part one: white privilege

This is part one of a three-part series. Please read the introduction and parts two and three.

There is much confusion about the term white privilege. It seems fairly clear to me that many people assume that white privilege is the same thing as white racism, that white people are somehow choosing to be white racists, or that white privilege implies that all of us white folks are privileged in the same way and in the narrow sense of the word (i.e., receive special, largely financial, benefits). And if someone fancies him- or herself as progressive or coming from a working class background, these associations can rub them wrong way. It’s an understandable response to a concept that is difficult to understand. But, and speaking here (full disclosure) as a progressive white man with something closer to working class roots, I think it’s worth struggling with this concept in an attempt to really understand what it means, to figure out if it really is little more than a synonym for white racism.

Short answer: no. No, it’s not.

But first, let me stress something right up front here. The concept of “white privilege” (that is, the theory of white privilege as a way to understand our racialized society and culture) is itself based on a larger rhetorical framework, i.e., race, and specifically “whiteness.” So before we can even begin to unpack “white privilege,” we need to understand how race and whiteness work in our culture.

Now, there are a lot of folks in the buddhoblogosphere who are keen on saying that race is a concept, it’s not real, we’re all the same under the skin, etc., etc. And they’re right of course. But simply acknowledging some biological statement of fact does nothing to change how race is enacted day in and day out in our country. And that funny word, enacted, should give you an idea of what I’m on about here.

Our ethnic, cultural, and yes even racial differences are enacted within society at large. As social beings, we tend to replicate (i.e., enact) the behavior of those around us. We learn language from our parents. We learn cultural customs from our extended families and eventually our friends. Our styles of dress, our tastes in music, all of these things are conditioned upon our interactions with others, and eventually, we take them for granted. We assume that they are “normal,” that the way we interact with the world is “common sense,” or “just the way things are.”

The problem is not that different social groups have constructed shared systems of identity and meaning. The problem is that, historically, one group has dominated most of the rest of the world for most of the last half-millenium. The problem is that the history of the United States is one in which white folks have been the only ones in any position of power until only very recently and have as a consequence set the terms for political and cultural discourse. What this means, why this is important, is that “whiteness” has been the standard to which other cultures and other cultural positions are necessarily judged.

In other words, whiteness suggests that the values and perspectives implicit within (primarily) Northern European culture are universal values, not values that are shaped by context and culture — like everyone else’s, like all those “ethnic” groups — that they are “normal” or that they are neutral. Thus, whiteness suggests that “white” is the standard by which to judge other cultures. Let’s call this the whitewashing of culture.

You can see here that whiteness is doing something rather funny. While professing to be “color-blind,” it actually reinforces racial difference. By creating categories of “ethnicity” or “race” or “non-white people,” whiteness necessarily creates and maintains racial difference. It’s a terrible catch-22. The harder we try to be color-blind by “respecting diversity,” the more we reinforce those differences of race and ethnicity and therefore remain decidedly un-color-blind.

Now, white privilege in this regard simply refers to those social benefits that white folks enjoy by virtue of their being born in a culture that rewards whiteness. Pay special attention here. “Social benefits” does not necessarily mean a good job, a fat pay check, and a beautiful wife. It may mean those things, but not just those things. It means a whole host of social benefits. It includes the well-documented accounts of racial profiling by police which suggests that I’m less likely to be pulled over for speeding than my black friends are. It includes the representations of people who look like me and people who don’t look like me on television and in the media where those in power are disproportionately white. It means that, statistically, the heads of industry (CEOs, CFOs, chairmen (men) of boards of directors) are more likely to be white, disproportionate to their number in society at large. It means that in all likelihood, my kids will go to college and not prison.

That last one is worth hovering on. The reality is that my wife and I aren’t particularly wealthy. And we’re likely to be in debt of one kind or another for the next several decades. The chances that we’ll be able to save $100,000 to pay our kids’ college tuition in twenty year’s time are pretty small. But, at the same time, the statistical likelihood that our kids will go to college is significantly higher than the likelihood that a child of color will go to collage. That’s white privilege. That has nothing to do with any particular choice I’ve made. It has nothing to do with my personal feelings or my attitudes or my beliefs or the attitudes or beliefs of anyone reading this blog. It’s just a simple fact of statistical analysis that there are more young black men in prison than in college. So, my kids will be privileged to be born white.

Also, that means that white privilege has nothing to do my decision to benefit from the color of my skin or not benefit from it. I cannot reject the privileges I enjoy simply because they rightly offend my progressive sensibilities. It is almost entirely out of my hands. To use lingo from our karma conversation, it’s simply part of our causes and conditions, our collective karmic histories.

Now, the thing to keep in mind here is that it’s not just white privilege. The thing is that each of us are bound up in a complex of different levels of privilege — gender, sexual orientation, nationality, language, marital status, and (the elephant in the room) class. Each of these privileges us and disadvantages us in different ways (and, incidentantly, in different cultural contexts). For example, while my wife may enjoy certain privileges because of her race, I enjoy more privileges because of my gender. On the other hand, growing up in what was closer to a “working class” family, I certainly do not enjoy the privileges of certain social connections that the wealthy elite may enjoy. My dad didn’t go to Yale, so my chances of getting in are considerably lower.

And I think this is where the confusion comes in. I think people assume that white privilege is the same for everyone, they don’t feel particularly well-off on account of their race, therefore it must not be true. Let’s call this the white rejection of white privilege.

I would argue, however, that we stop imagining race in terms of absolutes and see these issues on a spectrum (or more accurately, a three-dimensional matrix). As I just mentioned, I may not be as privileged as, say, George W. Bush; but I’m certainly better-off than most folks of color, and it’s statistically more likely that I’d be able to get a job, send my kids to school, stay out of jail, etc., etc.

Moreover, and somewhat more importantly, the white rejection of white privilege does the exact same thing as the whitewashing of culture. It assumes that since I, as one individual white person, have not been particularly benefited by my race, then all white people must also have the same experience, and therefore assumes that we’re all operating under the same set of cultural contexts and conditions. And, consequently, ignores the very real possibility that even if I have not enjoyed the benefits of white privilege that doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t and that someone of color is therefore suffering the disadvantages of not being white. In other words, it’s a cop-out. It’s a way of falling back on that “there is no race” argument without being particularly intellectually challenging.

Because the truth of the matter is that being able to claim that there is no race, that we’re all the same under the skin, is itself a privilege of whiteness. I can reject the reality of race because I happen to be the same race as what our culture considers normative. I can fall back to this “neutral” position, I can claim that all people need to do is treat each other equally, study hard, work harder, and everyone will be the same. (Go America!) But this is not a choice that a person of color can make precisely because people are treated differently in this country based on their skin color. Precisely because of racial profiling, precisely because of the long-term effects of racial discrimination, precisely because of lingering social differences and poverty, a person of color can’t just “get over it” and act as though there is no race. Not yet anyway.

In other words, it’s a nice sentiment to suggest that we’re all the same under the skin. But merely saying that doesn’t change anything. And when you’ve been on the receiving end of social or racial discrimination, sexism, or homophobia, hearing someone say “get over it” is more than a little insulting.

Be sure to read the next installment of this series: the homogenization of Buddhism.

6 thoughts on “part one: white privilege

  1. I bet this post got plenty of views! Racial privilege and racism are not the same thing. But note that, from afar, the consequences of both may at times appear to differ little. For example, if a magazine had all an all-white staff and had almost all of its articles written by white people… then someone inclined to see racism might very well see racists behind the curtain. But that might not be the reason why such a racial disparity occurred. It may just be the case that overwhelming numbers of white writers submit articles to mainstream Buddhist publications because of the entitlement that often comes with privilege. They’ve got the chutzpah to believe their words must be read! And I’m just as guilty of this entitlement as the next privileged blogger; it’s why I can’t seem to shut up. But I wonder if we see such a dearth of Asian Americans in the Buddhist blogosphere simply because they generally don’t have this same sense of entitlement rooted in their cultural privilege…

  2. Because the truth of the matter is that being able to claim that there is no race, that we’re all the same under the skin, is itself a privilege of whiteness. I can reject the reality of race because I happen to be the same race as what our culture considers normative. I can fall back to this “neutral” position, I can claim that all people need to do is treat each other equally, study hard, work harder, and everyone will be the same. (Go America!) But this is not a choice that a person of color can make precisely because people are treated differently in this country based on their skin color.

    I think this gets to the core of where many of the grousing commenters on C.N. Le’s post are coming from. Because they feel that just by being Buddhist they are rejecting their privilege, it follows (to their minds) that privilege stops at the gate

  3. You two are anticipating Part Three!

    I think you’re right about the consequences, Arun. Also, I think it’s worth noting that the mainstream press itself is bound up with issues of class privilege. It may well be true that some white folks have the chutzpah to believe that their words must be read. In other cases, I wonder if it’s a matter of time and inclination. For example, a single mom working two job to support her kids may have plenty of chutzpah. But no time to sit down and put her thoughts to paper, let alone the energy it takes to see an idea from paper to an editor’s desk.

    Which of course is part of the problem with the mainstream Buddhist press. But I’ll save all that for part three!

  4. As always, you have put things much more eloquently than I have in my quick comments on this topic on other blogs. For me ‘white privilege’ has always been more about the class-defined elements of the ‘privilege’, but I have been at the same time conscious that is due (in part) to the fact that I’m within the group being discussed. Just as I don’t see the intricacies of other groups’ sub-culture relationships from their perspective I have to remind myself that others often see ‘white’ as some homogeneous group.

  5. Pingback: Diverse views on “white privilege” « Bija Andrew’s Zen Blog

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