“White privilege” as an irritant when talking about race…

An old friend left me a question on my post of Nick Kristof’s column on Facebook:



The question is asked by someone whom I know is well-meaning, thoughtful and truly wants to see the dialog on race get ahead, rather than continue at the standstill it is at now.

The term “white privilege,” in my opinion and that of many a social scientist, describes very well the underlying problems it was devised to convey. Being white entitles one to a life that someone who isn’t white simply does not get to live, by virtue of the color of their skin. Full stop.

It was never intended to sound nice or to evoke nice things. What it describes underlies a very long and very ugly chapter in the as-of-yet finished book of life in America, and a state of being that all too many white Americans are completely unaware, if not oblivious of. India’s comment in reply to Kristof illustrates that view to a T:


Now, there are those who fully understand what undergirds “white privilege” and bristle at the thought of being held responsible for centuries old events and their consequences. Fair enough. I have some counter-arguments:

  • While your ancestors may not have profited directly from the slave trade and may have arrived much later, America was built on slavery and we still benefit from its ill-gotten fruit.
  • It’s been decades since the Civil Rights Act was passed, why can’t Blacks just get it together? They’ve had plenty of time. Well, a part of white privilege is our continued acquiescence to institutional racism through abuses in the criminal justice system, the unfair distribution of resources – especially in education – and the continued discrimination Blacks are subjected to in just about every area of life, regardless of where they are on the social scale. Those are the things that are designed to keep poor Blacks poor, in perpetuity or until we finally get off our couches and vote out those who are making sure things stay the same.
  • White privilege sounds contentious… To those who are not willing to accept any responsibility, it probably does. That should signal to those of us who do, that we need to work a lot harder to change hearts and minds – NOT that we need to make the pill less bitter.

The lingering stain of slavery, resurgent overt racism, discrimination, mass-incarceration and the prison-industrial system, endemic poverty, hunger, deprivation, housing discrimination and, in towns like Ferguson, Missouri, living under siege, those are the things real people – Black people – suffer as a consequence of our indifference.

So, if “white privilege” offends, let it! That’s a reflection on the person who is offended. It is meant to evoke strong feelings. If the listener is offended, then what does that say about their empathy? Knowledge of history and current events? Open-mindedness and willingness to look beyond their immediate environs?

I mention knowledge of current events because it is common for me to cross paths with people who have no knowledge of current events beyond a name or headline they might have seen. Case in point? A New York Times regular who wrote this reply to my comment:


I ended up putting together a primer on the Michael Brown case for her and any other reader who might need it.

I am quite sure that Janice represents a preponderant portion of white Americans who, while responsive and positive about effecting change, desperately need more information on what white privilege is, its history and place in today’s society.

As George Carlin most aptly said in his shellshock routine:

So, I say keep “white privilege!” Build a more solid argument to obviate the need to keep using it. That is the point of evocative language.

Reference material:

Professor Michael Eric Dyson:

Sunday Review | OPINION

Where Do We Go After Ferguson?


The novelist Ann Petry vividly captured this observer effect in her 1946 novel “The Street,” in which the African-American protagonist, Lutie Johnson, remarks that racial perceptions of blacks “depended on where you sat.” She explains that if “you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like,” because “the Negro was never an individual” but “a threat, or an animal, or a curse.”

Read the rest of Professor Dyson by clicking here.




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