Tuesday, January 16, 2018

More Back And Forth On “White Privilege”


Some thoughts in a discussion between and among friends on white privilege.


I looked back at what I'd written and realized I've evaded your distinction between privilege and advantage, and I thought I should try to address it. As I understand it, you're saying something like, privilege is socially constituted, whereas advantage is natural. If I've got that right, then I'd agree with the first part but not entirely with the second, in that I think the point of privilege is that it constitutes a kind of (socially constructed) advantage -- all privileges are advantages, i.e., but not all advantages are privileges. And a particular kind of privilege, white or otherwise, needn't be absolute, meaning that it needn't override or overcome all other privileges or advantages in order to still be a privilege and at least questionable as to whether it's fair or unfair. So, for example, some whites might be worse off than some non-whites, but still possess an unfair advantage/privilege just because of their whiteness. Whether that's actually the case or not, of course, is open to question, but it's not incoherent in itself.

That said, however, I agree entirely with your more practical points against the concept of "white privilege", and your and Loury's points about the terrible politics of identity that it deepens, with its potential for blowback. That's where the real arguments are to be made, imo.


Maybe the philosopher among us is better able than I am to cut incisively to the chase here.

Regardless here goes.

I agree that all privileges are advantages and not necessarily vice versa.

I tend to think the natural/socially constituted distinction has to hold as a necessary but may not be a sufficient condition of the difference. 

We can be born into privilege. So to be born into great wealth and have all the benefits great wealth can confer is an example of that. But is it in that sense natural as opposed to socially constituted? I don’t think so. And we may be born with exceptional intelligence, which then allows us to thrive. We wouldn’t in common sense usage, I don’t think, call that being born into privilege. 

Complication can come from the element of social constitution: for instance the great natural gifts we’re born with may not be relevant to our particular society. Say great poetic gifts or say great math acumen in a primitive society. So social value impinges on what is extraordinary about us, if anything happens to be. 

Is it a privilege to be born beautiful or extremely handsome, and let’s assume great good things come our way as a result? My sense is no. Why? I guess because it’s something we’re born with. So the difference may, in some of these examples at least, be between “born into” and “born with.” 

It’s the impinging of social value on particular circumstances, say being born white in present day North America, that leads to much confusion. Where one’s circumstances are akin to something like being born into marked wealth and are akin to the social structures markedly favouring those circumstances, like being born into the aristocracy, then we can sensibly speak of privilege. 

But there are a whole host judgments involved in that. In different times and places, under different circumstances, the ascription of privilege will be easy,  grey or mistaken. So in the slave owning slave owning south, white privilege for being in the slave owning class seems generally an easy call. 

What about between reconstruction through to the 1960s civil rights legislation? I’d think so, though grayer. 

What about after? 

I’d think less and less till none as such. 

So de jure advantage is a constituent of privilege for those advantaged. And so too is a culture of unjust norms, values and practices regardless of formal equality. 

But where there is formal equality and generally cultural equality, i.e. norms, values and practices that generally favor equal treatment, then it make no sense to speak of white privilege. (And so mightn’t incoherence lie disjunctively either in the very meaning of the term *or* in its application?)

What I’m lumbering/meandering towards is *trying* get at definitively and succinctly the core difference between privilege and advantage and then move outward from there to the inapplicability of white privilege to North American life.

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