While Critical Race Theory has taken hold over the past few years in many universities there is now a push back from people taking a class and materialist perspective. Cathy Young looks at this hot topic.
The Problem With “White Privilege” Discourse
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. Read the rest of the article