Every year, there is a “White Privilege Conference” somewhere (next year it is in Iowa), where program organizers and attendees gather to lament “white privilege” and promise to “create change.” But unless the “white privilege” argument is dropped, we’ll always have racism, discrimination, and not enough allies to defeat such a scourge.
“Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do,” writes Peggy McIntosh on the White Privilege Conference site. “Access to privilege…is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.”
Such an argument is as odious as the assumption that someone who is non-white can only succeed due to affirmative action, taking anyone’s success as attributable only to skin color.
“White Privilege is the other side of racism,” Paula Rothenberg adds on that site. “Unless we name it, we are in danger of wallowing in guilt or moral outrage with no idea of how to move beyond them.” Actually, such a concept does little more than provoke a wallowing in guilt and moral outrage. It’s hard to see how it doesn’t. And such a guilt-based approach will do little to build an alliance against discrimination.
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“It is often easier to deplore racism and its effects than to take responsibility for the privileges some of us receive as a result of it…once we understand how white privilege operates, we can begin addressing it on an individual and institutional basis,” Rothenberg concludes.
These conference organizers have little understanding of how to build an alliance. Having researched these, I can tell you that alliances are based on mutual interests, not guilt.
Blacks face more discrimination than whites, but you’ll be hard pressed to find many whites who haven’t experienced some sort of discrimination, where the person was judged on something other than his or her talent, ability, ideas, character, and instead by what group the person belongs to, the gender, region, age, party you support, etc.
Essentially, someone who is African-American may swim in a pool with 10 sharks, while someone white faces three sharks in his or her pool. We’d all prefer a pool with fewer sharks, but neither environment is safe. Rather than focus only on how unfair it is that someone faces seven more sharks to swim with, shouldn’t we figure out how to have a shark-free pool?
Allies are key to winning any struggle against injustice. Freedom Rider Hank Thomas told us in a speech at LaGrange College that during WWII that “The Allies” won the war, and we need allies in the fight for civil rights.
Someone who hears he or she is “privileged” is more likely to (falsely) believe it is true, defend the status quo, perpetuating the system, and not push for change. The smart strategy is to show whites that they too face discrimination, it’s insidious, and shows how the system needs change.
Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this better than the organizers of this unproductive conference. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” he said, and for a good reason. Because if one can discriminate against a black person, that discriminator will also target whites he or she doesn’t like, and pretty soon, it will get around to every reader of this column.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.