Monday, January 15, 2018

Notes On The Incoherence Of White Privilege

I wrote the following to some people I know:

Let’s for some fun start a thread going just among us. 

I suggest the theme should be “whether white privileged is a coherent idea.”

I’ll start off by trying to argue that it isn’t. 

And, so, I’ll set out at least some of  my reasons.

....Privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. “Education is a right, not a privilege"...

First this standard definition of privilege contrasts privileges and rights. What by right ought to be available to all, say a public education in Canada, is a right not a privilege. So is being treated fairly by law enforcement treated fairly and decently by business proprietors. That there’s disproportionate access among groups to what by right all should have isn’t on the above definition a privilege for those with better access. There is no special grant involved. 

I’d rather use “advantage” over “privilege” to mark this difference in access. What’s the difference? Advantage means some condition or circumstance that puts someone or a group in a better position to get a good or avoid a harm. 

Therefore, part of its utility is that it doesn’t suggest that the difference in access is based on what has been granted to anyone or any group. Advantage rather speaks to life’s lottery, the contingent working out of things. It’s a view of human difference closer, at least in Canada, to the way things are. 

Another part of the utility of advantage, is that it preserves analytical coherence when we consider all the variables that mark us apart. It’s coherent to see in different people arrays of advantages and disadvantages. But it strains common sense understanding to see in different people sets of varying privileges. 

Inflexibility impairs the assertion of privilege in encapsulating easier access. An implication in the assertion of white privilege is fixity, that every white person in virtue of being white is better off. But what can that mean if we contrast (say) an upper middle class black professional and an unemployed white high school drop out or (say) middle class blacks with the white poor? How do we make sense white privilege in these examples? If we can’t, then isn’t the idea of it incoherent.  

And let’s say Asians score higher on entrance tests than do whites and so as a proportion of their population get into good schools more than whites do. Do we then have a concept of yellow or Asian privilege? 

Do blacks have an athletic privilege?

I argue the absurdity of these questions flows logically from starting with the concept of white privilege, that is to say, what’s meant by it 

A practical point emerges here as well. The differences in access go to injustices and unfairnesses. And since we are all fellow citizens, in a sense an injustice to one of us is an injustice to all of us. We have a common interest in rooting out the sources and practices of such injustices. We’ll better be able to do that by not tagging one racial or ethnic group against another. The static fixity in the  of white privilege tends to set groups against each other rather than unite them in fighting for what’s right. 

Another problem with the assertion of white privilege is that it tends to freeze the racially or ethnically put upon, as they may see themselves, into competing  narratives of historical victimhood. 

After all, other groups have suffered, from outright depredations to daily mundane slights, simply by virtue of who they are. So, as just noted, the insistence on privilege contains an assertion of group victimization. That’s not a wrong assertion, but that it generates a kind of group formation in reaction, which at some point becomes divisively counterproductive. As Glenn Loury says and reported by George Packer: 

....I recently spoke with the social scientist Glenn Loury, who teaches at Brown University. As he sees it, if race becomes an irreducible category in politics, rather than being incorporated into universal claims of justice, it’s a weapon that can be picked up and used by anyone. “Better watch out,” he said. “I don’t know how you live by the identity-politics sword and don’t die by it.” Its logic lumps everyone—including soon-to-be-minority whites—into an interest group. One person’s nationalism intensifies tribal feelings in others, in what feels like a zero-sum game. “I really don’t know how you ask white people not to be white in the world we’re creating,” Loury said. “How are there not white interests in a world where there are these other interests?” He continued, “My answer is that we not lose sight of the goal of racially transcendent humanism being the American bedrock. It’s the abandonment of this goal that I’m objecting to.”...

So those are some of my reasons for wanting to reject the idea of white privilege as coherent. 

I look forward to any of you answering my reasons and taking them apart. 

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