Christian's Chronicles

July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.

White privilege – Up yours!

I enjoy ranting online.  I consider it my privilege.  It comes along with a host of other privileges, many of which have been enshrined in that kooky old Constitution of ours.  The First Amendment, freedom of speech and all that jazz, covers that one.  Careless use of this privilege occasionally forces me to dig myself out of proverbial holes for social reasons.  Be that as it may, I will never be forced to say anything to incriminate myself in a criminal prosecution.  I, like my fellow citizens, enjoy that silly little thing we call a “Fifth Amendment” privilege.  These two are just some among many.

So, yes, I have many privileges.  I also have many blessings, which I often fail to appreciate as much as one might think I should.  Here’s a short list:

  1. I am relatively tall. This has certain advantages, especially when combined with 2.
  2. I am relatively good looking. Ok, I’m being bashful. It took me a while to accept that I’m pretty much gorgeous, but I’ve become more comfortable with this obvious fact through the years.
  3. I am blessed with a more-or-less functional brain, which has allowed me to earn several college degrees, as well as the ability to understand and appreciate logic, possibly even more than most.

I’ll stop there, in the interest of brevity, and also because that’s what this edition of The Chronicles is going to focus on: logic.  And privilege.

I recently came across an article with a title that itself was a call to action: Next Time Someone Says ‘White Privilege Isn’t Real,’ Show Them This.  It discusses a new study that shows racial disparities with regard to upward mobility.  Specifically, the article states that “Roughly 16 percent of white children born into the poorest one-fifth of U.S. families will rise to become a member of the top one-fifth by the time they turn 40 years old,” whereas “for poor black children the odds of making it to the top are even longer: Only 3 percent of black children born into the poorest one-fifth of families will ever make the leap to the top income group.”  It goes on to reference the aforementioned study as showing that “poor whites escape the worst forms of poverty more often than poor blacks” as demonstrated by another set of statistics: when it comes to the poorest Americans, 23% of whites, but 51% of blacks who fall into that category as children will remain in the same economic category at the age of 40.  With regard to escaping poverty, the article states that 58% of white children from the poorest families move up to one of the top 3 higher income brackets, whereas the figure for black children is only 22%.

Based on the above statistics, the writer makes a number of conclusions.  Whether these are supported or not, I’ll let the reader decide.

The first conclusion: that “the findings in the paper… run counter to the beliefs of some, like Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who argue that racism in this country has diminished to the point that white privilege doesn’t exist.

The second conclusion: that “opportunities for success are clearly not that simple, for a host of reasons: The myriad legacies of slavery and Jim Crowdecades of racist housing policies, educational disparitiesemployment discrimination, and a race-fueled War on Drugs.”

Now, I will not get into a detailed analysis or dissection of the logic of the above ‘conclusions.’  For one, I have no intentions of defending Bill O’Reilly, nor do I claim to know anything about the ‘beliefs’ of that undefined group of ‘some who argue that racism has diminished’ to whatever point.  I will not point my finger at the author of this article to say that, or argue that the reference to Bill O’Reilly is an example of a straw man, or that there simply is no argument presented for the first conclusion at all.  I will not make note of hasty generalizations, nor invoke the Texas sharpshooter.  I already have a degree in logic (philosophy, technically, but logic is a branch of philosophy and I did take advanced logic courses so I feel justified in making this claim), but you can explore the various mistakes the author made through fun tools like

You see, I agree with the spirit of the author’s conclusion: data of such disparities tends to indicate that something is wrong.  I’m just not as confident as the author is that the data he relies on will as easily convince those who do not believe ‘white privilege’ exists.

Let’s take it for granted that privilege, of some type, exists.  Let’s also go on to agree that by ‘privilege’ we are to understand something quite different than the various privileges of the Bill of Rights, applicable to all (in theory, at least).  Let’s further agree that privilege, at least as the author discusses it, has to do with wealth and opportunity; in other words, the third on that list of inalienable rights in that famous sentence of the Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness.  This is something we seem to quantify in financial terms in our materialistic society anyway, but that is appropriate, given that there are plausible theories to indicate that earlier drafts focused more on the pursuit of property as part of those certain inalienable rights.  Material wealth then, is our measure of privilege, especially in the wealth of opportunities that wealth affords over poverty, if you pardon the pun.

The study, as cited by the author of the article I’ve been discussing, illustrated disparity with regard to odds of improving socioeconomic standing.  But the term ‘white privilege’ isn’t merely applicable with regard to upward mobility. It is a term that puts a face on the concept of privilege.  It is the incarnation of a man who isn’t just able to overcome the odds, but rather, because the ‘system’ is such that the odds are in his favor from the outset, he enjoys economic benefits his non-white (and female) counterparts do not.

Let’s compare this incarnation of an abstract concept to another, his counterpart, and illustrate the disparities in a hypothetical example of various advantages through life that endow the former with ‘white privilege.’

An illustration of White Privilege

Statistics can lie.

My own life experiences bear some similarity to some of the examples above.  But they are not examples of privilege.  I am far more similar to that ‘counterpart’ to privilege.  And I’m white.

Yes, I realize racism still exists.  I realize that people are judged by outward appearances, and so on, and so forth. And, I realize that as a white man I do not suffer the same prejudices as some non-whites do.  But we all have our own crosses to bear.

Upward mobility and economic ‘privilege’ and the cycle of poverty have much more to do with what resources are available to you as a poor person – through friends, family, or whatever source – than with being actively kept out of any circles or resources through discrimination.

Although I’m white, I did not grow up with a network of wealthy or privileged friends to rely on as social capital.  I, as so many other immigrants, had to learn the language and customs of the culture I found myself in when my family left everything we knew behind to live in the United States.  No rich uncles, no doctors to give me convenient diagnoses of ‘attention deficit,’ no jobs lined up.  In fact, I pretty much do not have any family to speak of in the U.S. anymore, and I never had a ‘good ol’ boys network’ or any network to give me a boost or a handout of any kind.  I had hard-working parents who provided me with a roof over my head and whatever other limited opportunities they could provide.

So when I hear of ‘white privilege’ I tend to think that it is far too broad of a brush.  I would rather try to redefine this concept, because it tends to create a far too simplistic image of a white man, who is endowed by virtue of his whiteness by a whole host of privileges, most of which have something to do with higher economic standing.  If I were in a more cynical mood, I could argue that this concept of ‘white privilege’ has made poor, less-privileged white men the whipping boys for the sins of the good-old-boys network of the 1% who keep getting wealthier and wealthier by exploiting the bottom 99% and setting them up to attack one another with divisive concepts such as ‘white privilege.’  Divide and conquer, it’s the oldest trick in the book.

As an immigrant without the benefit of a social network or capital to rely on, I find it difficult to accept that much of what is meant by this broad generalization of ‘white privilege’ applies to me, despite the realities of existing racism and discrimination based on more obvious immutable characteristics such as skin color.  I don’t deny that racism still exists.  I just think that the reasons for ‘privilege’ have more to do with inherited wealth, social capital, and inherited ‘privilege,’ of which I received very little.  Hence, I find it somewhat offensive, and illogical, to use a term like ‘white privilege’ – especially with reference to socioeconomic standing, such as the manner in which it was used in the article I’ve been discussing – to ironically keep perpetuating a stereotype of the privileged white male to be applied toward all who, by reason of their whiteness, are convenient whipping boys.

I do not want to belabor the point.  I’d rather aim to re-define this term in a positive way.  We live and think through metaphors, and re-defining them in a positive way can be a very helpful first step toward changing our views to a deeper, more nuanced understanding closer to the truth.  So I’d rather re-define ‘white privilege’ as a concept free of race that simply describes things we should all cultivate, such as: a network of helpful and reliable friends (i.e., social capital), a good job, a good and happy family, relatively high social standing as a result of effort, not through nepotism, and so on.

These are things we can rightfully seek more of, because they are positive.  Another way of expressing this is that we ought to aim to ‘UP’ these elements in our lives (such as, to ‘up the ante,’ meaning to increase a bet). So, rather than the present, negative use of ‘white privilege’ I propose redefining this term in a positive light, such that it becomes indicative not of race, but simply a color signifying purity and innocence like the virgin snow, with privilege as something rightfully earned and ethically justified.  In this sense, ‘white privilege’ is something we all ought to aim to increase for ourselves.

Therefore, when someone speaks of ‘white privilege’ to me, my response is as follows.

White privilege?

Up yours!


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