Privilege as Paradox


The namesake of this blog post comes from Allan G. Johnson’s book Privilege, Power, and Difference and in particular Chapter 2, “Privilege as Paradox.”

This is my effort to help explain this concept of privilege to people — a sort of introduction to it, if you will. Let me preface that introduction by saying a  few things of what “white privilege” is not:

  • It is not about assigning the label of “racist” to every white person.
  • It is not about assigning guilt to every white person.
  • It is not about ensuring every white person apologize for the sins of their forebears.
  • Nowhere in my conception of white privilege will you hear me say, “check your privilege.” That’s condescending and not at all constructive to my framework. After all, the whole purpose of this blog post is to reach those that don’t see eye-to-eye with me on this.

At its most basic level, privilege confers upon which group we’re talking about (although in this, we’re focused on “whiteness”) comfort in society and within the culture because privilege allows the group in authority to dictate what the reality is and have that reality fit the experience. The whole notion is based on how some groups are deemed acceptable within the society and others are not.

Here’s the key notion that addresses most of the above bullet points from Johnson: Individuals are the ones who experience privilege or the lack of it, but individuals aren’t what is actually privileged. 

Privilege is better understood as applying to a group and/or social category. So, instead of “that” white guy; it’s “whiteness.” Here’s how Johnson puts it, his italics: Race privilege is more about white people than it is about white people. 

It may seem like a game of semantics, but that’s the most pivotal distinction to getting at what is meant when people talk about privilege. “Whiteness,” Johnson says, is privileged in this society and we gain access to that privilege only when other people identify us as belonging to the category of “whiteness.” Such access can be revoked if you don’t fit into another privileged social category.

For instance, heterosexuality. Johnson provides the example from Charlotte Bunch, “If you don’t have a sense of what privilege is, I suggest that you go home and announce to everybody that you know — a roommate, your family, the people you work with — that you’re a queer. Try being queer for a week.”

Unfortunately, this means it does not matter “who” we are, but rather what people “think” we are. Nor does it derive from what we done. It’s given to us, which is the point where people get most perturbed over. They will say things like, “I wasn’t given anything; I work 50 hours a week, supporting two kids and paying a mortgage. I wasn’t given shit.” Therein is the paradox of privilege.

We “are” privileged, as belonging to the social category of whiteness, without “feeling” privileged. To help dig into this paradox, we need to understand what is meant by reference groups. Reference groups is just a standard of comparison. You often hear people say, “You don’t have it as bad as the kid in a sweatshop in Bangladesh at least.” But that’s an unhelpful statement to someone because it’s outside their standard of comparison. They aren’t comparing themselves to the brown Bangladesh kid; they’re comparing themselves to people that look like them, i.e. other white people of similar socio-economic means.

And in this case, that means they’re not comparing themselves to their black counterparts. An easier way to understand it: If you’re a man, you compare yourself to other men, not women, likewise with women comparing themselves to other women.

On the flip side of the paradox — of being privileged without feeling privileged — is the notion that those not privileged don’t feel not privileged. As Johnson points out and I’ve heard this one, too, you sometimes hear women say, “I’ve never been oppressed as a woman.” This seems quite the challenge to someone trying to show male privilege exists, for instance. Likewise if you found a black person that said they’d never felt oppressed as a black person.

However, this not a big hurdle. The person saying that is not much different than the person with privilege on the other side of the fence saying they don’t feel privileged. It’s not about individual experiences or individual anecdotes. Those don’t wash away those privileged social categories. He makes a good clarifying analogy: It’s like living in a rainy climate and somehow avoiding being rained on yourself. It’s still a rainy place to be and getting wet is something most people have to deal with.

At this point, you still may saying to yourself, “I don’t feel as if I’ve got some special key to society that has been denied others. My life is hard.” Some sociologists like to say it’s tantamount to getting a bird to discuss air or a fish to discuss water — it’s so ingrained in their reality that discussing it makes no sense. But that analogy is a tinge condescending for my tastes. So let’s press on.

Let’s knock out some examples that can maybe get an even clear picture than Johnson’s paper helped flesh out…

As white people, we don’t think about ourselves belonging to a race; we’re just individuals. If I were to go speak on CNN, I’m speaking for only myself. It’s not presumed that I’m speaking for the millions of white people listening. But if my black counterpart also speaks on CNN, it is often assumed that they speak for their entire race, for all black people.

Resources is a key metric on whether privilege is a “thing” or not. Considering for most of American history blacks were plundered from whether while enslaved or later from the housing markets through direct government policies, they haven’t had the chance to create the momentum of generational wealth accumulation. As such, it’s not shocking that today, the net worth of white households is 13x greater than the net worth of black households. It’s why a black middle class earning family only fits in with the lower-income white neighborhood.

Johnson has another concept, the luxury of obliviousness, meaning, we — white people — don’t have to think about people white. He cites W.E.B. DuBois discussing the double consciousness, “It is a peculiar sensation…the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” In other words, people of color are made to consider their color.

And we can sit here and get into all the statistics to show privilege in action, but I’ve been down that road many a time. For now, I think this suffices as an introduction to the topic and getting at what people mean when they evoke the phrase “white privilege.”


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