Politics  •  September 2, 2017

How to Talk About “White Privilege”

Today, the term “white privilege” is no longer a concept in social science; it has become a dogma. Unless the term is used to denigrate white people, we cannot use it; or we risk being called “racist.” It’s a blanket term to automatically invalidate an argument of a white person, particularly a white man. It is also a term that automatically lends authority to an argument of any person of color. For these reasons, the term has lost its analytical value. We cannot objectively or reasonably analyze what constitutes “white privilege” in our society. This is a troubling trend.

Fairness is a human construct invented through reason. It does not exist in nature. There is no fairness in lions eating zebras alive. Without reason, there is no fairness. If we are to undermine our institution of reason in favor of the dominant public sentiment, we can never achieve fairness in the true, civilized sense of the term. What we achieve instead is only revenge, just a feeling of achieving fairness.

Earlier this year, an intense confrontation erupted at Evergreen State College when the students suggested that white students and professors leave campus for a day. “A Bernie Sanders-backing biology professor” objected. All hell broke loose. Which side is right is beside the point. Why must a disagreement lead to such an uproar and physical threats? What happened to our institution of reason? What is wrong with having an open debate? It is clear that people are no longer interested in understanding one another; they simply want conformity to dogma or revenge.

Even within whites, on one side, we have submissive people who would never contradict any person of color. They almost masochistically accept any charges of guilt and systematically belittle and invalidate their own opinions. They see their duty in fighting racism as feeling sufficiently guilty and apologizing whenever possible.

On the other side, we have white people who are angry that their opinions are dismissed solely based on the color of their skin. Their economic plights are dismissed and ignored on account of their “white privilege.” They fear that they would be called “racist,” “white supremacist,” or “Nazi” if they say anything. So, the polls were wildly inaccurate in the last election.

It seems that there is no will to understand those who disagree. A disagreement has become a heresy. In the case of Evergreen, the moral outrage exploded because the dissent came from within their own echo chamber. The disagreement was perceived as “a breach of trust” as if a pursuit of truth is a team sport. Although the terms like “critical thinking” or “thinking for yourself” are thrown around in the academia like buzz words, when someone actually does it, everyone is outraged.

On both sides of this racial issue, the crux of the problem is the misuse of racial generalization without consideration for the individual stories. When you use the term “white privilege” to dismiss a white person’s argument, you are using the same mechanism the police uses in racial profiling. Just because “white privilege” does exist in our society, it does not mean that this specific white person is overall more privileged than you are. You do not know his full story.

When you fight prejudice with prejudice, not only you escalate the tension but also compound the problem, making it harder to solve. In Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831, the fact that they indiscriminately killed all white people they came across, including children, makes it hard to feel any sympathy towards them. And in revenge, the white militia indiscriminately killed blacks whether they participated in the rebellion or not. What we see today is a verbal version of this tit for tat, an eye for an eye. What people want is revenge, not understanding.

In this moving article written by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, she responds to a white man named Jason who asked what “white privilege” is. As powerfully convincing as her stories are, I do not think what Jason needed to hear was more stories of black people suffering. There are countless movies, books, and articles about them. As an average American, you couldn’t avoid them, even if you wanted to. Some white people’s reluctance to acknowledge their complicity in “white guilt” is coming from somewhere else. It’s not from their lack of knowledge about the suffering of blacks.

The problem with the word “privilege” is that it is often used broadly to judge someone’s entire life. People do not use it to refer to specific aspects of their lives. Let me give you an example.

When you take into consideration everything about my life, on aggregate, I’m more privileged than most white people in this country, but if you were to take only the racial aspect of me (Asian), I’m not as privileged as a white person. But this does not mean that all white people are more privileged than I am. I’m more privileged than most white people. For instance, in college, before every semester, I just took out my dad’s credit card to pay the tuition. I graduated with no debt. Many of my friends worked during summer break to pay for tuition and graduated with huge debts. Some of them are still paying them off. I can list many more privileges I have, but you get the point.

When using the term “privilege,” we need to make sure we are clear about what aspect we are referring to. Is it socioeconomic class, race, citizenship, gender, disability, height, looks, health, language? Without this clarification, if you debate about “white privilege” with a white person, he can easily take it to mean that he specifically is overall more privileged than you are. But this would not always be true. He might indeed be less privileged than you are depending on what happened in his life. And, if so, it would be hard for him to accept your implied accusation of complicity. It turns into a competition of who is the bigger victim.

This race to the bottom has intensified recently because, often in political debates, the winner is not determined by the merits of their arguments but by who the bigger victim is. Regardless of their merits, the opinions of the more privileged are routinely dismissed and those of less privileged are automatically given more authority. The privileged people are automatically wrong, and the underprivileged are automatically right. “You are privileged, so shut up,” is what many white people are hearing. This is indeed unjust because we cannot make any assumptions about their overall positions of privilege solely based on the color of their skin. Doing so is tantamount to assuming that every black man we see is a criminal just because statistically there is a higher probability of a black man being a criminal.

This is what many white people are objecting to. Just for being white, they are automatically assumed as privileged overall even though it’s not possible to determine such a thing, at least not easily. And, even if it turns out to be true that he is more privileged overall than you are, it is unfair to assume so before making an effort to understand his whole life. Nobody wants to be prematurely judged.

We cannot fight prejudice with prejudice. If we want to fight prejudice, we have to refuse to use prejudiced tactics ourselves. In discussing “white privilege” with a white person, we have to be careful not to apply the concept to evaluate his entire life. Explaining that we are speaking strictly about his racial privilege, not about any other aspects of his life, can prevent him from perceiving any threat of being unfairly and prematurely judged. He would then be more likely to understand the ubiquity and the deeply rooted nature of “white privilege.” Our discussion will be more productive. The question we must always ask ourselves is this: Do we want to understand each other? Or, do we want revenge?