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.


Nil Desperandum said…
I do appreciate Dr. Reitan's clear definition of white privilege, but why does it follow from this definition that white privilege is to be avoided or reduced? As an analogy, consider how families act especially for the benefit of their own. The Smith family is peculiarly concerned with advancing the welfare of Smith children (among other Smith family members), such that this Smith family will naturally and morally permissibly pursue states of affairs that specifically benefit the Smith children. The parents will make it their aim to provide privileges for their children that they will not aim to provide for other children. Assuming these parents are successful -- e.g. in providing their children excellent moral and religious instruction and vocational opportunities -- Smith children will have certain "Smith privilege" that other children will not. But it seems wrong to say that this is sinful or irrational to pursue, or that Smith children should act so as to reduce (or distribute) whatever privileges accrued to them.

Presumably a proponent of white-privilege-as-immoral (WPI) would hold that racial distinctions are very different from familial distinctions. For instance, he might deny the biological reality of race and affirm that it is a mere social construct based on skin color and/or superficial morphological features; or, if he affirms race as biologically real, he might otherwise deny that it carries the same moral relevance as the constellation of rights and duties involved in family life. However, both of these points would need to be argued for. (I would commend to the reader American Renaissance for the former question.)

Furthermore, even if it can be demonstrated that white privilege is a state of affairs to be avoided, this would, as presupposed above, have to be articulated in terms of racial privilege more generally. In other words, any argument in the above form for the to-be-avoidedness of white privilege would be an argument for the to-be-avoidedness of any racial privilege, whether white or nonwhite. But this would entail that all nonwhite racial and ethnic advocacy organizations, such as the NAACP, also ought to be opposed and disbanded. Is the average proponent of WPI willing to assert this? I find that very doubtful. Most likely, the WPI proponent would claim to see nonwhite advocacy organizations as just trying to "level the playing field," i.e. to specifically pursue nonwhite privileges intended only to counteract nonwhite oppression heretofore. Then, once white privilege can be deemed to have been nullified and all racial groups to have equal privileges, he might say, then we can disband these nonwhite advocacy groups as having fulfilled their purpose. I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether this is truly what's occurring with all these groups, if this is truly the intention of these advocacy organizations' leadership and membership.

Ironically, the very fact that any benefit accruing to white ethnic groups, especially any benefit intended for the sake of white ethnic groups, is categorized as immoral white privilege, while any and all advocacy for nonwhite ethnic groups is categorized as "social justice," is itself an indication of white oppression. The broad permissibility for all nonwhite advocacy groups to advocate for their own people's interests, while all white ethnic groups are deemed either nonexistent or worthy only of disadvantaging, should be an obvious indicator that there is no white privilege which we ought to counteract.
Eric Reitan said…
Nil Desperandum: There are at least four questions we might ask about white privilege (WP):

1. What is it?
2. Does it exist in a given country or region (since I live in the US I will focus on it)?
3. Is it an injustice that ought to be addressed?
4. If the answer to (3) is yes, then how ought we best to address it?

You are absolutely correct that my original remarks, which Robin Parry published in this post, only address (1) and (2). But addressing (1) and (2) are necessary for speaking clearly about (3) and (4). You are also correct that the justice or injustice of some kind of privilege within a social group may vary depending on the kind of social group one is talking about (is it a nuclear family? a club? a political action committee? a religious community? or a whole society or nation state?), the kind of privilege at issue (privilege based on religion? or based on native language? or based on whether one is current on one's club dues? or based on race?), how that privilege is related to the nature of the social group, and how that privilege affects the welfare and life prospects of both the privileged and the unprivileged.

One of the features of my understanding of WP, expressed in the post, is that it is a feature of "society." I suppose I could spend time trying to unpack what that means, but it should be fairly evident. I have in mind geographically and politically unified communities of people, such as nation-states (but arguably also cities and other regions that have a common civic life), in which there are norms and practices (including laws) that affect everyone who lives in or visits the geographic region over which the society extends. That's not a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (I'm not sure that is possible, since I suspect "society," like "game," is what Wittegenstein calls a "family resemblance concept"). Rather, I'm just trying to point at what I mean.

What I want to be clear about is that when I speak of a society, I have in mind something as broad as the US or as small as Enid, OK, but I do not have in mind St. Mark's Lutheran Church or the Sons of Norway is Missoula, MT, or the Ponca City Country Club. These are groups that, under some ranges of use, could be called "societies," but they exist IN a society in the sense I have in mind along with other groups, as a part of it. Likewise for such things as businesses, hospitals, and schools (which provide services to the larger society in my sense), and such entities as the Democratic Party, the Alabama KKK, the Classical Music Advocacy Association, the Des Moines Anarchy Now group, the American Heart Association, and the NAACP (what might be called advocacy groups with a mission to affect society in my sense in ways that might be morally objectionable or laudable, depending on the case).

Now the question is what we should think about the justice of white privilege in a society in the indicated sense.

(Since I'm worried this comment may exceed word limits, I will break here and continue in a separate comment.)
Eric Reitan said…
The first thing to note is that not all kinds of privilege in a society are unjust or even avoidable. For example, every society has, as part of its social organization or structuring, one or a small number of dominant languages. A common language or small set of common languages seems unavoidable for the kind of cooperative social existence that characterizes as society. But when there is a dominant language, that feature of society privileges the native speakers of that language. They have an advantage--a small advantage over those who are fluent but not native speakers and so have an accent that marks them off as different (a difference whose impact could be magnified or minimized by other systemic features of the society), and a large advantage over those who are not fluent. So this is a case of privilege in my sense: an advantage that is created by something systemic in the society--in this case organizations around a dominant language.

But is that unjust? We might think a society ought to strive to mitigate the negative impact of those who don't speak the language by, say, making translators available in certain key situations where the stakes are high (such as, say, when medical treatment is sought or when someone is arrested for allegedly committing a crime). But such mitigation does not remove the privilege. It's a privilege not to need a translator to understand what charges are being filed against you. Clearly, the benefits of having a shared language justify the inevitable privilege that speakers enjoy over non-speakers, even if we think (as I do) that steps at mitigation are morally called for.

But the question at issue is whether there is something unjust about privileging persons based on the cluster of visible physiological traits that have come to be used to classify people according to "race." It's worth noting that white privilege would not exist if we hadn't come to attach social significance to certain clusters of physiological traits, significance we don't attach to other clusters. If humanity hadn't come up with these racial categories, these ways of classifying and dividing, there would be no possibility of white privilege--since "white" as a category is an outcome of this prior act of attaching significance to some but not all externally visible traits. And it is worth noting, also, that our racial categories are accidents of history rather than methods of division with inherent social utility. If there are generalizable differences among races, these are the product of the activity of categorizing and promoting differential treatment based on category membership. That said, race is socially real because we have so deeply ingrained these categories into our cultures.

But whereas having a common language has a clearly useful purpose that justifies it despite the relative advantages and disadvantages that result, this project of essentially arbitrarily classifying people based on outward physiological traits and treating different classifications differently is an accident of history with no clear purpose to justify the advantages and disadvantages that result. White privilege is thus the sort of privilege that has no justifying purpose but does lead to social inequity. Some people in society are better positioned to flourish, simply by virtue of possessing the "right" set of unchosen physical traits.

(Breaking here for word count limits)
Eric Reitan said…
Inequity is not necessarily a problem when we are talking about a social club, depending on what the organizing principle of that social club is and what the impact of its existence has on the larger society. So, for example, suppose a bunch of red-heads decided to form the Ginger Club, and they got themselves a lodge in which dues-paying gingers could gather to drink ginger beer. Non-gingers could only enter as guests. Within the structure of this club, gingers have privilege. But is this inequity a problem? One relevant fact here is that the Ginger Club is a voluntary, private association whose existence has very little impact on those who don't belong to it. If the Ginger Club were somehow able to take over the whole town and apply its rules to every bar and restaurant in town, such that non-gingers could only get a drink or a meal outside their homes if they were guests of a ginger, then the inequity would extend to society. I think we'd all agree that as soon as this inequity reaches beyond the boundaries of a voluntary private association of this sort, it has become seriously unjust.

But suppose that, instead of gingers taking over the town and changing city laws to privilege gingers, they just happened to be in the majority, such that most bars and restaurants in town were owned by gingers. And suppose that, by an unstated consensus rooted in the idea that gingers are better, these owners all apply the policies of the Ginger Club to their bars and restaurants. Non-gingers in town have far fewer bar and restaurant choices because of this systemic pattern. They can't eat at the best restaurant in town because they haven't been invited as the guest of a ginger. Now setting aside the question of whether these bar and restaurant owners have the right to set up these policies (sometimes we have a *right* to do things that we ought not to do because they are unfair or harmful to others), surely we'd agree that this inequity in this town is not a good situation. The disadvantages experienced by non-gingers are not justified by a beneficial purpose the way that the disadvantages of non-native speakers, while regrettable and perhaps calling for mitigation, are justified. Rather, the disadvantages are the result of a false ideology (gingers are better!) paired with a demographic accident (gingers are in the majority) that gives gingers the power to impose their false ideology and its harmful effects on everyone in the town. This situation is a bad situation we would want to fix--perhaps through anti-discrimination laws for businesses providing public services and accomodations, or through grassroots efforts to call out the false ideology and those who perpetuate it.

(Breaking for word limits)

Eric Reitan said…
Imagine an organization formed to do just that--to challenge the gingers-are-better ideology, to advocate for policies that include non-gingers on an equal footing, to affirm the inherent worth of non-gingers in a society that consistently perpetuates through subtle and not-so-subtle socialization the gingers-are-better idea, and as a stop-gap to provide opportunities for non-gingers to help even the playing field. Such an organization is functioning to eliminate ginger privilege in society by adopting policies and practices *within the organization* that may privilege non-gingers, but for the purpose of countering ginger-privilege on the societal level. As such, it is not on the same moral footing as the ginger-privilege in society.

You get my point, and I need to get ready for class. So let me sum up the main lessons. Societal privilege is different from privilege within smaller organizations within society. Societal privilege affects people who often have no option but to live under and endure these effects, and even if they do have the option of avoiding them it is only by taking dramatic actions (such as being uprooted from one's home) that the privileged have the privilege of not needing to take. As such, societal privilege stands in need of justification. Some privilege (native language speaker privilege) is justified by a clear social good, but privilege based on race has no such purpose. We might tolerate privilege of this sort when it is in a social club (the Ginger Club), but only if the impact on society at large is negligible, which will be a function of other social factors (who is in the majority, whether false ideologies or merely playfulness are the reason for the privileged social club, the history of prejudice and discrimination, etc. And when racial privilege is part of an organization as an essential feature of a mission of fighting societal racial privilege, it is justified for that reason.
MrPete said…
There are other assumptions made in this. For example: ignoring oppressions for the moment (recognizing oppression is always evil), why is it assumed that "nobody is like me" is a bad thing?

A healthy reaction could be: "wow, I am unique, special, unusual, interesting! What can I do with my life that others can't?"

As an example, we once cared for a young woman with severe ADHD. When she went looking for p/t work, I suggested: "your disadvantage is only in the eyes of society. You have a huge advantage in reality. You can multi-task better than anyone else!"

She became the best "closer" at our local Taco Bell. She could run all seven stations herself, no problem.
Robin Parry said…
Nil Desperandum

Thank you for offering a calm and thoughtful comment. I apologize for the delay in replying—I was away at a conference for a few days.

I see that Eric has already addressed some of your concerns. I would concur with his comments.

However, I would like to add an additional theological reflection. My views on this issue are shaped in part by the fact that I am a Christian. Christian concerns may or may not carry any weight with you, but I will share them anyway. If you think of yourself as a Christian then I hope that you will see that what I say is what the Bible teaches.

I agree that our sense of self is in part informed by our social location—which includes family, nation, sub-culture, race, and so on. But for a Christian, the new and primary locus of our identity is Jesus and our new identity given in Christ (Gal 3:28, etc.). For Paul, this does not negate other factors that inform our sense of who we are, but it does relativize them. Consequently, from a NT perspective I share more in common in terms of primary identity with a baptized African-American person, say, than with a non-Christian white person from my home town. I may be culturally more comfortable with the the white guy from down the street, but my "in-Christ" identity takes priority. You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family—and in Christ believers are one family.

Consequently, if I was to seek privileges for white folk like me because whiteness is part of my self-identity I am acting contrary to the gospel itself. I am seeking privileges for some of my sisters and brothers over others of them. More than that, I am seeking a state of affairs in which lots of those with whom I am one in Christ are disadvantaged vis-a-vis many people who are not even my brothers and sisters. I am, in other words, making my whiteness more central to my identity than my status in Christ. That, for a Christian, would be to act against our baptism, against Christ himself. As such it is an anti-Christ way of living.

I think most people are racist, myself included, and so this NT way of seeing things is a major challenge for all of us. To take our unity in Christ seriously would revolutionize churches if we took it seriously.
Malcolm said…
Robin, a post on classical theology (it's short!) and Aquinas' conception of Divine Love, which you may find interesting.
Robin Parry said…
Malcolm, thanks. It was interesting. I am inclined to agree with you.

Robin Parry said…
So Malcolm, who are you?
Malcolm said…
No one in particular! Haha. Just a fan and lover of theology - especially classical theology. Thanks for reading my post. Are you doing any speaking engagements in the States any time soon?
Robin Parry said…
I am not booked to speak at anything in the States. Sorry.
Malcolm said…
What do you think about the following objection? If Universalism is true, it results in moral nihilism insofar as there is no ultimate difference in living a virtuous life or living a vicious one. An analogy: we say it is better to put money in stock that does well than in stock that does not do well, because in the former case one gets a return on one's investment. However, if ultimately no matter how you invest your stock you become a billionaire, then the difference between a poor investment and a wise one seems relative, perhaps trivial.
Robin Parry said…

I'd say that a better analogy is this: there are two roads, one of which leads to life and the other of which leads to decay and death. The only way to life is to take the road to life. As long as someone remains on the road to death s/he will only ever know decay and death.

Universalism is simply the belief that at some point all people will get on the road to life.

Universalism is not the belief that either road is as good as the other or that it does not matter which road we are on. It absolutely matters!

Note too that salvation is theosis, becoming God-like. So holiness is integral to salvation. That is why those who taught apokatastasis in the early church were so keen on holiness. Origen et al. were hardly moral nihilists! On the contrary, the pursuit of holiness was integral to their notion of the journey of salvation. So the best cure for this kind of claim is to read Origen.

The objector also forgets that the experience of the road to death is dis-integrative for people and that such disintegration is something worth avoiding.

Sorry for delay. V. busy.

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