By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
There is a lot of talk about “white privilege,” primarily in the United States but also in some other academic and intellectual circles. Often these conversations happen among white people, often wealthy white people, talking to one another about their own privilege and trying to one-up one another by who is more in touch with condemning their own privilege. They burnish their privileged credentials through introducing themselves as a “privileged white person.” It appears self-critical but its also a call-sign, a form of reinforced white supremacy by drawing attention to their white race and class affiliations at every encounter.
White privileged people only feel comfortable around other white privileged people who feel they have white privilege. In a sense this comfort zone of privilege insulates itself from other communities, primarily poorer whites and minorities, who are not “members of the club.” The club is a way for privilege to be reinforced and replicated. It is also a way for white privileged people to stay relevant in a western world that increasingly values non-white voices and diversity. “Only whites who acknowledge their privilege are allowed” is a way to reinforce the existing privileged elites, by allowing those who have re-educated themselves properly to enter, but not merely for them to enter, but for them to exclude other white people, so that only the enlightened white privileged acknowledgers are present and have less people to compete with for attention. It’s a very keen and ironic strategy.
Invent the concept of white privileged. Then, as a privileged white person, acknowledge privilege and make acknowledgement a key to success, and then exclude most whites who don’t care to acknowledge it and, voila, white privileged people stay at the top.
In general poorer white people or those on the margins of traditional white supremacist societies, such as previous “non-whites” who have been labelled or socialized as white in the last fifty years, are suspicious of the concept of privilege. Their argument is that they are not white. This has been a key point in the “is Gal Gadot white,” discussion. We hear shouts and murmurs among groups such as Jews and Irish who say “how can I be privileged when my grandparents were sent to concentration camps for being non-white?” The rejoinder from the acknowledgers, is “society perceives you as white. When you go for a job interview you are “white,” when you go to get a mortgage or buy a home, in everyday situation, and perhaps most importantly in the US context, when stopped by law enforcement. So, yes, grandpa suffered or there was a potato famine, or in past generations Catholics were persecuted by the KKK, but today, you have entered a “white” category in America’s obsession with race, and are not privileged and should accept it.
White people from lower socio-economic brackets complain that they have little privilege. Growing up in uneducated rural areas, called “white trash” or “hicks” or “red necks” they say they have much less change of getting into college than most Americans, and why should they acknowledge “privilege” when they don’t have it. What they don’t understand is that you don’t “lose” anything by wearing the “white privilege” badge, you gain in America. Once one becomes and acknowledger, they have a road to success and they can speak like the other acknowledgers and enter the club of privilege. Resisting acknowledgement is a social harm and an economic loser. This is the great irony. White people who refuse to acknowledge, tend to be poorer than whites who acknowledge. A key to success is acknowledgement.
The layers of privilege relate to the acknowledgers, the resisters, and in their concentric circles, the wealthy and the less wealthy, the poor and the former minorities, but there are more layers of privilege between them.
Among the acknowledgers there are two distinct groups. One group is made up of those who acknowledge privilege and who are embodiments of privilege. They don’t work, they have jobs that they receive through connections, or intellectual endeavors, which means they profit often of thinking and not doing. Another group of privileged is made up of those who acknowledge but who do work, who have families, who strive, and who, while accepting the reality of privilege, have entered the mainstream of life.
But here the privilege discussion takes an interesting turn. The most privileged of the privileged seek to castigate the working-privileged by critiquing them to prevent them from critiquing the real reality of privilege. That means that the working privileged are bifurcated from the elite of the privileged in order to keep them outside the elite circle. This is because essentially, at its heart, the white privileged movement is white supremacist. It is made of layers of white privileged, at the top of which is an intellectual and commentary group of white people whose friends are all white and who insulate themselves from non-whites and from other whites, to maintain total privilege, while appeared faux-liberal. At each point along the line of acknowledgement of privilege, there is an attempt to weed out those who are basically poorer, so that the number of those who are “enlightened” is reduced to a very small number who are then “acceptable.”
This is why, for instance, the debate about privilege is mostly insular, among whites attacking other whites and critiquing them for “structural racism” or other racist issues, but mostly in order to one-up eachother, in a battle to keep a small privileged circle that is entirely white. We can see this in literary or journalistic or academic circles. Basically anywhere you have old elites, or old feudal families, or former aristocracy, you’ll find this. It has come to dominate aspects of NGO culture, non-profits, certain pieces of government bureaucracies, and other areas, often close to the financial sources of funding and money, so that it can route that money to family members, friends and other members of the circle. At its heart, not only is white supremacy, but the need to weed out enough people so that it can maintain the grip on power and the sources of finance for power. Look at film councils of various government institutions created to fund certain public projects (public art for instance), and you’ll find strictly white privilege, acknowledgers, bifurcation.
We have a society that may speak about “smashing the patriarchy” but in general it only reinforces its elite status. If you try to really “smash,” what you find is a massive angry rejoinder to that. For wealthy elites, maintaining their status is done at any cost in each generation.