More thoughts on why system of white privilege is wrong
By Robert Jensen
Published in Baltimore Sun · July, 1999
LAST JULY, I wrote an article about white privilege for The Sun (https://robertwjensen.org/articles/white-privilege-shapes-the-u-s/) and every week since it appeared, I have received at least a dozen letters from people who want to talk about race.
A wire service carried the article and it was picked up by newspapers across the nation. More people found it on the Internet, where electronic copies wound up on discussion lists. And Ambrose Lane, who is black and hosts a talk radio show in Washington, D.C., discussed the article on the air and offered to send copies to anybody who requested one.
Since the article appeared on July 19, 1998, I have given a lot more thought to who I am, and I’ve learned a lot more about why many white people can’t come to terms with my premise: whites, whether overtly racist or not, benefit from living in a mostly white-run world that has been built on the land and the backs of non-white people.
The reactions have varied from racist rantings, to deeply felt expressions of pain and anger, to declarations of solidarity. I’m white and I mentioned that in the article. Someone in Minnesota sent me a can of black shoe polish. I think I get the message.
But the most significant response I got was from non-white folks, predominantly African-Americans, who said something like this: “Of course there is white privilege. I’ve been pointing it out to my white friends and co-workers for years. Isn’t it funny that almost no one listens to me, but everyone takes notice when a white guy says it.”
Those comments forced me again to ponder the privilege I live with.
Who really knows more about white privilege, me or the people on the other side of that privilege?
Me, or a black inner-city teen-ager who is automatically labeled a gang member and feared by many white folks?
Me, or an American Indian on the streets of a U.S. city who is invisible to many white folks? Whose voices should we be paying attention to?
My voice gets heard in large part because I am a white man with a doctorate who holds a professional job with status.
In most settings, I speak with the assumption that people not only will listen, but will take me seriously. I speak with the assumption that my motives will not be challenged; I can rely on the perception of me as a neutral authority, someone whose observations can be trusted.
Every time I open my mouth, I draw on, and in some ways reinforce, my privilege, which is in large part tied to race.
Right now, I want to use that privilege to acknowledge the many non-white people who took the time to tell me about the enduring realities of racism in the United States. And, I want to talk to the white people who I think misread my essay and misunderstand what’s at stake.
The responses of my white critics broke down into a few basic categories, around the following assertions:
1. White privilege doesn’t exist because affirmative action has made being white a disadvantage. The simple response: Extremely limited attempts to combat racism, such as affirmative action, do virtually nothing to erase the white privilege built over 500 years that pervades our society. As a friend of mine says, the only real disadvantage to being white is that it so often prevents people from understanding racial issues.
2. White privilege exists, but it can’t be changed because it is natural for any group to favor its own, and besides, the worst manifestations of racism are over. Response: This approach makes human choices appear outside of human control, which is a dodge to avoid moral and political responsibility for the injustice we continue to live with.
3. White privilege exists, and that’s generally been a good thing because white Europeans have civilized the world. Along the way some bad things may have happened, and we should take care to be nice to non-whites to make up for that.
Response: These folks often argued the curiously contradictory position that non-whites and their cultures are not inferior and white/European culture is superior. As for the civilizing effect of Europe, we might consider five centuries of inhuman, brutal colonialism and World Wars I and II, and then ask what “civilized” means.
4.White privilege exists because whites are inherently superior, and I am a weakling and a traitor for suggesting otherwise. Response: The Klan isn’t dead.
There is much to say beyond those short responses, but for now I am more interested in one common assumption that just about all these correspondents made — that my comments on race and affirmative action were motivated by “white liberal guilt.”
Well, they are wrong about a couple things. I am white — but I’m not a liberal. I’m a radical; I don’t think liberalism goes far enough to address problems based on race, gender, sexuality or class.
And I don’t feel guilty. Guilt is appropriate when one has wronged another, when one has something to feel guilty about.
In my life I have felt guilty for racist or sexist things I have said or done, even when they were done unconsciously. But that is guilt I felt because of specific acts, not for the color of my skin. Also, focusing on individual guilt feelings is counterproductive when it leads us to ponder the issue from a psychological point of view instead of a moral and political one.
So, I cannot, and indeed should not, feel guilty or proud about being white, because it is a state of being I have no control over.
But as a member of a society — and especially as a privileged member of society — I have an obligation not simply to enjoy that privilege that comes with being white, but to study and understand it, and work toward a more just world where unearned privilege is eliminated.
Some of my critics said that such a goal is ridiculous; after all, people have unearned privileges of all kinds.
Several people pointed out that, for example, tall people have unearned privilege in basketball, and we don’t ask tall people to stop playing basketball nor do we eliminate their advantage.
The obvious difference is that racial categories are invented; they carry privilege or disadvantage only because people with power create and maintain the privilege for themselves. Violence is the tool creating the privilege and it is maintained through the threat of force and other more subtle ways.
I can’t change the world so that everyone is the same height, so that everyone has the same shot at being a pro basketball player. In fact, I wouldn’t want to; it would be a drab and boring world if we could erase individual differences like that.
But I can work with others to change the world to erase the effects of differences that have been created by one group to keep others down. Not everyone who wrote to me understood this. Clearly, the person in Clement, Minn., who sent me the can of black shoe polish did not understand. No correspondence accompanied the shoe polish, so presumably the sender’s message was if I felt so bad about being white, I ought to paint myself black.
But I don’t feel bad about being white. The only motivation I might have to want to be black — to be something I am not — would be pathological guilt over my privilege.
In this case, guilt is a coward’s way out, an attempt to avoid the moral and political questions. As I made clear in the original essay, there is no way to give up the privilege; our society confers it upon us, no matter what we want. So, I don’t feel guilty about being white in a white supremacist society, but I feel an especially strong moral obligation to push for change because I benefit from the injustice.
What matters is what we decide to do with the privilege. For me, that means speaking about white privilege and it means listening to those who don’t have it. Listening to people like the elderly black man who saw it on the bulletin board outside my office and stopped to chat with me. This man, who has experienced decades of racism, told me: “White privilege, yes, good to keep an eye on that, son. Keep yourself honest. But don’t forget to pay attention to the folks who live without the privilege.”
It doesn’t take black shoe polish to pay attention. It only takes a bit of empathy to listen, and a bit of courage to act.