largely implied. Obviously, no one puts it that way, but as those interested in White Privilege know so well when it comes to racism, what people say is often an approximate reflection of their true feelings and intents. McIntosh’s essay refers in passing to something as hypothetical as the “redesign of social systems” at the end of her tome, calling whether we want to seek such a thing “an open question.” The discussion hasn’t changed much since 1988. The White Privilege Conference bills itself as being about “understanding, respecting, and connecting.” Those are all admirable aims but they apply to the White Privilege teach-ins, not applying the lessons to actually changing society. White Privilege puts a laser focus on the awareness raising. The awareness raising is what it is about.

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Of course, the idea is supposedly that we need to disseminate this awareness of White Privilege before we can start on the political part of the project. But the case for White Privilege as a necessary prelude to change relies on a premise that America is a nation “in denial” about racism past and present. That premise has rhetorical punch, but doesn’t comport with reality.

Take the usual phrasing that America needs a “conversation” on race. Our country engages in an endless “conversation” about race year round, in the media, academia, and barstool talk, while schools, museums, the media, the publishing industry, and government organizations treat coverage, exploration and deploring of, as well as apology for, racism as ingrained aspects of their mission.

Many foreign observers would be baffled by the notion that this is a nation that refuses a “conversation” about race or even racism—just last year involved fervent discussions of not only police brutality, but microaggression, gentrification, the N-word, reparations, and much more. The fact that this conversation doesn’t lead to all whites bowing down to all black complaints, an outcome tacitly desired by a certain cadre of academics and journalists, does not disqualify it as a conversation.

The question, then, becomes: Precisely what benefit do White Privilege 101 lessons add to all of what there already is? (Again, “knowing about White Privilege” is not an answer.) What are we hoping will happen in the wake of these lessons that hasn’t been happening before, and crucially, upon what evidence has that hope been founded?

America is by no means post-racial, but it is not 1960 either; change happens. Example: The U.S. Justice Department has officially faulted the Ferguson police department for discriminatory ticketing and could even shut it down. I cheer that development, but the protests over the Michael Brown verdict, magnified by social media, are what created this attention. The White Privilege lessons the DOJ’s outreach body imposed just made local whites angry. What popped the lock was good Old-Fashioned Civil Rights law. What’s the gain from White Privilege rhetoric?

And yet, quite often to even ask a question like that is heatedly dismissed as missing the point.

* * *

This is what suggests that the activism part is, indeed, not the real point. There are some key giveaways. White Privilege 101 lessons require endless reiteration of key principles to retain. In many ways, taking them from words to action is such a logically fragile proposition that it must be billed as endlessly “subtle” (or “messy”)—a strange kind of pitch for something supposedly so urgent. And those questioning the whole affair are heatedly dismissed as “not getting it.” It all sounds familiar—but less as politics than as religion.

Politics is about society. Religion, however, is personal. The White Privilege paradigm seems to be more about feelings than action.

In a society where racism is treated as morally equivalent to pedophilia, what whites are seeking is the sweet relief of moral absolution. Inside they are pleading, “Please don’t hate me!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an accompanying feeling of purification (redemption, even) that comes with such consultant-given absolution. I can honestly say that I would be engaging in exactly this kind of moral self-flagellation about racism if I were white in today’s America.

However, not being white, I can’t help but see it from a different perspective.

 If “I know that I’m privileged!” is a statement made largely for one’s own sense of security, then it’s unclear to me how, say, the private school programs’ White Privilege sessions are “challenging” White Privilege, as the Times story’s headline put it. Semi-coerced self-interest rather than genuine enlightenment or understanding seems to be the vehicle for this racial revelation.

And as for the black folks committed to fostering awareness of White Privilege, I frankly wish so many whites weren’t interested in this, because it ends up enabling us in some bad old habits. When your people have been enslaved for centuries followed by another century of lynching, Jim Crow, and worse, the racial ego suffers. A suffering ego is ripe for using the status of the Noble Victim as a crutch; you gain a sense of worth in being a survivor of the evil one’s depredations. The Noble Victim is in control—of the conversation, as it were, of the parameters of moral judgment.

The Noble Victim, most certainly, matters. He is, in a sense, whole. But meanwhile, no one gets a job; no one gets fed; little tangible progress is actually made. The Struggle, as it used to be called, sits on hold.

The White Privilege 101 course seems almost designed to turn black people’s minds from what political activism actually entails. For example, it’s a safe bet that most black people are more interested in there being adequate public transportation from their neighborhood to where they need to work than that white people attend encounter group sessions where they learn how lucky they are to have cars. It’s a safe bet that most black people are more interested in whether their kids learn anything at their school than whether white people are reminded that their kids probably go to a better school. Given that there is no evidence that White Privilege sessions are a necessary first step to change (see above), why shunt energy from genuine activism into—I’m sorry—a kind of performance art?

Indeed, as Barney Frank writes in his new memoir: “If you care deeply about an issue, and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.” The White Privilege movement should take heed.

* * *

It is often assumed that someone expressing views like these has roughly the take on race of Samuel Jackson’s character in Django Unchained. Not. I am neither criticizing activism nor saying that everybody needs to just pull themselves up by those proverbial bootstraps.

I get too much hate mail from the right to submit gracefully to the sellout label. I deplore the War on Drugs, linguistic discrimination against black people, and naïve dogma that keeps poor black kids from learning to read. I support prisoner re-entry programs, supported the Ferguson protests ardently, and was behind Barack Obama earlier than many black writers. I have never voted Republican in my life.

However, I firmly believe that improving the black condition does not require changing human nature, which may always contain some tribalist taints of racism. We exhibit no strength—Black Power—in pretending otherwise. I’m trying to take a page from Civil Rights heroes of the past, who would never have imagined that we would be shunting energy into trying to micromanage white psychology out of a sense that this was a continuation of the work of our elders. I am not “being a contrarian” or “stirring up the pot”—I do not consider this a renegade position. Plenty of ordinary black people nationwide would agree with me on the difference between White Privilege teach-ins and continuing the struggle.

For that reason, I question this particular focus on sessions, modules, readings, and talks commanding whites to reflect endlessly about their privileged status. When parents are watching their 8-year-olds herded into racial groups for White Privilege teach-ins, they are neither racist nor “privileged” in being angry (especially since a lot of them aren’t what would have been considered “white” a decade or more ago). They deserve civil answers to their questions. The white high schooler who doesn’t get why she needs to be smilingly commanded to recognize her status as an unjustly “privileged” white person is not a racist because she doesn’t “get” it. She deserves to be given a rationale, and if that rationale is essentially a repetition of the White Privilege lesson paradigm, then we need to ask some more questions.

So let’s start this stage of our “dialogue on race” with a simple question: When our mandated diversity director says, “This is messy work, but these conversations are necessary,” we have every right, as moral persons, to ask: Why, and for whose benefit?