The “white privilege” debate keeps popping up. The latest story is a Jon Stewart debate with Bill O’ Reilly. The crux was that Stewart wanted Bill to “admit” his privilege.
Now let’s understand this. If there are two white men and one admits his privilege and the other doesn’t, why is there some supposition that anything has changed and that the “admission” means anything? Gotta love how the “white privilege” scam works in this way. White people who know the lingo get all teary eyed about admitting their privilege and they self-flagellate and they moan and say “I am privileged.” And then they go back to what they were doing…and get all this applause and pats on the back.
The theory is that Jon Stewart is “better” because he admitted his privilege. But why? He is the same before and after he admitted it. Is there any evidence that in environments where large numbers of white people admit their privilege that those environments are more diverse? I mean, go to an NPR or The Nation or any bastion of liberal progressive views and you find whiteness…right. I mean you find the most lily-white environments. I bet if you actually did a survey of white privilege acceptance among self-identifying white people, there would be a direct relationship between the percentage of whites and the percent accepting white privilege. So the very admission of privilege actually is a form of privilege, it is a form of exacerbating, perpetuating and enforcing it. That sounds ironic, but think about it for a minute.
Once you get a bunch of white people to say “we are privileged” and you convince them that this is somehow some major step for them in being open minded, liberal and diverse, then you’ve given them an easy way out. Just say the magic words…and, well, get the keys to the liberal kingdom.
Mychal Denzel Smith has an interesting point on this. It is worthwhile acknowledging the privilege only insofar, “that the privileged recognize their own and are then compelled to work to dismantle the structures that have bestowed privilege upon them.” But we have to be honest here. We know they aren’t working to dismantle the structures.
White privilege as an idea was coined with perhaps good or insightful intentions, but it serves sometimes to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of entrenching white supremacy and black inferiority complexes. The initial idea was, that in the wake of the Martin Luther King “content of their character” manifesto, a theory could be advanced that would posit that the continued disparities in society could easily be placed at the foot of a “privilege.” The rage against white privilege comes primarily from self-defined white people who feel somehow it casts doubt on their accomplishments, in a sort of ironic twist of how affirmative action resulted in the fact that sometimes black people who did succeed were then castigated as succeeding “because of affirmative action.” That’s the kind of binary world that has been set up now, where the African-American executive at a firm turns to the white executive and says “people say it’s because I’m black” and the white executive replies “people say its because I’m white.”
So in an ironic sense, white privilege and affirmative action have created an unlikely alliance of black and white people who see themselves as the primary arbiters of their own destiny. These are the Mohammed Ali’s of this racialized issue, who seek to eschew categorization in order to succeed.
White privilege as a theory has exacerbated the flight from whiteness as well. America’s racial genie has often posited that society is primarily divided into two artificial racial categories: “white” and “black.” In the old days, as told in Lawrence Graham’s Senator and the Socialite, there was a flight from blackness towards defining oneself as either whiter or at least passing for white. He tells the story of “Barrington Sharma” a man who assumed an Indian identity. It’s not the only tale like this, ‘Cotton Club’ and Human Stain both had this similar trope in it which anyway is similar to the real story of literary critic Anatole Broyard.
Now the situation is reversed. Barack Obama doesn’t burnish his white privilege, although in fact, he may be an unwitting recipient. A person who is a quarter African-American (Obama is not in this category obviously), might very well be a poster-child for white privilege, if one can imagine a circumstance where the quarter that is African-American they have never known, do not resemble and have been entirely brought up among whites. It’s interesting because the concept today of white privilege is not exactly based on race, it is based more on inherited connections and a variety of things that are not necessarily just about race. As Stewart pointed out, O’Reilly was a recipient of privilege by being born in Levittown, which was a white suburb. Had O’Reilly’s parents adopted an African-American child, would that child have received white privilege? That’s a complicated question also.
There are several types of white people confronting this issue of privilege then. There are those who flee whiteness and re-define themselves as a minority. This is common among groups who have been defined as white but can escape this label relatively easily, by noting that they are in fact Arabs, Jews, Armenians, Pakistanis, Puerto Ricans, or any number of groups from the “global south.”
The second group, mentioned above, are those who continue to self-define as white but maintain they are not privileged. From Bill O’Reilly to the Jewish student who discussed his family’s flight from Europe, this category notes its own hardships and struggles. Then there are the Jon Stewarts who embrace their privilege and don’t seem to do much about it (are there a lot of African-Americans working on the Jon Stewart show? Let’s wager, probably not).
America is continuing its tragic history of racial division and continues to be unable to have a full conversation about numerous racial issues. From Ferguson to the revelations that white people supposedly don’t have black friends, allegations of racism behind Kim Kardashian’s cover photo, the inability to discuss race involving a video of a woman walking around New York, to claims that voting rights are denied African-Americans, to arguments that the Ray Rice outrage was race-based.
White privilege will continue to be a piece of this puzzle. Whether or not it is a piece that will help resolve America’s twisted history of racism, or exacerbate and reinforce it, is worthwhile asking. Is it truly a helpful tool in the arsenal against entrenched racial problems, or is it a convenient “get out of jail free card” for people seeking to burnish their multi-cultural progressive credentials?