Critical White Studies Part I ~ White Privilege

The term White Privilege has been defined on many levels. It’s not new. What is new is the amount of air time that it is now getting in print, cable TV and social media.

The term “White Privilege” was mostly used in the 1960s, within the ivory towers of Law Schools, Departments of Social Sciences, progressive Schools of Education and Psychology. The term, definitions and research was mostly generated by scholars presenting findings to each other.

To use the term outside of conferences, colloquia and/or workshops was taboo, at minimum, risking being accused or labeled as being non-American, communist and/or a far-left liberal. As for politicians, to hint of such terms meant to lose White votes. So why dedicate five articles to a controversial subject that may create angst, discomfort and even cause readers of the website to turn off its vision and mission?

image of hair braid, trenzas in Spanish
Critical White Studies I: White Privilege
Critical White Studies II: The Knapsack
Critical White Studies III: White Capital
Critical White Studies IV: Aversive Racism by the Well Intentioned
Critical White Studies V: White Loss

Because America, from its inception, is laden with a history of the delusion of white supremacy. That is, that “whiteness” is the default standard of American society, culture, politics and power. The belief of its superiority demonstrated by overt, covert, aversive and institutional forms of racism, eugenics (race science) and fought for from 1861 to 1865, Jim Crow Laws, Civil Rights Act of 1866, 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, Civil Rights Act of 1871, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Ultimately, and central to this argument, is that White Supremacy, White Privilege, White Entitlement, Mater Race and all forms of racism are anti American Democracy because of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law. The history of authenticating and amplifying Democracy for all Americans has been the major historical theme that has lingered from generation to generation and its greatest existential internal threat.

The vision, mission and guiding principles of American Democracy are in unequivocal opposition to the “equal but separate” ideology and delusion that “Whiteness” is the default “race”, standard and epicenter for American society and culture.

Democracy has been, and continuous to be, the central opposing force to racism, and continuous to be the best hope of enhancing the quality of life for all of us. Democracy remains the core, spine and soul.

But to continue to authenticate the noble objectives of Democracy, we need to be honest about our history. That is, it’s accredited strengths and flaws. History, in order to be trustworthy, must be credible, based on the pursuit of the truth. Without historical authenticity, the tools that history can provide – to teach, to make visible oppressed people and their counterstories, to acknowledge the depth and breadth of multigenerational trauma, to forewarn, even to heal – are made invisible.

Our citizenship beckons us to lean into the discomfort of critically acknowledging the most difficult chapters of American history without pretense, denial or revision. Our citizenship requires to deal with our history with veracity and boldness.

We can’t have a civil conversation about -isms and phobias if we don’t acknowledge all of the roots, insidious branches and poisonous fruit. The goal is not to blame or shame but to authenticate and affirm who we say we are as a society in the 21st Century and no longer defend the indefensible, and most important, not to repeat the multigenerational trauma that still lingers.

Choices to acknowledge, ignore, keep climbing.

To be clear, the term “White Entitlement and White Privilege” should not be thought to be the same as violent “White Extremism via manifestos and ideologies targeting people of color, immigrants and those considered “different”. However, believing to be entitled and privileged can result in justification for oppressing the rights of others deemed to be not entitled and privileged. The very words “Master Race”, “White Supremacy”, “Entitlement”, “Privilege”, indicate status, dominance, power and control.

The term “White Privilege” is a concept and construct that positions white people as the default ideal, the superior standard identity, and all others as inherent deviations from “whiteness.” Once the term is identified, defined, understood and owned, the question turns to how to manage it on a daily basis given our personal power of influence within family, workplace, society, culture and politics.

An understanding of the concept shifts the conversation from a matter of thinking of just benevolent good white people versus evil white peopleto a focus on connecting “White Privilege” to power, control and dominance as major influences on society by a racial self-image, worldview and self interest.

White privilege can be an unconscious normalized perspective that is not thought to be a matter of skin color privilege, but rather taken for granted as an inherited privilege. Historically, a segment of America’s white citizenry has reacted to “white privilege and entitlement” with denial of its existence, taking on a defensive posture, referring to “white privilege and entitlements” as “white bashing.”

In contrast, the meaning for some white Americans has been an evolutionary process. The enlightenment and empowerment by way of experiential learning by way of personal relationships with people of color and affinity groups. This has come about with the introduction of new family members, friends, colleagues, moving to a different region of the country and through stark awareness of injustices to non-white citizens. Such experiential learning has been up close and personal. The problem being that such interventions can be by happenstance rather than by choice and design.

Let me re-emphasize that such a process requires time and a willingness to establish open-mindedness, in order to begin to believe that inalienable privileges, entitlements, rights and opportunities of worth” belong to everyone rather than to some.

Sitting at the table of American discourse about white privilege requires a semblance of historical knowledge, context, language and critical research. These are the tools that provide veracity, confidence and consideration of different perspectives and perceptions. These tools also provide emotional intelligence and moral courage to stay the course, lean into the discomfort in order to continue the conversation and even enhance it.

I posit that the term “white privilege” began to be mainstreamed in 1988 via Peggy McIntosh’s treatise on White and Male Privilege. The motivation by McIntosh was, “her untutored way to ask what it was like to have white privilege based on her daily experiences within her particular circumstances.”

The paper, White Privilege and Male Privilege – A Personal Account of Coming to see Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies (Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College, Working Papers Series No. 189) became a watershed elucidation on White Privilege used at diversity workshops/conferences, Diversity Committees, HR Departments and with Middle School, High School and college students in order to begin a conversation on White Privilege and its peripheries.

Peggy McIntosh

Her definitions seemed to be basic, personal, connected and tolerated by white people, or at a minimum, considered as possibilities. So why was Peggy McIntosh seemingly successful of having her findings more inviting and engaging than others who were providing the same studies and findings for some 20 years before?

Was it that she was a white woman with ancestors going back to the Mayflower? It was also pointed out that white folk, regardless of their socio-economic status, could relate to her treatise beyond their personal identity. Was it that she always spoke from the “I” perspective and asked others to do the same?

“I couldn’t have a conversation with white folks about the details of a problem if they didn’t want to recognize that the problem exists. Worse still was the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism but still thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We didn’t then, and we don’t now.”
– Reni Eddo-Lodge

Such questions made me wonder whether Diversity Literacy facilitators and presenters of color were less likely to be believed because of their perceived advocacy toward their affinity group. Were presenters and facilitators of color, before they spoke, viewed as having an invisible wall between the presenters and white audience members – leaving knowledge, research and findings floating in between? Was this yet another example of White Privilege regarding access to academic credibility and trust?

I believe, having participated in workshops with Peggy McIntosh, that it was her empathic demeanor and emotional intelligence that invited and engaged all audiences. Peggy McIntosh, regardless of the prestige of the conference, rolled up her sleeves with participants and went to work. She was there always to listen, learn and spoke with authenticity and integrity of purpose.

The fourth and fifth words of her thesis, ” . . . Male Privilege” should be emphasized. By adding male privilege, she provided a pathway by which to study all -isms and phobias that create privilege and entitlement. As she often reminded,

“Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” She continued,

“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

That “untutored way” that she mentions is crucial in order to “untutor” ourselves from social-cultural constructs that result in learned -isms and phobias. The self imposed “unturoring process” remains a national challenge.

Peggy McIntosh did not only attempt to define the term but provided a list of circumstances and conditions she experienced which she felt she did not earn, but which she had been made to feel were hers by birth, by citizenship, and by virtue of being a conscientious law-abiding “normal” white person of good will.

The list, from McIntosh’s perspective, is attached more to ‘skin- color privileges’ than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical locations, although she recognizes that all such factors are intricately intertwined.

McIntosh emphasized that by acknowledging our privileges, we can limit the possibility of invalidating the other person’s life experiences or silencing them altogether. It shows self-awareness, empathy, and compassion to those who are marginalized.

Part II ~ The Knapsack provides the list of privileges as presented by Peggy McIntosh. There are other articles on this website that can provide language, definitions and knowledge-bases in order to continue the conversation about critical white studies.

Critical White Studies I: White Privilege
Critical White Studies II: The Knapsack
Critical White Studies III: White Capital
Critical White Studies IV: Aversive Racism by the Well Intentioned
Critical White Studies V: White Loss

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