Sunday, January 19, 2014

The "White Privilege" Confusion

Sadly, this confused concept is metastasizing. Not that Buzzfeed is worth paying attention to...but Tumblr is leaking, and this stuff is starting to infect the weaker regions of academia and the interwebs.

It's not that the idea that there is white "privilege" is completely off track--it just isn't really accurate. There's no reason to move to a less accurate concept when we're already using more accurate ones. It's just a terminological fad, and a misguided one.

I've argued before that the problem isn't white "privilege," it's discrimination against some non-white groups. A problem of unjust privilege is naturally solved by removing the unjust advantage--that is, roughly, treating the privileged group like everyone else is treated. So, if there's an aristocracy that is given unjust advantages, you solve the problem by taking those advantages away.

That's not the way to solve the relevant racial problems. for example, in the U.S. Blacks are, on average, hassled unjustly by cops more that whites. This problem is more accurate described as one of discrimination, not of "privilege." The problem cannot be solved by unjustly hassling whites at a higher rate. This particular problem can only be solved by the cops hassling blacks at a lower rate. (Of course, no one should be hassled unjustly by the there will still be a problem even if blacks start to be hassled at the lower, white rate...but that's a different point...)

But, in addition to being confused, this privilege nonsense is obnoxious--and intended to be. This cartoon is a pretty good representation of the problems that are associated with the relevant approach. Those who reject the "privilege" theory/locution are referred to as "ignorant," and told to "fucking educate" themselves. The cartoon simply insists that they "open their eyes" to the "privilege [they] have." The shrill little cartoon person complains:
I cannot believe that I now have to explain to you in cartoon form because no one on the internet seems to or even wants to understand this painfully simple concept.
This just seems like a toxic stew of confusion and dogmatism to me. It's probably best to start off by explicitly stating something obvious:

To the extent that what's afoot here is true, it's basically accepted by everyone but the most retrograde conservatives: in general, whites in the U.S. have significant advantages over blacks. If you're looking to win the game of life, and you get to build your own character and choose your stats, and you're born in the U.S., choose to be white rather than black (And: male rather than female, straight rather than gay, Christian rather than atheist...and, especially: rich rather than poor...). The number of places in the U.S. where you'll be worse off for that choice is pretty small. On average, you're significantly better off being white.

Almost no one denies that.

So the complaint seems to be not that people don't acknowledge this, but, rather, that they aren't flocking to the terminology.

People are resistant to the "privilege" nonsense for a couple of reasons. Sure, it's painfully just isn't really right, for reasons outlined above. They're resistant because we already have a better way to think about this stuff, and it's with the familiar old concepts of advantage and discrimination.

So why shift the emphasis away from disadvantaged groups and helping them--and shift it to the alleged "privilege" of whites (or males, or whatever)? Well, despite their protestations to the contrary, we know enough about the lefty-left to know that they enjoy criticizing whites (and males...etc.). They'd much rather talk about the advantages of being white than the disadvantages of being black--because they'd much rather focus on making whites feel guilty than on solving the problem. Solving actual problems is the province of liberals--the lefty-left isn't really that interested in that.

That is, of course, speculative--but it's not entirely ungrounded in what we know about the left. It could be wrong, of course...and I'm hardly objective. I don't like radicals on either end of the political spectrum. But we do need some kind of an explanation of why this terminological fad caught fire on the left, when we can say all the true things we need to say with the normal terminology: blacks are disadvantaged relative to whites, they are frequently discriminated against, and it is not uncommon for whites to benefit from these things. If the goal were not to throw an elbow at whites, then one would think that a term like "advantage" would have been chosen rather than the not-quite-accurate and condemnatory "privilege."

But, look, as annoying and confused as this fad is, there's still something worth thinking about there. It's too bad these people are so irritating, because the general idea could make for an enlightening little thought exercise: think about being white as if it were like being minor royalty. Imagine that blacks were treated normally, but we were generally treated a little better--that is, imagine that there literally were "white privilege." Thinking about that can give you some insight into the way things really are. That's not the world we live in--in the world we live in, whites are treated more like people ought to be treated, and blacks are discriminated against. But it's similar in certain interesting ways. Thinking about that might be interesting/informative/enlightening. Sadly, instead of offering up a helpful little thought experiment, they've just dogmatically pushed a flawed way of thinking that is likely to alienate the very people they seemed to be attempting to address.

But this again points us to the failure of the model. One thing that advocates of the "privilege" model like to say is that it corrects for the allegedly erroneous belief that "white experience" is "normative." The thing is, however, white experience is "normative" in the relevant respect--the problems can't be solved by discriminating more against whites. The problems can only be solved by discriminating less against blacks.

As always, this could all be wrong. Sadly, almost everyone I encounter who pushes the "privilege" locution is irritating as hell, and I'm easily annoyed by such things. Perhaps this terminology does bring with it some advantages I'm not seeing--but, if so...well, I'm not seeing them.


Blogger Pete Mack said...

White privilege usually is only applied in a small set of cases where someone is "getting away" with something that other people wouldn't. Like, I got away with a warning when driving 45 in a 35 zone in a speed trap intended for out-of-town drivers. If I'd been black, I probably would have got the ticket. You wrote a hell of a lot of verbiage that produced more smoke than light.


9:49 PM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Louis CK has something to say about this subject:

1:16 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ah, you mean discrimination against blacks?

As I note, there are cases in which "white privilege" will work. But cases in which it won't. Discrimination and injustice are the primari phenomena. They work for all (or damn near all) the cases.

The left just loves goofy new terminology, even if it's less accurate. See "rape culture," "cultural appropriation," etc.

New terminology is good if it is more accurate. Otherwise, screw it.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


The Louis CK bit is funny, but not accurate, of course. Like the "privilege" locution, it points to something, and makes the kind of point that art is good at making...but it's strictly speaking not very accurate.

Is it awesome to be white? Of course not. Is it the best of the available options in the U.S.? Sure. I mean, I don't personally ever see any discrimination against Asians or I'm not sure it's actually better than being Asian or Jewish I'm not sure about those cases. But being white is at least as good as any of the other available options. (What's the convention for classifying Jewish people? Race is a fuzzy concept...)

It's funny, and poignant, though false, to think of being white as some "privilege" that makes your life all rainbows and puppies. More accurate: being non-black in the U.S. is very much like dodging a fucking bullet. Starting life black in the U.S. is like starting life shot. It's very commonly a big damn disadvantage. To a slightly lesser extent, you can say the same thing about being non-Hispanic. If you are white and male, you dodged a lot of bullets. Your life is still subject to all the normal vicissitudes...but you did dodge some big disadvantages.

Of course, the winning hand all around is being rich...but that's a slightly different subject, IMO.

But this is serious business. It's important to be accurate about the nature of the relevant advantages and disadvantages. I like stuff like the Louis CK bit because it can shake people out of their complacency... But after that's done, it's time to view the matter more clearly.

12:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At this point, we've done the performative aspects of this locution to death. Improved diagnostic accuracy is not usually the point of privilege talk, inducing defensive sputter is. If said sputtering can reach such a pitch that The Mask Slips, so much the better. Such is the internet, such is youth, so such is Tumblr, exponentially.

Still, it's good that you acknowledge there to be such things as privileges, and such things as white privileges. (Or is it supposed to be singular? Why is the academic left always turning count nouns into mass nouns and vice versa? That's another subject, I know, but it drives me bonkers.) Since there are such things, surely sometimes "privilege" is the best, most accurate concept to deploy. And if you're going to hunt down misuses of the concept, it seems like a good idea to offer some examples of appropriate use, if not a complete definition. Otherwise, it looks like you are walking into the trap of denying there are such things as white privileges, in which case you must be ignorant, clueless, blind to your privileges, &c.

In the fuck-your-comfort spirit of Tumblr then, let me take a stab at a definition: Privilege - A generally desirable good that, while reproducible, in principle cannot or should not be enjoyed by everyone.

Let me explain the moving parts a bit. The key element of the definition is non-universalizability, which is the where uses go wrong most of the time. Not experiencing police harassment and enjoyment of the basic rights of a liberal democratic state are in principle, universalizable and are not therefore privileges. (Really committed anti-liberals claim they are not. Fine, let them make the argument, rather than smuggle the claim in through terms.) The non-universalizabily is both either a matter of practical impossibility or moral wrong.

Clearly, a privilege should be experienced as good by the person who has it, but I thought it was important to note that it would be experienced as a good by (most) everyone, to avoid the problem of goods that cannot be universally enjoyed because part of their desirability for some is that they are not desired by everyone. Being in a sub-culture is not a privilege, as such. This should also diffuse the normativity of white experience issue, since it takes distinctively white cultural goods [insert Muffy & Biff's stereotypical favorites here] out of the running as privileges and therefore models of emulation.

The reproducibility claim is to keep out trivially non-universalizable goods, e.g.: particulars. I can in principle buy the world a Coke, but not this Coke. NB: Yes, universally desirable goods with trope properties - being-King-of-Thailand? omnimpotence? - would pose a problem here, since they look like super-duper privileges but fail the definition. Seriously dealing with this problem leads to some interesting problems. Do all such goods boil down to omnipotence in the end, and is that good even consistently specifiable? Quick, where is my Schopenhauer... Except we can bracket it by letting super-duper privileges be their own thing, and such an objection is unlikely to be meant seriously. Buzz off, Sophomores.

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part 2, electric cock a doodle doo:

That's what I got, definition wise. Applying this, non-silly putative examples of privilege naturally break down into three sorts, as I see it:

1) License - This I think is what Mac alludes to when he talks about getting away with it. If you commit some breach or fail in some duty, but are excused or expect to be excused from consequences because you are white, or male, or the like, this is clearly a privilege. Being allowed to break the rules with impunity is straightforwardly not universalizable, and the cure is clear: withdraw the privilege. Places where the law is allowed to be broken by some but not other are the worst examples of license. But if we include violations of social norms and civility, which should be enforced with opprobrium, it becomes clear that most real examples of privilege are people helping themselves to claims of license.

2) Intrinsic Majoritarian Advantages - There are goods that arise from being born into majority demographics. Sure, many of them are pretty subjective, like wanting to be more than the lone example of your kind at a party, but these reflect pretty universal desires. If you're from Virginia, you won't have to deliver a five minute canned speech about where Virginia is, how it differs from Maryland, and explaining that other events besides the Civil War did take place there. But if you're from Laos? Delivering that speech is a pain in the ass difficult to avoid. Easily avoiding that particular pain in the ass by in virtue of being demographically unexceptional is a privilege, since we can't all be unexceptional in every respect. What makes this particular class of privileges sticky is that no, they're not fair, but no, the people enjoying them aren't necessarily doing anything wrong, and no, there's not much that can be done to fix these situations. No matter how just society otherwise is, a white person is more likely to get a traffic court judge that looks reassuringly like a relative, and the gentile won't have to walk an extra four blocks to a milk kosher cafe. Social setups that allow minorities to be in the majority now and then are not unfair, precisely because they allow a modicum of access to these goods that majorities enjoy most of the time. The gay bar and black student union don't demand majority parallels. I'd say that the White Student Union kids miss this point, but I don't think they do, really.

3) "Line Cutting", and Analogues - The real troublemaker, since letting some people cut in line is functionally indistinguishable from putting everyone else in the back of the line. Is it universalizable? Yes, you can let everyone cut in line, but the result is functionally indistinguishable from not letting anyone cut in line. Is allowing line cutting negative discrimination, or a positive privilege? The difference appears to be one of emphasis at first blush. However, if we accept that the functional equivalent of the rule of allowing some people to cut in line is that everyone else goes to the back, and ask whether this equivalent is universalizable, we see that it is not. The rule of applying disability to everyone is as contradictory as the rule of everyone cutting is vacuous. The contradiction appears with the negative act, so line cutting is substantially an act of negative discrimination. (I do hope that reads as less sophistical than it writes.) In order to find a variety of line cutting that was an example of substantial privilege, it would need to be a case where the privilege as well as the disability could not be consistently extended.

God, that's long. Sorry, slow work day. If Mac gives me the "TL;DR", I hope he remembers not to write anything after it this time.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Not sure I got all that, A, but there seems to be a lot of interesting stuff here. Will attend to it carefully asap.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Treating someone one way or another because that person's category is allegedly 'on average' like this or like that in the eyes of some social theorist's generalization is still stereotyping. Fancier words are used, but this behavior fails to treat an individual as an individual.

12:40 PM  

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