Blog Post

What Happened to White Privilege

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Last fall, at the university where I teach, I gave a presentation at a student-organized and student-run conference on the meanings of being an ally for social justice. This was the third year in a row that I presented at this conference, which is put on by a student organization dedicated to educating students on “diversity” issues. This time around, I was invited to say whatever I wanted about Asian Americans. My presentation began rather straightforwardly with a history of stereotypes of Asian people in the US. I added that stereotypes are really just popular stories told to benefit dominant groups within a society. (I am a literature professor, after all.) The “perpetual foreigner” and “model minority” stereotypes, however, are merely subplots. There is really only one story of racism, I told the students, and that is white supremacy. “You shouldn’t aspire to be allies on behalf of Asian Americans,” I said. “You should be allies in the fight against white supremacy.” That means identifying white supremacy, speaking out against white supremacy, using the words, naming the consciousness that controls our lives as people of color and as white people. I ended the presentation and asked for questions. One of the organizers of the event, a polite young white man, raised his hand. “White privilege is a serious problem, too, right?” he asked.

I want to be clear that I am gladdened by this student’s commitment to talking about racism with his peers, and I mention him here because our exchange led me to give more thought to why white privilege has become such a thing. I’ve been teaching about white privilege for over a decade, and it has been a thing in academia for much longer than that, but I’m pretty sure that it didn’t become a thing on a broad cultural level until Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart started arguing about it on TV. It doesn’t really matter that O’Reilly doesn’t think that white privilege is real, or that the academic literature on it is thirty years old, or that people of color have been talking about it in other ways for hundreds of years; the very fact that white people who aren’t college students, recent college graduates, or professors are talking about it has brought it into a new kind of existence. This generation of white college students can return home for Thanksgiving and mention that they are learning about white privilege, and their parents will know what they are talking about, even if they disagree with its premise. White privilege has become part of the vernacular, in other words, despite how a social institution as influential as mass media might shape the discourse.

However, I’m not sure that the social institution in which I participate most directly—education—hasn’t also done its part to confuse matters, just in a different way. For a long time, I was as responsible for this development as much as anyone. I did this by turning white privilege into a thing unto itself, much like the student at the conference. “Race,” of course, is a classic example of reification, so that “Caucasian” and “Hispanic” are as quotidian and matter-of-fact a way to describe human bodies as hair color and height. What we lose is the history of the idea of a relationship. “Race” was once the story of a relationship; “racism” is the only story of that relationship that we have left. I fear that the way that institutions now talk about the impact of racism on white people is through white privilege, a reification that has stripped the term of its relationship to white supremacy.

Most of us in my generation (and the one that followed, I suppose) were introduced to the concept of white privilege through Peggy McIntosh’s iconic essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh’s metaphor of an “invisible knapsack” conceptualizes white privilege as a possessive phenomenon—privileges are things that white people “have” (that people of color do not “have”) that can be pulled out of the knapsack and used as resources, which no doubt they are. White people have the assurance of not being followed around stores; they have the ability to buy bandages that match their skin color; they have the expectation of seeing other white people in charge; they have the freedom not to be burdened by race. This metaphor is an extremely useful way of thinking about the meaning of being white in our society, and I was and still am tremendously impacted by this essay. But I also think that what I call possessive white privilege has become the dominant, institutionalized way of conceiving how racism impacts white people.

On my campus, the possessive dimension of white privilege is a popular and unthreatening approach for white allies to engage other white people on the topic of racism. This is because the stakes are low. The story might sound like this: “We have something that people of color do not. Let’s work harder so that they get these things too.” McIntosh calls these privileges “unearned entitlements,” and all of my students agree that everyone should have access to them. Similarly, straight students may experience little dissonance when advocating for marriage equality. One reason is that their advocacy does nothing to decenter their own experiences as people who value marriage. “We have access to something good. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people should have access to this too.” (I wonder if it would be more troubling for these allies to advocate for the end of institutionalized benefits for married people.) As long as white privilege is reified as something apart from white supremacy, white experience remains central to human experience, and racism is the story of some people not having as much stuff as other people.

Talking about white supremacy is difficult, and even saying the words in a casual conversation without stuttering can be an accomplishment. Students and colleagues tend to associate the words with hate groups like the KKK and not everyday life. For years I taught my students about white privilege without mentioning white supremacy. It was easy. McIntosh provided us with a convenient list of privileges to divvy up and discuss, an activity that inevitably drew attention from the important narrative portion of her essay. My students and I connected individual privileges with events from our own lives, which is still a vital and liberating moment. But I always felt a bit unsatisfied after every class, perhaps because the learning seemed too easy. Too comfortable. I get a similar feeling when talking to a white colleague, and he or she, slightly performatively, says something like “Society gives white people like me the benefit of the doubt.” What has become clear is that my unease in both situations has to do with possessive white privilege standing in for white supremacy. The learning is one-dimensional.

Possessive white privilege frames racism as a problem of access without also understanding it as a problem of imagination. In an interview with New York magazine, Chris Rock explains why he has so much trouble with the term “racial progress”:

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. [ . . . ] So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.

Robin DiAngelo and Tim Wise said pretty much the same thing about the pathology of “white fragility” and “white denial.” All three are saying that a white supremacy consciousness severely damages white people and that white people have a long way to go before they’re psychologically healthy. This is the other dimension of learning that is proving so difficult to institutionalize in higher education—just ask Lee Bebout and Saida Grundy—this despite its obvious value to white students, if what my own white students tell me is to be believed.

In this way, white privilege can stand in the way of learning about racism, a short circuit that guides white allies along a path of least resistance to bypass any uncomfortable encounter with white supremacy, in name or in concept. It bypasses the prospect of their psychological damage, of their internalized superiority, of their loss of potential. This is the reason why white allies should advocate against white supremacy: because it destroys their own humanity at the same time it destroys that of people of color, just in different ways and to different degrees. If white privilege comes in an invisible knapsack, then a white supremacy consciousness wrecks you from the inside; it is anti-possessive, something you should want to get rid of as much as you are able and never give to others. It is something far worse than a cancer because it can destroy the lives of people you don’t even know.

White privilege is nothing more than applied white supremacy for white people. Applied white supremacy for people of color is called racism. When I presented at the student conference last year, the Black Lives Matter movement was just getting started. Talking about Ferguson though possessive white privilege might look like this: a white kid has the assurance of not getting shot for doing what Mike Brown did. That’s true, but it’s not enough. We need to talk about why Darren Wilson felt that emptying his firearm into Mike Brown was an appropriate response to not having his assumptions and expectations satisfied. We need to talk about the seed of Bob McCulloch’s condescension during his press conference. And the wellspring of the St. Louis Police Officers Association’s vitriol against five St. Louis Rams for their silent, nonviolent protest. How else do white people respond to people of color when their assumptions and expectations for a situation are not satisfied? Is it a proportionate response? Is it a healthy response? What if the white person is not a police officer but a teacher or social worker? I hope that white allies continue talking about white privilege—but not at the expense of internalized white supremacy. I hope they talk not only about what white people have but what they have lost.

David Shih teaches in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He specialties include Asian American literature, literary representations of Asians, and race and racism in the U.S. He has published on Louis Chu, Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton), Onoto Watanna (Winnifred Eaton), and Sax Rohmer. Current projects include a public intellectual-based blog on racism and research on how to institutionalize antiracist reading practices for multicultural literature.