Letters Between Friends: To Jeremy C. on White Privilege (Part 1)

My friend recently linked and article on the topic of white privilege and asked:

“I don’t feel bad for having what we call ‘white privilege.’ What I hate is that it isn’t a universal privilege.

From my experience, this list seems absolutely correct. But I still don’t fully understand the issue because I have never, to my knowledge, been the victim of racial discrimination. I’m interested to see what others have to say. Do you agree? What have been the worst issues that you’ve noticed?”

Dear Jeremy,

The article that you linked is a very bad starting point for any serious and productive discussion of white privilege. It strikes me as a piece written to get a laugh out of people who already understand and acknowledge white privilege more than anything else. I hope you don’t mind if I side step the article for the most part and instead respond in two posts. In this first post, I want to cover white privilege and in the next I will cover your questions more directly. If I cover stuff you are familiar with or know well, I apologize, I do not mean to assume anyone’s ignorance, but I have included some basic explanations/concepts so it is clear what I am saying.

White People and Whiteness

First, I want to be clear on two terms and concepts.

Before European colonialism the concept and racial category of “white people” did not exist. The various cultures of Europe were divided from each other along cultural, linguistic, political and economic lines. The concept of “white people” as a distinct racial category developed over time and came into use after European colonialism and broader contact with the rest of the world.

The ethnic category of “white” and the common use of “white people” refer to persons of European heritage who have lighter/white skin. When I say white people, this is what I mean, someone who is thought of as “ethnically white.”

Closely related to the concept of “white people” is the concept of whiteness, which I have written about elsewhere. Whiteness can be thought of a culture or worldview that was created after European colonialism. The traditions, values, beliefs and practices of this culture come from many European traditions, especially English ones. Someone who embodies these values, sees the world through this lens, and is loyal to its traditions and practices might be thought of as “culturally white.”

While very closely related and even synonymous at certain points in our history it is important to remember that these concepts are not exactly the same thing.  There are white people who have a culture other than whiteness and there are people of color (such as myself) whose primary culture would be whiteness.

(As an aside, I am technically half white and half Filipino ethnically/genetically/biologically, I am clearly a person of color to any who see me, and I would consider myself mostly white culturally due to my worldview and how I was raised. Point being race and any serious discussion of it gets complex fast.)

Race Relations in the U.S.A.

The United States has a history marred by racial injustice. No one can deny that for many decades (centuries?) the social, legal and political systems in the colonies and the United States inherently and overtly thought of white people as superior to people of color. White supremacy was not just socially acceptable, but coded into the structures of our nation. Because of this white people could, and did, perpetrate many outrageously unjust and evil practices against people of color with social and legal impunity. The genocide of Indigenous nations and the enslavement of West Africans are perhaps the two most glaring examples of this.

Over the centuries race relations in the United Sates have improved but this improvement has not been a simple “bad to good” scenario. Often the stage for change is set when some unjust racial dynamic is made illegal but the underlying social attitudes remain relatively unchanged. These underlying attitudes often lead to the same racial injustice manifesting again, only in a more socially acceptable and legal way. The evolution of Jim Crow after the abolition of slavery and the impunity with which white people lynched black persons are examples of this.

The Civil Rights era, as with other pivotal moments in U.S. history, made a lot of legal and social progress.  However, many underlying social attitudes and beliefs about race have not changed and we live in an era where we are seeing them manifest in different ways, some of which are legal and socially acceptable. The mass incarcerations of people of color, and their use as unpaid labor, in the for-profit prison industry is an examples of this.

All of this, and my own personal experiences, incline me to believe that we need to have a more candid and thorough discussion of race and race relations in the U.S.A.  So I’m glad you put this out there and I hope that my perspective can give you something to think about.

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Racial Discrimination and Racial Privilege

When we discuss racism we often only discuss racial discrimination. That is the selective discrimination, marginalization or unjust treatment of a person based on their race. However, when discussing racism and race relations in the U.S.A. we need to also talk about racial privilege, that is the selective privileging and benefits of person may enjoy based on their race. These are two sides of the same coin.

When we talk about racial discrimination we are talking about anti-black, anti-Asian, anti-Hispanic (etc.) discrimination as these are the ethnic minorities in the U.S.A. who have historically and currently faced problems due to their race. When we talk about racial privilege we are talking about white privilege because that is the race (white people) and culture (whiteness) that have dominated the social, legal, economic, aesthetic and political landscape of our nation historically and for the most part presently as well.

White Privilege: The benefits of being the people/culture of reference.

The existence and nature of white privilege is debated in society and more academically within critical race theory. I’m just going to offer my understanding of it, but hope that you research and read other explanations of it yourself.

The best way that I can explain it is that white privilege is the benefit white people shaped by whiteness experience by being the people of reference in our society.

As I have written elsewhere, contrary to how we commonly understand our nation, the U.S.A. is a mono-cultural nation and “whiteness” is the dominant culture. In an environment where the lingering impacts of our extreme and overt history of white supremacy, and new more socially acceptable (or unacknowledged) form of white supremacy, white people in the US who are shaped by whiteness are the gold standard by which all others are judged by and expected to emulate.

What does being the people of reference get you?

In this situation, white people shaped by whiteness experiences two forms of white privilege.

First, they do not encounter the criticism, marginalization and racial discrimination that people of color encounter.

People of color are expected to assimilate to the culture of whiteness as much as possible. This assimilation covers everything from language, dress, expression of emotion, family values, relationship to land, relationship to food and so on.

While some benefits of being white are still directly tied to white skin and European heritage, generally speaking the more people of color adopt “whiteness,” the easier it is for them to move within this society and the less obstacles they face. When people of color fail or refuse to adopt “whiteness” or some aspects of it, they face criticism, criminalization and racial discrimination. They can also face racial discrimination no matter how assimilated they are.

If you are already white and already shaped by whiteness you are never at risk for any of these pressures, challenges or issues.

Second, there are passive benefits from living in a society made for people like you.  

You will not be pressured and expected to change who you are, your loyalties, your sensibilities or your looks to be able to participate meaningfully in society. Numerous exploitive systems are not directly aimed at your community, so instead of addressing and working to overcome them, your energy and resources can be aimed at whatever you please. Your standards of beauty are society’s standards of beauty, so you have to strive and change less. Your culture at home is also the culture at school, work, and in a variety of professional and playful contexts. You do not face difficulty navigating their spoken or unspoken conventions in those contexts and you do not face ostracization for being unable or unwilling to follow them. When you turn on the T.V. you will find a plethora of positive representations of your race. Your children will never lack for heroes of the same skin color they can identify with in cartoons, books, and toys. If you should ever get into legal trouble, you can be reasonably confident that you will receive a fair trial and have a decent chance of exonerating yourself from any false accusations. When it comes time to participate in democracy you, and other white people, will not face laws designed to keep white people from voting. It will therefore be easier for you and other white people to pursue political agendas that pertain to your demographic. Those highest and most influential people in almost all aspects of our society (law, commerce, art, media, politics, etc.) are people like you or highly assimilated people of color, so the chances of any concerns you have due to your race being overlooked or not taken care of are almost non-existent. Etc.

White privilege does not mean…

Every white person is rich. White privilege does not mean every white person is handed $500,000 at birth just for being white. No one is saying that. There are many poor white people and poor white communities throughout the United States. Part of that is because there are more dimensions of exploitation and reasons for poverty than just race.

White people never face hardship. Some white people certainly face hardship.

Every white person just got everything they have because they are white. White privilege doesn’t mean white people are incapable of personal achievement through their own hard work and merit. White privilege says that social mobility and success are easier to achieve for white people, but that doesn’t make it a guarantee or a free ride.

Every white person happily enjoys the unjust fruits of white privilege. People can benefit from privileges without necessarily agreeing with where they came from. One individual white person is also not in control of race relations in the United States and codes of white supremacy which have long been entrenched and encoded in society. They are responsible for how they respond to the situation though.

Every white person is a white supremacist. Whiteness and the social, political and legal structures surrounding it that privilege white people are indeed part of a larger institutional white supremacy that exists in the United States. We often fail to call this for what it is because we think of white supremacy as only something that Neo-Nazis or the KKK are involved in. However, saying this does not mean that every white person in the U.S. personal subscribes to the notion that white people are inherently superior to all other races and it certainly doesn’t mean they are irredeemable racist hates other cultures and wants to bring back slavery. That being said, even progressive white people and people of color, who would soundly condemn various forms of discrimination including racial discrimination, can consciously or unconsciously support the very systems white supremacy that operate in the U.S.

White People and the Denial/Dismissal of White Privilege

Some white people, when they encounter the concept of white privilege balk at the concept and vehemently deny it, or honestly don’t see it in their lives or our society. I think this is to be expected for two reasons.

“Don’t as a fish about water.” This is an old Chinese proverb that basically means we do not understand, acknowledge or appreciate those things which we have been steeped in all our life. White people shaped by the culture of whiteness see their culture, views, practices and traditions as normal. This is never challenged because the larger society around them is shaped by the exact same culture. This results in a situation where people who intuitively and routinely act according to the culture/worldview of “whiteness” can nevertheless be unable to describe it or articulate even some of its basic aspects. I mean have you ever stopped and asked: “What is my relationship to the land?” or “How do I view and define family?” It is expected then that white people shaped by whiteness will not recognize that they are the person of reference because they’ve never been pressured to change into something else to participate in society.

Meritocracy. The second reason this rejection is to be expected is because the U.S.A really reinforces the myth of meritocracy, the belief that everything someone has they deserve or have earned through hard work. This is why a white person who sees and recognizes racial discrimination (and thinks its wrong) might be adamant they have received no easier time making it in America due to their race because such a belief would impinge upon their belief that everything they have they have earned through hard work and merit. This would conflict with their positive self image and variety of others views, attitudes, biases and even prejudices that are part of their worldview and identity.

In my next post I want to turn more to your questions and your comment about feeling guilty about white privilege.

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About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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