White Privilege?

In the twitter community and elsewhere, there’s been a lot made of “white privilege.” While most of what’s said about what’s called white privilege is unfortunately true, I have a problem with the terminology. I don’t deny the fact that being white gives one an advantage in the U.S. over those with darker skins, or the fact that, as a society, we need to do something about it. What troubles me is that the term – “white privilege” – suggests, especially in the way it’s being currently used, that it’s a singular problem.

It’s not a singular problem; it’s one of several “privileges” or problems that have significant adverse economic, legal, and social impacts. Being white offers an advantage, ranging from considerable in some circumstances to minimal in others, but it’s a definite advantage. So is coming from a strong and supportive family background. So does having a good genetic background. So does having family wealth. So does living in a less polluted environment. All of these have significant impacts on children and how they grow up, and even into early adulthood, but no one speaks of “family privilege” or “genetic privilege” or “environmental privilege.”

Study after study has shown that growing up in a unified, supportive, and functional family has a huge beneficial impact, yet this is minimized, except, interesting enough, by religious conservatives, despite the fact that “family privilege” is an enormous factor in how successful children will be.

More and more studies have shown the significant adverse impacts created by various forms of pollution on children’s health and intelligence, and yet there’s very little society-wide outcry about the fact that, effectively, upper middle class and upper class children essentially have what amounts to geographical environmental privilege because pollution disproportionately impacts the poor and minorities. In reality, we actually practice pollution discrimination, both here in the U.S. and in our manufacturing outsourcing to third world nations.

What’s called white privilege is a definite and pervasive social (and still a legal) problem, but highlighting it obscures the other “privileges” that often have an even greater impact on society, especially on the poor and minorities.

5 thoughts on “White Privilege?”

  1. Derek says:

    While I do think there are people who misuse and abuse the term ‘white privilege,’ I think the extent of that problem is misrepresented and amplified by people who would like to ignore the issue of privilege altogether.

    I want to say that the additional issues you’ve highlighted are also addressed by what people call “intersectionality.”

    It probably doesn’t help that these issues aren’t suited to being discussed in under 140 to 280 characters.

  2. Hanneke says:

    Maybe white privilege is considered the paramount problem because lack of family wealth, living in a more polluted environment, and even having a strong and supportive family environment have been (and in some part still are) strongly influenced by policies targeted expressly at those not enjoying ‘white privilege’.

    Jim Crow, zoning laws, redlining all limited non-whites from building up family wealth, and are part of the cause for why the poor and minorities live in more polluted environments.

    Structuring the criminal system in such a way as to incarcerate proportionally many more blacks for long sentences to provide cheap labour (e.g. by the disproportionale difference in sentencing rules for the two types of cocaine – the cocaine snorted by rich white stockmarket guys was punished much less severely than the crack cocaine type most used by blacks; and the results of stop-and-frisk targeted at black people combined wuth harsh 3 strikes and you’re out laws) leads to many more black children growing up in broken homes and with moms that have to work too long hours. If 1 in 3 families all around you are struck by that (also as a part of zoning, keeping black families on an economically upward trajectory stuck in poor black neighborhoods), it’s hard to rise and easy to fall back.

    Then add the burden of extra medical bills and black mothers dying 4x as often as white ones in childbirth, because doctors ignore black peoples’ complaints more often until it’s too late or needs more costly treatment…

    All the other ‘privileges’ you mention are exacerbated by not being white, and coming from a non-white family.

  3. Hanneke says:

    If targeting the inequalities created by ‘white privilege’ means creating a better healthcare system (one that delivers affordable healthcare to everyone) and a fairer criminal justice system, that would benefit not only the non-white people suffering from lack of ‘white privilege’, but it would also benefit poor people in general, minorities,people with genetic disadvantages etc.

    In that optic, using ‘white privilege’ to call out the diverse disadvantages suffered by non-affluent, non-white men can serve as an umbrella term for most of the inequalities that need to be tackled for an equitable society to be an option.

    Except for the disadvantages of women…

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Those who are alive and not in a vegetative state can aspire to privilege of their own; they clearly haven’t been oppressed to death, at least not yet. Except when privilege is about actively denying it to certain others rather than simply as something that some have and some don’t, it’s not inherently evil.

    There will ALWAYS be privilege of some sort or another. Nature privileges some and not others. Even if we had (and trusted!) genetic therapy, magical free stuff machines, and other (unlikely!) increased assurance of outcomes, random chance will have some do better than others, not to mention the results or lack thereof of their own efforts.

    Injustice _before the law_ is a genuine problem (everywhere, but particularly in certain regions and jurisdictions). But individuals (and I’d argue even most family-owned small businesses, unless they provide life-essential services) have an absolute right to be hateful bigots, so long as they’re not actually assaulting anyone, threatening anyone, or taking or damaging anyone’s property. I certainly don’t suggest that people should behave thus, but nobody can be trusted with the power to force them not to. Anything else is already subject to criminal or civil remedy. Using it effectively is more useful than complaining. But some people (including plenty of poor white people, and even a few non-poor ones) get their kicks from complaining, or other similarly useless activities…that actually are worse than useless, along the lines of crying “wolf”.

  5. Gerald Fnord says:

    In the late 1970s I went to a public high school.
    Of my graduating class of about 600, I would estimate that about 100 smoked marijuana frequently, about 50 (mostly athletes) used quaaludes and speed illegally, and about 200 smoked marijuana infrequently. Perhaps 20 sold those drugs.

    Students’ families were intact and broken; economic status from working poor to mildly rich. Personalities ranged from the gentle to the aggressively truculent; attitudes toward education ranged from hostile to enthusiastic.

    For all our differences, none, to my knowledge, were ever arrested, much less did jail time, for drugs. All but two or three of us were considered white. I really don’t think this is just a coïncidence.

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