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Essay on the Arguments For and Against Usefulness of the Concept of White Privilege

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To decide whether White privilege is useful as a concept, requires an understanding of the term. Kendall (2002) defines white privilege as an ‘institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions.’ This definition takes into account several aspects of white privilege which can help us determine its usefulness. White privilege is typically viewed as a progressive phenomenon as it explicitly acknowledges the unearned benefits granted to White people based on a hierarchy of racism, but arguably has only just sustained the racism. From my research, I have found a lack of positive response post-exposure to privilege, which begs the question, who is it useful for? On the one hand, the concept is useful for everyone to identify that there are wider structures responsible for racial inequalities in western society. On the other hand, it is useless for white people, if used to make themselves appear self-reflective and egalitarian, without constructively reforming the structures that create and maintain the privilege. After all, the concept of white privilege was mentioned in earlier works from Black scholars such as W.E.B Du Bois’ ‘Black Reconstruction in America’ (1935), but only rose to the surface when a White person, Peggy McIntosh wrote about it in ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.’ This in itself is a privilege of white people to have a voice valued more than the voices of people from ethnic minority backgrounds, especially when it directly affects them the most. The fact that most of the popular works were written by White people, and will subsequently be discussed in my essay, is a perpetuation of this. The issue of positionality is crucial to the discourse of white privilege. I will explore these aspects in this essay.

White privilege is useful to an extent for providing a label to express that white people have advantages over non-whites. Kendall’s use of the word ‘granted’ in her definition certifies the myth of meritocracy, indicating that success is not based on talent, rather it is based on race. The ‘American Dream’ (Adams 1931) promotes individualism and personal responsibility, perpetuating the belief that those who succeed in the socio-economic hierarchy rightfully deserve their place there. This is a disillusioned explanation as it ignores structural factors, which Bourgois highlights in the conclusion of his ethnographic study ‘In Search of Respect’, in the context of Puerto Ricans in New York. Internalising the idea that privilege is institutional, rather than personal, is one way that white privilege can be used effectively, as it acknowledges that there are wider issues to consider, working beyond an interpersonal level. Acknowledgement is one step, but the progress comes from activism.

A crucial element to disabling White privilege, insinuated in Kendall’s definition, is representation. The overwhelming over-representation of White people in political positions is pivotal to the prolonging of White privilege. Not only because they are predominantly the decision-makers, implementing policies and laws that best reflect and protect the interests of themselves, Romano (2017) additionally points out that, ‘In a society that sees casual racism among its most powerful leaders, white people can ignore the power of racism all around, or they can choose to acknowledge and confront it.’ This statement argues that the concept of white privilege is targeted towards an audience of white people, as they are the ones with the power to change it. Whether they actually do this is something I will discuss more thoroughly later in this essay. Moreover, many of the examples in McIntosh’s ‘Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ involve this idea of racial belonging. Another example she gives is, ‘I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.’ White actors were even granted opportunities to play characters from ethnic minority backgrounds, such as Mickey Rooney and his excruciating performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). What makes me question the usefulness of white privilege as a concept is that, even in attempts to reduce its power, it emerges in other forms. For example, the rise of tokenism in the media is, in my opinion, another variant of white privilege. White directors can choose to throw in non-White actors wherever they please to appear more ‘diverse’, however this feels more like commoditisation/fetishisation than inclusivity. The view that the slow recognition of people of colour in valued positions is an indicator to the end of white privilege, is a rose-tinted one.

White privilege is rooted in colonialism and imperialism; from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to the expansion of the British Empire. The argument that white privilege ended along with postcolonialism, is a wishful, hollow point of view. The control asserted upon oppressed minority groups by White people today, as a continuation of imperialist ideologies, is known as neo-colonialism. ‘When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.’ (McIntosh 1988), is relevant to the ethnocentrism of the curriculum, teaching children biased histories where the British and Americans are painted as heroes. The philosophy of the ‘Manifest Destiny’ (O’Sullivan 1845), that White Americans have a God-given right to that land, is still deeply embedded in some minds, justifying white privilege. The dismissal of colonialism in education is a privilege that White people have not to teach. Meanwhile, groups like the Native Americans see their history told in a diluted, distorted and inaccurate manner. This is also reflected in the ‘well-documented attempts to ‘white-ify’ people of colour through the assigning and promotion of ‘white’ names.(e.g. changing Latonya to Tonya)’ (Kinloch 2007; Souto-Manning 2011). Miller (2014) says that this is done to suit the comfort and convenience of the teachers. Now that the concept of white privilege is fairly distributed in western societies, why is this same comfort still not being given to the students whose cultures have been butchered by their teachers and other supposed role models? A simple change of the curriculum to provide multiple perspectives for children to then be able to decide for themselves and not be decided for is a major step towards dismantling white privilege.

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It is counterproductive to acknowledge white privilege without following up with action (Hobbs 2018). For White people, their actions are rarely attributed to their whole race, rather they are taken as personal traits (McIntosh). The assumption that there is such a thing as a ‘racial’ trait, implies some kind of involuntary, genetic explanation for behaviour. Although much less common now, race science was used to discuss why Black people were ‘scientifically less developed’ than White people. Firmin’s ‘The Equality of the Races’, written as a rebuttal to De Gobineau’s ‘The Inequality of the Races’ removes the myth that there is a biological distinction between races, especially seeing as race is a social construct. One reason to explain why these distinctions were made, is the concept of ‘Normative Whiteness’ (McIntosh). Normative Whiteness is the existence of White people being seen as the ‘default’, it is normal to be White and everyone else is different. The White race is non-raced (Dyer), it is not seen as a racial identity (McIntosh). An ethnographic example of the invisibility of Whiteness is exhibited in Miller’s (2014) research on her children’s responses to learning about race. Her daughter Ella reported that the skin colour of the character in the book she was reading was white – ‘[The book] would have told us if she were not white.’ Miller sees this an automatic default to whiteness. Normative whiteness is even advertised in the commercial world, where the colour of plasters, for example, vastly caters to the skin tones of White people, whereas a darker-skinned person may have to request products to match theirs. This concept links to DiAngelo’s argument on universalism. White people see themselves outside of culture and as objective beings. They see themselves as representative of the entire human race. This is particularly problematic in societal institutions such as healthcare and education, because the development of certain medicines, diagnoses or assessments are not necessarily applicable to people from other cultures. Though there has been some change, like the widened range of darker-coloured makeup products, this understanding could have been used to implement a number of policies in public sectors, to accommodate a wider range of people. Hobbs argues, ‘Actions should attempt to not only mitigate personal racism and racial insensitivities, but be the catalyst to address the impact of this privilege gap…..Failure to follow recognition with action in the personal exploration of concepts such as white privilege can inadvertently support assumptions that these advantages are only cast upon you and not in some part of your own making’. The lingering question is, what have White people done to sacrifice their privilege, if at all?

Harry Brod states, ‘One is always in the system. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way that challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which therefore have the option of not taking.’ I have found that, on the whole, white people tend to strengthen the status quo, as opposed to challenging it, whether it is intentional or not. ‘[We participate] in the purposeful construction of a system that deflates the value of one people’s culture while inflating the value of another’s’ (Kendall 2002). Jilani (2019) notes that teaching social liberals about white privilege does not always have the desired effect, according to Cooley’s research. The discovery of White privilege and its consequences often trigger a fear in White people of eliminating racism, as if it is a matter of life or death – ‘We will always be here.’ This in itself is complicit in extending the elevated position of Whites. The most common response is cloaking their privilege by denying it is advantageous (Phillips and Lowery). Murdoch and McAloney‑Kocaman found that exposure to white privilege among UK residents has shown they report greater levels of personal hardships, deeming it useless as a concept as they victimise themselves instead. Through my research, this appeared to be a recurring response – the downplaying of the power of White privilege. White privilege has become a norm for many Caucasians, to just be accepted. Kendall (2002) writes, ‘Once a particular perspective is built into law, it becomes part of “the way things are.”’ This is usually the idea that the law is fair and therefore should be abided by, except that, in actuality, the law has a hidden agenda which favours the rights of Whites over everyone else. Harvey Cox’s statement in The Secular City, “Not to decide is to decide”. By not taking a stance, one automatically becomes complicit in allowing these ideologies to continue. This statement also invokes the saying ‘ignorance is bliss.’ Starkey (2017) argues that ignorance becomes a tool of racial domination. ‘By denying the unfairness, white folk never have to confront it.’ Phillips 2016 conducted a set of experiments to see if participants, when given the chance, would sacrifice their advantages after privilege had been exposed. He found that participants instead continued to use their advantages to achieve success. If they instead used their advantages to close racial inequality gaps, I would argue white privilege was a useful concept. However, DiAngelo writes about a concept called ‘White Fragility’ which is ‘a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.’ Defence mechanisms are yet another example of victimisation, instead of recognising the hardships faced by people of colour. DiAngelo expands saying, ‘Whites have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort and thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is “wrong,” and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color).’ This avoidance of accountability diverts attention away from the deeper issue at hand.

Even in attempts to alleviate racial tensions, models like the ‘White Saviour’ complex argue that it is more for validation than to help the less fortunate. This is inadvertent racism because White volunteers will often see themselves as heroic, and others will praise them rather than focussing on the actual work being done. Kendall (2002) captured this ideology in her article, ‘We expect and often receive appreciation for showing up at “their” functions…If we aren’t thanked profusely by people of color, we give up because we feel unappreciated’. This quote perfectly encapsulates the idea that White people tend to help disadvantaged ethnic minority groups to feel good about themselves and emit this angelic image to their inner circles. If they do not receive the desired response, their work feels unworthy. In Arlie Hochschild’s book ‘Strangers in Their Own Land’, a majority of the White-middle class were hostile towards ‘black folk, other minorities, immigrants and refugees’ for ‘cutting ahead of them in line’ (Starkey 2017). However, ‘they never question why they should occupy the first position. That implicit assumption — I should be tended to before all others — encapsulates how they view white privilege as natural and invisible’ (Starkey 2017). DiAngelo’s article cites Collins (2000) who says that, due to segregation, ‘white interests and perspectives are almost always central. An inability to see or consider significance in the perspectives of people of color results.’ A common response is that ‘white privilege’ is too broad and doesn’t take into account the working-class, gender differences and so on. Bourgois addresses this through the differences between Black and White heroin users in acquiring jobs in ‘In Search of Respect’. Despite living on the same streets, they are practically in different worlds. Throughout my essay, the emphasised centrality of white people in western societies has been revealed and therefore this must be one of the main factors to address in order to eliminate white privilege. But this is a contradiction in and of itself, because the notion of a ‘White’ privilege further places white people in the centre of these discussions.

Whilst researching this topic, I noticed a lack of research concerning privileges given to people who ‘pass’ as white but are not ethnically Caucasian. The complication of phenotype is an idea that interests me but seems to be neglected. It brings into question, ‘what is whiteness?’ Zeus Leonardo defines whiteness as ‘a racial discourse, whereas the category ‘white people’ represents a socially constructed identity, usually based on skin color.’ Colourism is yet another, more complex, phenomenon to be discussed, as privilege was given based off of a ‘one-drop’ policy. This broadens the spectrum of ‘whiteness’ and privilege, and therefore my essay is not a holistic view of how privilege operates.

The umbrella question here is, should white privilege be eliminated if it can be used to eradicate racial inequality? Some may argue yes because it still contributes to the cyclical nature of White racial power/domination. Others may argue no because, when a person of colour brings up race as an issue, white people tend to feel personally attacked, whereas, White people ‘can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking’ (McIntosh). It is seen as more valid, because it supposedly does not affect them, therefore it must be objective and worth listening to. This is a tale as old as time, where issues have been addressed by people of colour and all of a sudden a White person relays the message and it suddenly becomes important. The silencing of dialogue prevents the social change needed to reform these racial structures. It starts with White people, not only because they are the ones who created this privilege, or because they are in a position of power to amend these wrongdoings, but because they must sacrifice their privileges for real progress to occur. It is not my job as a person of colour, to decide how they can do this. This assumption that, to criticise, one must have a solution, just adds to the burden that ethnic minorities already carry, when it is not us who need to put in the work to repair what has been broken. After all, people of colour are rarely heard by the people who should be listening. Brod made clear that, no matter how noble his intentions are as a White person, he will continue to have this privilege unless he changes the institutions which gave it to him. The same can be said for the authors of these articles, most of whom are Caucasian. What is the purpose of their articles? How did they contribute to reforming the structures that sustain white privilege? In conclusion, White privilege is only useful as a concept, depending on what is done with it. It is not enough to simply recognise White Privilege. From what has been debated in my essay, I would not deem White privilege very useful as a concept, as there has evidently been more denial and victimisation, than reform as a result.

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Essay on the Arguments For and Against Usefulness of the Concept of White Privilege. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/essay-on-the-arguments-for-and-against-usefulness-of-the-concept-of-white-privilege/
“Essay on the Arguments For and Against Usefulness of the Concept of White Privilege.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/essay-on-the-arguments-for-and-against-usefulness-of-the-concept-of-white-privilege/
Essay on the Arguments For and Against Usefulness of the Concept of White Privilege. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/essay-on-the-arguments-for-and-against-usefulness-of-the-concept-of-white-privilege/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Essay on the Arguments For and Against Usefulness of the Concept of White Privilege [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/essay-on-the-arguments-for-and-against-usefulness-of-the-concept-of-white-privilege/
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