Eric Reitan explains "White Privilege"
I thought the following comment from a Facebook discussion by the Christian philosopher Eric Reitan was so good it ought to go on the blog. Without more ado, here is Professor Reitan:
Here's how I explain the concept of white privilege in my classes: "Privilege" names an advantage that is possessed by virtue of systemic or structural features of a society, usually an advantage experienced because one happens to belong to a specific group. In this respect, it is the flip-side of oppression, which names a systemic group harm.
Those who experience privilege did not choose to be born into the class that society advantages through systemic forces, and they did not create those forces that advantage them. Furthermore, they have limited power as individuals to change society, and so are unlikely on their own to be able to divest themselves of their privilege. This means that having privilege is not something anyone should feel guilty about. You can't help it. While there are some advantages you can cast off, you can't remove the social forces that give people in your class a systemic advantage. So acknowledging privilege is not about feeling guilty or about casting blame. It is first and foremost about recognizing an inequity in the social structure, and then about making a commitment to working for change as one's life situation allows, and recognizing that having a particular kind of privilege may allow one to work for greater equity—work for a society in which one no longer experiences this privilege—in ways that those who lack this privilege can't.
Now we can talk about "all-things-considered privilege" and "specific privilege." Someone might have privilege in one respect but be oppressed in others, and end up being oppressed all-things-considered. It might sound strange to say that a black slave in the ante-bellum South experienced male privilege, but in saying this one is not saying that he was privileged. One is saying that although he was oppressed, horribly oppressed, the system did not make him a target for systemic sexual abuse by virtue of his gender in the way that it made female slaves a target. While he might still be raped by his owner, the cultural forces in play don't make him uniquely vulnerable to being raped in the way that female slaves were systemically vulnerable.
Likewise, to say that a person has white privilege is not to say that the person is privileged all-things-considered. The person may not enjoy much privilege at all, having been dealt a lousy hand with respect to an array of other social factors. In other words, it is perfectly possible for a person to truthfully say, "I'm not privileged!"—for that claim to be true about their overall condition in social life—and for it still to be true that the person is the beneficiary of white privilege.
The thesis that there exists white privilege is the thesis that there are various social forces in play (such as culturally ingrained unconscious biases and preferences, demographic facts about who is in the majority and who holds the majority of leadership positions, historical facts about who has held positions of power, implicit cultural conceptions of what is "normal," facts about which stories and films and works of art happen to be most prevalent and beloved, not to mention facts about past or present legal and economic structures that impact opportunities) that give persons who are socially recognized as "white" an advantage in one respect over those who are not (although, again, a white person may experience economic disadvantages and class disadvantages and disadvantages relating to sex and gender, etc., etc., and so not be privileged all-things-considered).
All of this is definitional. The question now is whether white privilege, so defined, exists. Well, here's one tiny thing that I noticed the other day. My kids dug out an old "How to Draw Faces" book that we'd gotten from relatives at some point. It was a few decades old. I leafed through it. Every face in the book was white. EVERY SINGLE ONE. The book was not called, "How to Draw White Faces." It was called, "How to Draw Faces." But there were nothing but faces that we'd classify as white. Of course, this book was a few decades old. Books you buy today will almost certainly exhibit more diversity. But these artifacts of history still litter our landscape—artifacts in which "face" is treated as equivalent to "white face." And the existence of these artifacts (but no comparable or comparably widespread artifacts treating "face" as equivalent to "black face") mean that white kids will come across these artifacts and never have the experience that a little black kid will have: "Why aren't faces like mine represented?"
Of course, this is a small thing. But there are lots and lots of small things like that. There is the fact that 44 out of 45 US Presidents are white. There is the little fact that the majority of US Senators and Representatives are white. There is the fact that most CEOs are white. These are just demographic facts and historical facts, and I'm certainly not responsible for them and should not, as a white man, feel guilty about these facts being what they are. But they do mean that as I was growing up, I was inundated with role-models of leaders who were "like me." There was no need to seek them out, no need to set aside a special Black History Month to call attention to them. So, there is a set of realities about our society and its history that gives me an advantage, however small, over persons of color (and over women).
And these advantages hold even if we deny that there exist any implicit racial biases (unconscious, socially-ingrained biases favoring white persons over black ones). But the research shows that such bias does exist—all over the place in society. For example, there was a study in which college professors in graduate programs were contacted out of the blue with e-mails from individuals claiming a desire to study under them. The researches varied the letters only in terms of whether the name was a common "white" name or a "black"-sounding name. They then tracked how likely the professor was to respond to the unsolicited email. Guess what? They responded less frequently to the emails with the "black" names.
And that is just one study among very many studies that all point in the very same direction over and over and over again. None of this means that a white person, by virtue of being white, is going to get white privilege checks in the mail. It doesn't mean they will experience all-things-considered privilege. And it certainly does not mean that the typical white guy minding his business and treating others with respect and decency is guilty of anything. It just means he has a kind of advantage that people of color do not have, because of a complex array of historical facts, demographic realities, legacy effects of segregation and red lining and other marginalizing practices from previous generations, self-concept affirming cultural artifacts, and persistent but unconscious culturally-ingrained biases.