What's the Point of Talking About 'White Privilege?'
“God didn’t make a mistake by making you a ‘white’ person.”
I say this gently, looking across the table at the young, white college student. The conversation is raw. Both of us are crying. The student responds.
“Well, I feel terrible all the time for being ‘white.’ I’m constantly told I have ‘privilege,’ but it doesn’t feel like it because my family is really poor. I’m confused about this, but if I ever try to talk about it, I get shut down. I can’t be honest with anyone, which makes me sad and angry.”
So goes many, many conversations I have with students in my campus ministry work. These are people who have been left feeling genuinely hurt, confused, or even embittered by the way ‘privilege’ is frequently discussed on campuses today, particularly as it is connected to the racial/ethnic identity they occupy (‘white’). I also run into similar perspectives from people outside the campus culture, especially in more evangelical churches, who see all this focus on ‘white privilege’ as only either promoting further division in an already-divided cultural climate, or unhelpfully “beating up” white folks without proposing a way forward.
Is conversation about ‘white privilege’ really such a dead end? If it is, should we just avoid the topic? Or is there a productive way to engage?
Why We Shouldn’t Talk About White Privilege
Jordan Peterson, a psychologist whose work I really respect, makes a strong case that ascribing ‘privilege’ to a group of people, based solely on their ethnic/racial grouping, is actually a racist move. He rightfully points out that there are many, many other aspects of identity that impact one’s amount of cultural privilege (attractiveness, wealth, language skills, physical ability, sexuality, gender, etc.), and that it may be more accurate, and helpful, to speak about ‘majority-culture privilege’ rather than simply ‘white privilege.’
Dr. Peterson makes important arguments that those of us on the left-leaning sides of these conversations need to consider carefully. To understand the impact of anyone’s identity on their lived experience in our culture is to consider a complicated intersection of factors, and to the extent that leaning hard on ‘white privilege’ does indeed result in a dramatic reduction of these “identity factors” to one alone, namely that of ‘whiteness,’ is to mishandle a thorny, layered, and important discussion. What happens when the 'white' person being berated for their unearned privilege afforded by skin color, has at the same time experienced social marginalization for being shy, or unathletic, or unattractive, or poor, or having a learning disorder, or is an immigrant, or a first-generation student, or doesn’t conform nicely to gender and sexual stereotypes? What happens when this person is told that those other aspects of their lived experience don’t matter, that it’s simply all about their 'whiteness,' and if they can’t deal with it, then they are an un-woke, close-minded, bigot?* This is a potent recipe for deep confusion and bitterness, and I am seeing the fruit in those tearful conversations referenced above, when I’m face to face with young people who are deeply struggling with guilt and self-loathing, because they’ve been told over and over again that their life has been made easy for them in a way they didn’t earn as a result of one aspect of their identity.
I’m genuinely concerned about all of this. So, why in the world do I keep pouring time and energy into having conversations about ‘white privilege,’ despite the fraught nature of the topic?
Why We Need to Talk About White Privilege
See, I’m convicted that, when handled well (dare I say “lovingly?”), it is precisely the engagement of the topic of ‘white privilege’ that can result in healthier historical awareness, interpersonal compassion and even individual health and responsibility on the part of everyone who lives together in this messy, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic socio-political community we call ‘America,’ and yes, that includes us ‘white’ folks. It’s a hard road, to be sure, but avoiding it won’t get us anywhere in our cultural moment.
While I just argued that we should avoid the trap of reducing a person to their racial/ethnic grouping alone, we must avoid the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. It would be utterly irresponsible to pretend that ‘whiteness’ doesn’t impact our lived experiences in America. We absolutely need to talk responsibly about how and when the category of ‘white’ was created, how the boundaries around it have changed over time, how those deemed to be ‘non-white’ have borne the negative impacts of systemic exclusion, how all this has had an undeniable, culture-and-institution-shaping impact over literally centuries of our country’s history, and yes, how ‘white’ people today truly have inherited some benefits from this.**
That last part (inherited benefits) is the tricky one. But let me give you one example of how this looks.
It’s a matter of public record that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) radically restructured the laws around the home-buying process in America in the 1930s. Rather than requiring 50% down payments for properties, the FHA wanted to make mortgages and loans available to more folks, making it possible for lower- and middle-class people to buy homes for the first time.*** Speaking as someone who recently bought a house, I’m grateful. But here’s the kicker: it was made explicitly clear that ‘non-white’ (esp. African-American) people would not have access to those loans. You can probably guess the results. People in the ‘white’ category suddenly had access to private property, de facto white-only neighborhoods (particularly in suburban locations) were created, and to keep property values high, African-American people were excluded.
“Ok, fine, but that was in the 1930s,” I can hear you saying, “that doesn’t affect me now. I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for that!”
I want to argue two things: 1) Yes, of course, you shouldn’t be made to feel individually guilty for FHA policies implemented in the 1930s 2) But it certainly does affect you.
Significant inter-generational wealth in our country is passed down through property ownership. So even though none of us implemented discriminatory and racist policies all those years ago, many of us still ‘benefit’ from them today. My wife and I were able to buy a house last year because of financial help from our parents, who were able to be supported financially by their parents, who were supported by their parents, all of whom had easier access to wealth-generating policies because they were deemed ‘white’ (this is also not to say they "didn't work hard" - don't get tripped up on that, they certainly did). A healthy awareness of these benefits is precisely where the ‘white privilege’ conversation should take us.
Keep in mind that this is merely the use of one example (property ownership). I haven’t even mentioned things like access to education, lynchings, imbalanced policing, or incarceration and execution rates. And with all due respect to Dr. Peterson, I don’t believe the more vague term “majority-culture privilege” will cut it, at least in our context. Any intellectually-honest look at our nation’s history reveals a pattern of delineating who exactly is ‘white,’ followed by diverting wealth, status, and access to that category of ‘white’ folks, while putting up serious barriers around the ‘non-white’ citizenry. Like it or not, it’s all inextricably bound up in these racial categories. It is irresponsible, therefore, to avoid talking directly about those racial categories today, as we try to sort out the mess we find ourselves in.
Yes, your experience of privilege is going to be determined by more than just your racial identity markers. But, at least if you live in North America, you are smack in the middle of a society with a long history of attributing explicit benefits to those in the ‘white’ category. This affects all of us.
So if you have been unfairly “beat up,” simply for being ‘white,’ if you have been made to feel intense guilt, or blame, or self-loathing, then I am truly sorry. But even so, I implore you not to overreact, pushing the pendulum back and writing off the whole “privilege conversation” as liberal dogma. Just because a conversation may have been mishandled does not mean it isn’t a conversation worth having.
So, yes, I believe God didn’t make a mistake by making anyone ‘white.’ But humans have certainly made mistakes (to put it lightly) in the ways we have oppressed and categorized people along racial lines. I may be idealistic and naive, but I believe there must be a better way forward.
Let’s talk about it.
*By the way, this all “cuts the other way” too. I hope most readers would agree with me, that we should never reduce the identity factors that impact the experience of a person of color to their racial grouping alone. I’m simply contending for consistency.
**Ok, I can't pose that list without citing some back-up resources to chase down. On the historically-recent creation of 'whiteness' as a label, see Nell Painter's "History of White People." An accessible introduction to the systemic nature of race-based policies, see either Ken Wytsma's "Myth of Equality" or Emerson and Smith's "Divided by Faith." For a strictly economic argument regarding the ongoing benefits handed to white folks in America as a result of the practice of chattel slavery, see Edward Baptist's "The Half Has Never Been Told." For more focus on the historic impact of legal policies shaped around "whiteness" and "blackness" see Michelle Alexander's "New Jim Crow" and Douglas Blackmon's "Slavery By Another Name." And, finally, for a near-exhaustive look at the complicated interplay of race, philosophy, and public policy in America, read Ibram Kendi's fantastic "Stamped From the Beginning." Whew.....
***Incidentally, part of the motivation of this was to incentivize private property ownership, a proactive move against the growing threat of Communism in other parts of the world.