The Problem of Privilege

On many occasions, I have heard American people of color suggest that white privilege and those who deny its existence are two major obstacles in the path to justice and equality. White privilege by itself—the perennial explanation (besides racism, which the term is nearly synonymous with) for why white Americans have less trouble with the police, get approved for more loans, get more job interviews, etc.—is harmful enough, but the real danger lies in the forces allowing it to persist. I say it’s nearly synonymous with racism because, in America, the two cannot exist without one another. Wherever one finds white privilege they automatically find the racism responsible for it.

It stands to reason, then, that to decry the scourge of white privilege is to decry racism in general. No one would profit from the color of their skin if there was no hierarchy of those colors. The abovementioned deniers often believe that white privilege cannot exist because no such hierarchy exists. Take for example the rapidly multiplying opponents of critical race theory: many vilify the study of racism as divisive, anti-American, and even racist itself, because it seeks to analyze the historical and present impact of a hierarchy that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of. (Others, of course, remain unaware of what critical race theory actually is.)

If it were true that, say, there was not over a century’s worth of evidence demonstrating the continued impact of racism in the wake of slavery and Jim Crow, then the study and professed existence of said racism would obviously be dishonest and immoral, which the theory’s opponents believe it to be. But many fail to realize that a similar misstep occurs when the privilege enjoyed by white Americans is singled out as being particularly counteractive to racial progress.

It’s widely known that being in a position of privilege can impair one’s ability to empathize or sympathize with those without privilege. Those with wealth or power or prestige are often at odds with those without, if only because of the critical contrast. Privilege creates and exacerbates rifts between races, classes, sexes, and more. This is why it’s imperative that we understand that even though privilege plays an integral role in America’s racial issues, that is by no means its only domain. It sows division within communities just as frequently as it does between them, and it comes by easier than some might notice. For example, a customer possesses an inherent privilege that an employee does not, even if the employee holds a socioeconomic advantage over the customer. In this case, privilege is gained by merely deciding to go shopping.

As one would expect, since the opportunities for acquiring privilege, even momentarily, are so ubiquitous, so are the problems that privilege creates. Because of their positional advantage, customers reserve the ability to treat workers not as humans, but servants. We must remember that top-down verbal, emotional, and physical abuse exist on every totem pole in existence, be it racial, economic, or otherwise, and that’s why I believe the indictment of white privilege to be too shortsighted—privilege itself is the issue. The white variety may not even be the most prolific, but the power its users hold certainly renders it the most heinous. It’s a problem deserving of close attention and constant counteraction, to be sure, but so is the privilege that affords people of all colors, creeds and socioeconomic statuses the right to simply not care.

It’s often suggested that the task of closing the racial divide must be put to white people because of the power and resources that they hold. They must use what they have to promote equality, peace and the collective good. Singling them out, though, suggests that they must act because it is their privilege to remain blissfully inactive that proliferates inequality, racially motivated bloodshed and the like. I contend in rebuttal that the poorest, Blackest, most institutionally abused individual in existence has this same privilege. That individual may feel a stronger call to action, but they have just as much of a right to ignore it as, say, Jeff Bezos does.

Though it’s fair to say that, from a historical viewpoint, the issue of racial division in America is one of white mercantile creation, the unfortunate truth is that the hole they dug is much too deep for one pale pair of hands to climb out of. The road to freedom is one of collaboration and collective responsibility, and everyone can contribute something, no matter how small.

As I write this, there is probably some member of some American racial minority somewhere haranguing the way that white people’s privilege allows them to choose to do nothing about what causes that privilege. The sooner we recognize that there is nothing white at all about that privilege, the sooner we start doing a better, broader, and more honest job of eliminating it.

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