White privilege: ‘Like asking a fish to notice the water’

White privilege

I came across a paper authored by Fracis E. Kendall titled Understanding White Privilege, as the author says from the beginning, this is not an easy subject to tackle precisely because White people — and I’m a White person — do not realize or think they are in the “system.” That is, they do not believe they have power over others or special advantages. Additionally, that’s the main problem with trying to address this issue is because White people, when confronted with the notion of “White privilege” see it as an attack on their own individuality. So, they’ll say, “I’m not a racist.” People work hard for their living; they don’t want to concede that something beyond their control (White privilege) influenced that success.

The problem with that perspective is that one takes a narrow, individualistic viewpoint on something that has nothing to do with case-by-case circumstances of racism. White privilege is a systematic, institutionalized problem in American society and has in no way abated after the struggles for Civil Rights in the 1960s or with the recent election of the first African-American President of the United States in Barack Obama in 2008. We are not in a post-race utopian world. There are very real, very serious and very egregious systematic problems. Yet, since individuals view it through that individualistic prism, they don’t perceive a problem and even more interestingly, they feel offended in some sense because they don’t feel as if they should have to apologize for being White.

However, again, that’s missing the point. It’s not about feeling sorry for being White, apologizing for past abuses, or feeling ashamed to be White, but rather, it’s about recognizing that there are distinct advantages to not only being White in America, but being a White male in America. Even before America, white males have held the power across various continents, Kingdoms and Empires. We’ve always had that power and that power hasn’t just siphoned off to the rest of the individuals in society because we’re living in a modern society or because we enact certain pieces of legislation.

A friend made an apt analogy, as we were discussing this earlier today. He said this idea is similar to how Christians nowadays feel persecuted or victimized in the United States merely because they’ve stopped getting their way. In other words, to get even more specific, White American Christian males have been the predominant archetype with all the power and influence in American history. Yet, now, as people begin to push back and rescind such disproportionate power, there is a feeling of persecution. Similarly, with the enactment of affirmative action laws and the like, some White people now feel as if they’re somehow on the “losing end.”

Check out this exchange for an anecdotal story on CNN:

Actor Levar Burton talks about how he taught his black son to make himself as least threatening as possible to police officers when he gets pulled over. So, put your hands out the window, take off your hat/sunglasses and so forth. Then, Tim Wise, author of Colorblind tells an anecdote of how in New Orleans he was locked out of his car and was physically breaking into it. Well, an officer stopped and without asking him for identification or asking any questions (like ascertaining if that is even his car), offered to help him break into the car. Wise, rightly, puts it out there that if any black kid in America was doing something similar; there is no question what would have happened instead.


Unfortunately, people will look at an anecdote as just that: an anecdote; something that is not a microcosm of a wider systematic abuse, but rather an isolated example relatively speaking.

Kendall does a masterful job, then, of showing this privilege throughout American history with the way the U.S. Constitution was written, the conquering of lands over native people, slavery and all that it entails, the passage of laws to maintain White power, different immigration standards for different immigrants and the list goes on.

Some, however, may not be swayed by historical examples either because they’re historical. Therefore, one of the best examples of White privilege in modern action is the Drug War and criminal justice system or as author Michelle Alexander puts it, “The New Jim Crow.”

She says, “”Research shows that a white man with a criminal record is more likely to be hired than a black man without a criminal record.”

And indeed she is correct on that. That’s just one example, but there’s more within the criminal justice system itself. Beyond that, there are examples of loan lending, education and the labor market.

Recognizing that White privilege permeates our institutions is not to “play the race card” or to victimize blacks (although White privilege extends beyond just the effects on blacks) or to apologize for being White, but it is to recognize systematic abuses and seek ways in which to fix them. But as is usually the case, it is difficult to fix something when people aren’t recognizing it as a problem. One could draw a similarity to rape culture or the treatment of women in general. Many don’t accept the idea that there is a rape culture, but that goes back to the idea of individualism versus collectivism (or institutionalism). Of course nobody wants to think they treat women badly (just like they don’t want to think they treat blacks differently) or would in any way support rape (or racism), but that’s taking too narrow a perspective on it and ignoring the institutionalized way in which rape culture is perpetuated (or White privilege).

I mean, in some ways, this feels like an obvious point. In the United States of America and in a lot of Western countries, if you’re a White male, then by proxy (developed over centuries), you have a better chance working within the “system.” That’s not to say there are not poor White people or to ignore the plight of White people, but to state what ought to be a rather obvious point.

Yeah, it’s 2013 all right, but progress never should accept the status quo of the “now,” but rather, progress ought to keep moving and striving to better the lot of everyone in society. The sooner we accept that we still have work to do, the better off we will be.

Black in America

Credit to this blog for the picture.

5 thoughts

  1. The problem is that white privilege is almost never presented this way. It’s used in supposedly left-wing or centrist schools as an attack on whiteness. But it’s actually a right-wing talking point, by which other right-wingers try to make people forget the active racism of the right-wing agenda by making it appear that the left wing is racist.

    They claim that the USA was founded on racist principles, which is easy to say considering that the USA originally had de jure racism. What they would like us to forget is the difference between a principle and a law. The USA, at its inception, violated its own principles by establishing slavery and other racist laws.

    One of the main reasons they hate Obama is that he’s working to make real the so-far unapplied principles to which the USA was theoretically dedicated. They treat our constitution as a mystic progenitor, rather than the mere modular component it actually is. This allows them to criticize principled policies because they’re unprecedented.

    But they have to be. Because principles are always the foundation of the future, not the past.


    1. Thanks for your comment and feedback. I certainly agree that the way white privilege is framed by those that reject it; it appears to be a slight against them or trying to make them feel guilty for their “whiteness.” But that’s just missing the point entirely.


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