‘White privilege’ cannot be ignored or understated; we must promote dialogue to see ‘lasting change’

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‘White privilege’ cannot be ignored or understated; we must promote dialogue to see ‘lasting change’

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Though the concept of white privilege is not a new one — the origins go back to W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of a “psychological wage” for white workers, which he explored in his 1935 text “Black Reconstruction in America”  — it is still as relevant today as it was 80 years ago. Theodore W. Allen studied and analyzed white privilege for 40 years, beginning in the ‘60s, and Peggy McIntosh helped popularize the term in the late ‘80s.

The basic idea of white privilege, though it is impossible to accurately condense decades of research into a single sentence, is that those with white skin, especially males, are given innumerable societal advantages — not because they have earned them in some way, but because of how light their complexion is. Many white people accept that they are treated inherently better than people of color on a basic societal level, but there are plenty who do not, and tension often arises when people wade more into the gritty details of what white privilege is and what it means to our society.

In May 2014, Time published an article entitled “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” which was greeted online with much uproar. The author, an undergraduate student at Princeton University, an Ivy League school, argued that according to those who promote the concept of white privilege, “nothing [white people] have accomplished is real.”

The author goes on to explain that many of his family members were directly affected by the Holocaust, sarcastically referring to each tragedy that befell his family as a “privilege.” He talks about how hard his father worked to earn his degree from a top graduate school in order to get a good job and to provide for his family for 25 years. But the author misses the entire point of white privilege as a concept.

No one is saying that white people do not work hard to earn their overall place in life. They are saying that white people have some basic societal advantages because of their skin color. White people can generally feel safe around law enforcement. They do not have to explain to their children why society places less value on them because of the color of their skin. They are never asked to be a representative for their race as a whole. These are only a few of many examples.

The response to the concept of white privilege is comparable to that of President Obama’s now infamous “you didn’t build that” line, where he talked about how no one can be successful without the help of those around us.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said in a 2012 campaign speech in Virginia. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Obama could have been clearer in how he said it, but anyone who was truly paying attention would have realized he was saying that we as a society work together to provide goods, services and support to each other. No one can achieve success solely as a result of his or her own hard work. We rely on each other for assistance, and that is a positive, necessary thing.

It is clear that not enough people understand white privilege, and it is important that we as a society work to change that. The understanding that society values people differently based on their skin color — and their sex, sexual orientation and gender identity — is critical if we are going to have a dialogue about how to make positive changes moving forward. And we must have that dialogue. It is critical that we do. We cannot solve systemic racism overnight, but that does not give us the excuse to ignore it, to pretend that nothing is wrong.

While we have this necessary dialogue, it is important that everyone remember the importance of letting others be heard. There is a problematic phrase being used to shut down conversation on one side of the discussion, and it is something that needs to be addressed before this dialogue can take place. This phrase began with noble intentions, roughly a decade ago, as a way of reminding white people — and men, and heterosexual people and cisgender people — that they have an intrinsic societal value that places them above other classes of people.

The phrase in question? “Check your privilege.”

The problem with “check your privilege” is not that it lacks value conceptually, but that it is often used antagonistically, which stifles the potential for dialogue.

Whites, males and especially white, heterosexual, cisgender males, have an enormous advantage over people of other races, sexual orientations and gender identities. Many people accept that as reality. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that “check your privilege” is no longer just an idea that promotes awareness of the unearned societal advantages of white people. It may have started out that way, but it has evolved, sadly, into a general ad hominem attack against people who are more privileged, and that is driving a wedge further into this divide.

When people are attacked for who they are and not for the ideas they espouse — which is one of the things we are all trying to prevent in the first place — they tend to either retaliate or completely shut down. Neither of those responses is helpful to anyone involved, but they happen, and they happen often.

Therefore, it is important to keep in mind the way people will react to what we say. We should not tailor everything we say to others because that gets away from the idea of “free speech,” but it is still important to recognize how others view the things we say. If someone says, “check your privilege,” to another person, what exactly are they expecting the response to be? It’s rarely, if ever, going to be a positive one.

Taking “check your privilege” off the table is not about placing white people’s feelings above the lives of people of color, which is an argument people have made in the past. It is about harboring the potential for constructive dialogue. Ad hominem attacks, however nobly the ideas behind them may be, do nothing to strengthen the community or promote dialogue.

Buzzwords are quick and to the point, but they are not always the positive things that people want them to be. Phrases like “check your privilege” are doing more harm than good because they effectively shut down one side of the argument, thus killing the dialogue.

Like it or not, social justice reform cannot and will not come about without the aid of those in power. Therefore, we must listen to all sides of the situation in order to enact lasting change — change we desperately need. That potential for change is worth shelving the buzzwords and allowing the real dialogue to shine through.