In today's polarised society, the term "white privilege" has been weaponised. Ditching it may be the best way to move the conversation foward.
Origin of the term
“White Privilege” is an academic term that was supposedly coined by civil rights activist William Du Bois in the 1930s, but brought into academic prominence by anti-racism activist and writer Peggy McIntosh in her 1988 essay entitled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In the essay, Peggy wrote:
“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage….I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group…..I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”
The term “White Privilege” existed in academia without controversy for a long time because it is, academically speaking, a straightforward, logical concept. If racism puts some people at a disadvantage, it puts others at an advantage. I can’t think of any argument against that assertion. And that is exactly what Peggy wrote in that essay. In academia, there has been constructive and explorative discussions, debates and thinking about the nature of such advantages and the implications on those who possess them, those who don’t, and society at large.
Until the term was thrust into the mainstream through social media by movements like Black Lives Matter, that was the state of affairs. But, as soon as it became a social media phenomenon, like anything else in today’s polarised world, it was weaponised. A general misunderstanding of the term rose from the flames of social media sensationalism to infect two groups opposed to each other, those who want to use the term to explain and demonstrate the insidious and pervasive nature of racism and those hell-bent on denying it. On one hand, there were those who argued that not all white people were privileged, which is technically true. On the other hand, some argued that white privilege couldn’t be real if all white people did not have it. Those making such arguments presented as irrefutable evidence the struggling white people at the lower echelons of society and a handful of black and brown people who have achieved immense success and thus appear “privileged”.
Thus, amid all the noise and shouting from both sides, the term lost its academic aptness, nuance, and meaning. While some people grasped the true meaning of the term and tried to explain it to those who argued otherwise, the explanations struggled to get through. Perhaps those explanations lacked the necessary clarity and nuance or perhaps the listeners focused on and only heard the “privilege” part of the term. And if you consider the word “privilege” as it is generally defined, it is easy to see why some people could not accept that ALL white people are privileged. That is because they are not, at least not according to the dictionary definition of the word.
From what I have noticed, it is mostly two types of people who deny the existence of “white privilege”: some successful black and brown people and poor white people. But what do these two groups have in common? They both possess only one half of the phrase. Some successful black and brown people consider themselves to have privilege on account of their material success, and yet they don’t and cannot possess whiteness. On the other hand, poor white people tend to think they have whiteness but none of its promised privilege. Thus, by way of strict mathematical calculation, we can see why and how some people belonging to these two groups may struggle to balance the equation and therefore the reality and truth of something that does not seem to apply to their own lives. Notwithstanding the clear misunderstanding of “white privilege” embodied in such thinking, there may be credence to the argument that if something is not true to me or to many people, it cannot be true as a general rule. That logic is of course flawed. Innate advantages and disadvantages do exist in society.
Take professional basketball as an example. Height is an obvious advantage. But there are and have been noticeably short players. Tyrone Curtis "Muggsy" Bogues, at 5’3” feet tall, was the shortest player to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) where the average height is around 6’6”. One would feel silly to deny the “height privilege” in basketball because of players like Muggsy or because some players who are way taller than 6’6” still fail to make it into the NBA. We must keep in mind that the NBA height privilege does not mean all tall people can play and excel at basketball. It just means if you are 6’6” tall, your height is unlikely to be the reason you don’t excel as a professional basketball player. On the other hand, if you are 5’5” tall, your height is likely to be the main reason you won’t make it as a professional basketball player. Because if being tall puts some people at an advantage, being short puts others at a disadvantage. That is precisely the same as “white privilege”. In a society that gives white skin innate, invisible advantages, not having it leaves others at a disadvantage. But since the term has been poisoned and weaponised, is there a case for change?
A Case for Re-Naming
It is important to remember that “white privilege” is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is an entirely manmade social construct built over millennia of habits and beliefs of a western culture that has inferred and imparted certain rights and endowments to white people (or those considered white). Such endowments include things like presumed high self-worth, high social status, right to move/work/speak/live/behave freely, and right to assume their experiences and conditions are universal, common, and normal. By contrast those not considered white are labelled “other” and thus not automatically endowed with such qualities and freedoms.
I believe the term “white privilege” has become too contentious to remain useful, whether for academic or other purposes. It is therefore time to rename the concept. How about we call it “White Advantage”. I think that will resolve the debate about poor working-class people not having any privilege or some non-white people having it. Advantage simply implies conditions favourable to some and available to be exploited to the benefit of those who has it.
Renaming “white privilege” will likely help to advance the conversation about the impact of systemic racism, racism that has been weaved tightly into our social fabric for millennia and has thus become the fabric. It is imperative for society to reconcile the conundrum of entrenched advantage and disadvantage that exist for different groups. Western society has, whether by design or habit, bestowed certain advantages to white people. That is not the fault of any one particular white person or a specific group of white people. It just is. But we must acknowledge that reality. And we must also accept and acknowledge that advantages for some mean disadvantages for others. And those not considered white are on the disadvantage side of the ledger. But this fact, the fact that in the western world non-whites are burdened with disadvantages is not a universally accepted truth. Many people think and believe that meritocracy is real. They use the examples of successful people who are not white as evidence that the world is a level playing field where anyone can succeed. The reality however is that meritocracy is an idea, not a reality. It’s an ideal that apply only within limited subsets of society or groups where everything else is equal. But we know that it is impossible to recreate on a large-scale conditions where everything is equal and the only variables that determine success are one’s desire, commitment, and effort.
By acknowledging white advantages and non-white disadvantages we can begin to address both. We can put measures in place to reduce and eliminate disadvantages and measures to share equally in the advantages. It’s a win-win solution where no one loses. It starts with white people accepting that those different to them have the same self-worth, social status, right to move/work/speak/live/behave freely, and that others’ experiences and conditions are universal, common, and normal. We should not treat people of other races and cultures as exotic or inferior in any way. This responsibility - to recognise, acknowledge, and actively speak about the entrenched advantages and disadvantages - must primarily sit with white people. Why? Because non-white people already hold those conditions - high self-worth, high social status, right to be free and to consider one’s experiences common and normal - to be true. It is mostly white people and societies moulded on white supremacy who deny others’ reality. Thus, it is up to those who hold on to different views of reality to adjust. Also, because of the prevailing “white advantage”, white people disproportionately hold the levers of power, especially in institutions, to affect change. And it is only by equal sharing of advantages that we can build a truly equal, fair, egalitarian, and meritocratic society.