By Marie O’Toole
The term ‘white privilege’ has been lighting up the Twittersphere, the blogosphere, and just about every other media-sphere lately. Many of us (white people) – perhaps most – have not really grasped what it means (or doesn’t mean), nor how it applies to us…or what the connection of ‘privilege’ to ‘power’ is.
First, to define what the term is not: when someone speaks of a pervasive ‘white privilege’, it is neither an indictment nor a blanket accusation of all whites being racist. It is not ‘reverse prejudice’, nor a guilt-trip imposed by disenfranchised minorities against what they perceive as a counter-culture. What is meant by the term (as I’ve recently come to understand) is that the very fact of being a non-minority affords us the luxury of being ambivalent to common (although often subtle) struggles or injustices minorities face. It has nothing to do with affirmative action, Louis Farrakhan, or quota laws. It has more to do with day-to-day snubs, covert racism, and just plain weirdness that non-whites encounter in daily life. Because we whites* are not subject to exactly the same types of slights and problems, we’re more or less unaware that they even exist. (I dislike the term “micro-aggressions”, because it calls to mind spoiled college kids whining about not having fat-free soy lattes in the dining hall, but you may use it to discuss white privilege if you like. To me the term “micro-agression” sounds petty, and it’s really not pettiness we’re describing here.)
Having grown up in progressive New England, from personal experience I can’t recall ever personally witnessing an incident of overt racism. (Which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist; just that I’ve never seen it). Friends who have lived down South, however, tell a different story. In explaining white privilege, Lori Lakin Hutcherson, a very articulate writer, told of the time her family moved into an upper-middle-class (predominantly white) neighborhood, and their swimming pool became the target of rock-throwing. Excelling academically in high school, she attended Harvard University – and experienced surprised looks and comments from many people who would never have reacted in such a way to a white student matriculating to Harvard. Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network and PhD student from Mississippi, describes being out for ice cream with friends and being circled by the police – presumably because they were all black. There was no reason for law enforcement to be there, and they wouldn’t have been there at all had the ice cream-imbibers been white. A white group out for a snack would never even think of the police casing them. Yet for minority males, it is often standard operating procedure.
‘American Privilege’ or ‘Tallness Privilege’ as an Allegory
A very illuminating explanation of ‘white privilege’ was posted on Quora by Omar Ismail, a stand-up comic of Middle Eastern descent, in which he compared being white to being tall. There are some inherent advantages, and no one is blaming you, but denial or defensiveness is pointless.
Neither I nor anyone in my immediate family has a racist bone in our body, so I can sincerely say that I am ‘colorblind’ and have always believed that achievement is based on merit alone – and nowhere in the world are academic and professional achievements more equal opportunity than here in the United States. But the more I learn about the subtlety and complexity of the issue, the more I think of ‘white privilege’ as being somewhat akin to what I experience when traveling, as an American, in Europe (well, Eastern Europe anyway). When people realize I am an American, their countenances often change. They are suddenly more interested – as if my life experience and humanity is somehow more valuable because I am from the US. (I am not, of course, talking about Paris – where those in the ‘hospitality industry’ are notorious for being douche-waffles to Americans). And yes; we all know that there are scams and muggings and people/organizations ready to take advantage of Americans abroad, but that is not what I’m talking about here. I’m trying to describe the overly-attentive attitude of the average Joe on the street.
When I am in a hotel or visiting a friend, for example, locals immediately warm up to me and want to know about my family, job and life in America. They compliment pictures of my children; ply me with chocolate and coffee; and seem delighted that I enjoy their country. It’s not that I would get a ‘special price’ on a room, or preferential seating in a restaurant, but the general treatment is such that if I were a Turkish or Liberian or Chinese woman, I know that I would not receive the same level of interest. I intuitively know that if I were to complain about something (which I wouldn’t), the problem would be fixed much more quickly. It is subtle, but such is ‘American privilege’. It is something I neither court nor exploit, but it exists.
Privilege Equals Power
The important thing to realize in the discussion about ‘white privilege’ is that no one is asking anyone to feel individual or collective guilt. No one is looking for tokenism; and no one wants to be condescended or pandered to. The minorities who articulate this hidden reality ask simply that more melanin-challenged folks accept that there are, inherently, perks to being white in the sense that we will not experience the same type of race-based bias which they often do. And by accepting this, we may develop two things:
- A realization that being part of a majority group (or culturally more entitled, however unofficially) axiomatically yields power, to some degree;
- Acknowledging this inherent power can foster either a sense of empathy for those outside the dominant group, or a sense of entitlement that breeds contempt.
The Golden Rule of Power
A saying goes, “He who has the gold makes the rules”, and nowhere is this truer than in politics. But it is also true in a metaphorical sense, because society functions according to a set of unwritten rules. When someone is seen as “other”, he or she may try unsuccessfully to break into a circle only to be excluded due to factors beyond his or her control. For example, the affirmative action policies in education that were first implemented in the 1970’s and ‘80’s have served to level the playing field for everyone in terms of obtaining a quality education (in theory, at least. There are countless communities in such abject poverty that affirmative action only serves to promote….integrated poverty). But even taking the rosiest possible view of equal educational opportunities, minority kids and teens are more often bullied on school busses and hear racist remarks than their white counterparts. This is a power-play at the earliest level.
Recently, I was talking with my friend Amos (go read his blog too!) about this privilege-power dynamic, and how those in privilege (speaking broadly here) tend not to even realize the inherent power it serves them, because we are oblivious to how ‘the other side’ experiences it. He compared it to a woman experiencing sexism or harassment in the workplace (which I would offer is a much rarer occurrence nowadays than racially-based covert aggression). Men cannot understand the vulnerability and “dirtiness” a woman feels when being oogled by a stranger; and in fact, a male bystander probably wouldn’t even notice it if the encounter doesn’t become verbal. That, by nature, is power: being so insulated from such experience that one doesn’t even have to consider it happening to them.
In The 48 Laws of Power, a cynical and matter-of-fact analysis of how power (and subsequently ruthlessness and hubris) is built, author Robert Greene states “Preach the Need for Change, but Never Reform too much at Once” as law # 45. Many demagogue leaders, followers of the majority, and even pastors do exactly this – pay lip-service to a sociological problem; vow to change it; and do “a whole lot of nothing”. It might negatively impact them (or at least their popularity among followers) to upset the apple cart, so it is easier and more beneficial to maintain the status quo.
And if it hasn’t happened to me, it must not really be happening, right?
Conditioned to Believe: When the Voiceless are Further Silenced
Let’s all keep quiet; keep our heads in the sand; and pretend no one is in a more vulnerable position than us or even being victimized. This same power dynamic has led to a culture of silence regarding oppression (both racial and sexist) in patriarchal authoritarian churches. As I wrote about in my soon-to-be-released book, Fractured Covenants: The Hidden Problem of Marital Abuse in the Church, the authority structure in such religious groups puts and keeps the “right” people in power; while silencing all others – especially dissenters. Women not only have the deck stacked against them (Ephesians 5:22 is typically used as a catch-all conversation stopper), but interestingly, it is often other women who are the loudest proponents of their own oppression. Women such as Lori Alexander, Debi Pearl and others work tirelessly to keep women in bondage to man-made rules, confining them to the house, and often trapped in abusive marriages. In fact, I found it both interesting and ironic that during my own ordeal of being harassed and slandered by the leader of the high-control religious group I left, it was predominantly the men who contacted me to express empathy and support. Both current and former male members of the religious group, as well as male colleagues in the biblical counseling world, were horrified by the leaders’ victimization of me and were nothing but compassionate; and while many women were as well (especially those who had known me for years), they were less vocal. And the two most vitriolic, hateful attacks I received for speaking out about the spiritual abuse were from other women. Both of whom had been in abusive marriages years prior, and divorced.
I have a theory as to why this is. Women in the evangelical subculture have such a limited voice and sphere of influence that they will compete for ‘power’ any way they can (I have seen this happen among jealous ladies’ bible study leaders), and one of the main ways they can garner respect (and therefore a form of psychological ‘power’) is by backing up whatever prominent male Christian leaders espouse. I have sat in on workshops at biblical counseling conferences that, in essence, conditioned women to enable emotional abuse from their husbands. Many of these ladies take complementarian teaching to extremes their male counterparts would never dare. They become
sycophants servant-leaders to Scripture-twisters powerful male church leaders who keep their sisters oppressed.
It’s a classic, dysfunctional case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” I am not the first woman to notice this: No Longer Quivering author Vykie Garrison has described how women in the Patriarchy movement actually believe that they are “choosing” a life of servitude and inequality, and in a Stockholm syndrome-like way, are actually “joyful” about it. Godly men, who are aware both of their inherent power and how it has been abused, strive for mutual respect and honor among the sexes.
‘Denial’ is Not Just a River in Egypt
So what has this to do with ‘white privilege’, unchecked power, and how it (overtly or covertly) oppresses the more vulnerable group? One common denominator is that denial of the problem exacerbates it. The harder the pushback, the stronger the defensive attitude of the prevailing party. A national example of this is the resurgence of ‘white nationalism’ under the current administration. The KKK and white supremacist movements (small as they may be) do not exist in a vacuum. When there is mass push-back to what a large group is experiencing, and that push-back is rooted in denial (and even the absurd counter-claim that the minority group is actually receiving greater dividends or privilege than the majority), contempt is bred. Rather than attempting to walk in another’s shoes, see and empathize with their very valid and objective experiences, denial creates straw-man arguments and stirs up even more contention.
Privilege exists among the elite, and you need not be wealthy to be ‘elite’. Privilege carries with it inherent power in its own sub-culture, whether it be an upper-class ‘white’ neighborhood, a homogeneous corporate environment, or a church where women are allowed no voice. When you are a member of the ‘in’ group – the upper-hand majority, in whatever context that may be – simply realizing and acknowledging the relative strength of your position (rather than denying there are certain benefits to your status) helps guard against an imbalance of power. Closing our eyes and pretending that there is no difference in access to the “top shelf” is the opposite of empathy. The (Anglo-Saxon) concept of noblesse oblige, written about during the Renaissance by Machiavelli, demands that those born into a more privileged position in society help those who weren’t to reach the tuna on the top shelf.
There is plenty of tuna for everyone, and no one need have a monopoly on the tuna. Tuna seekers, regardless of race or gender, should not be shamed into silence – either for speaking out against tuna-hoarders, or for asking for assistance in reaching those high-up cans. Listen to those who struggle for tuna. Empathize with their experience, even if it is not your own and you have no frame of reference. And as we learn to empathize with those who have had different challenges than us since birth, may it make us more compassionate rather than defensive.
*(I do think that to some extent, however, we should narrow the term ‘white privilege’ to ‘native-born American white privilege’. Caucasian immigrants – especially ones with heavy accents – deal with many of the same problems that US-born people of color do, but that is the subject for another blog post. Probably a LENGTHY one.)