Humanism and the Challenge of Privilege

This article is an excerpt from chapter four of When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer:  Humanism and the Challenge of Race (Pitchstone Publishing, 2017). This book is part of a series on practical humanism Dr. Pinn is editing for Pitchstone.

LET’S START with a basic statement for context: race-based privilege isn’t lodged only in wealth and material “stuff” possessed. It isn’t simply the ability to buy things or in other ways secure goods. It isn’t a matter of financial wellbeing or how much money one has in the bank. So, one can be economically challenged, white, and still privileged because in the United States it isn’t assumed that the economic condition of a white person speaks a fundamental truth about their very being, who she or he is in an inherent way. So many assume that acquisition (or class status) defines privilege, due in part to the fact that we have cast progress in terms of economic health. As a consequence, much less attention is given to larger issues of identity that shape how rich or poor people are understood, valued, and appreciated … or not.

Think about the above in light of questions asked commonly with energy and with sincerity: “My family didn’t have slaves … why is racism my problem?” Or, with even more passion and confusion: “We’ve had a black president, what more do you want?” I get why people ask these questions and others like them, but I also understand that such questions (sincere or not) fail to recognize the nature of privilege in the United States. That is to say, whiteness comes with a range of perks not deciphered by gauging who owned plantations and who didn’t. Some of them are obvious—standards of beauty geared toward that population, and more economic success on average are but two. However, there are also “soft,” or less easily articulated, forms of privilege that are often ignored: the assumption the police are there to serve and protect; the assumption you weren’t placed near the restroom in the restaurant because of skin color; the belief you should be able to drive a luxury vehicle without people assuming you are a drug dealer; the notion you should be successful and it’s a problem if you aren’t; the assumption you are included in the “we” that defines citizenship in the United States; and the idea that “making America great again” fundamentally includes your wellbeing.

Sure, not all white Americans are wealthy and protected, but even so their whiteness is not used as proof-positive of inherent inferiority. Whiteness isn’t used as the reason why they aren’t successful. White Americans aren’t defined by the worst of their circumstances. No one says, “Well, that poor behavior is what you can expect … after all, he’s white.” Who looks at a white American television character and assumes the character is a true-to form representation of all white Americans?

Privilege is the socially arranged and culturally ingrained assumption that one’s perspective is normative, one’s importance firm, and one’s right to what the United States has to offer beyond question. It’s the assumption that when “people of color” are mentioned it means everyone except “white” people. And, this thinking isn’t questioned in ways that change the dynamics of collective life. Effort to rework this thinking by highlighting the value, importance, and integrity of other communities brings this privilege to the forefront.

A message such as “Black Lives Matter” and the effort to turn it into “All Lives Matter” have highlighted the ongoing presence and power of white privilege. On the surface, this broader slogan is a way of naming all human lives as valuable, but it hides something. It hides white privilege by not questioning the very reason the Black Lives Matter pronouncement matters. It doesn’t correct the situation of racial injustice—the manner in which race and racism have defined life in narrow ways for a significant portion of the population. Instead, this seemingly well-meaning shift in emphasis covers up inequalities through a fog of passive language and a quick turning of the tables. This, “Hey, everyone matters!” doesn’t allow those who suffer due to the effects of racism to voice their plight. Instead, they are told to get in line behind the “dominant” population. Nothing changes, and white privilege remains the rule of the day—complete with not too subtle a suggestion that the Black Lives Matter struggle is actually divisive and a problem that does more damage than the conditions it seeks to address. Those who point out violence against blacks are marked as causing hostility because they are the source of discord. In an odd twist, then, those who seek to maintain things as they are in the form of the racial status quo come off as unifiers who are the true champions of democracy and individual wellbeing.

It’s tricky, and I don’t write this as a dismissive or paternalistic statement. Rather, there is challenge here in that privilege isn’t visible. No, it’s the consequences or the attitudinal and material connotations of privilege that frame and impact collective life in the United States. Few whites, I would argue, walk around thinking about their privileges. No, they don’t think they’re privileged; they simply live these privileges and give all this no more thought than one would about the supply of oxygen we consume from moment to moment, no more than we think about the gravity that keeps us grounded. We aren’t aware of oxygen or gravity until their existence—or access to them—is threatened. The same is the case with white privilege: it goes without saying, until those who don’t benefit from such privilege name it, challenge it, and seek to interrogate it.

Privilege—these unstated opportunities and positive assumptions—if not tackled, taint justice work by turning attention to whites rather than keeping the focus on the racial minorities most deeply impacted by white privilege. Such a move wipes out any starting point for justice work because it marks the entire population as harmed. White privilege is denied in the guise of the human condition, and as consequences those who suffer most from racism are denied opportunity to expose and critique the systemic structures and social assumptions that support their oppression. Once the “All Lives Matter” rhetoric is deployed—like a bucket of cold water—any effort to subvert that generalization so as to support racial minorities who encounter racism in particular ways comes across as aggressive, counterproductive, racist, and destructive … and nothing changes. Here’s the proverbial elephant in the room: “white” Americans are raced. White privilege is meant to hide this fact, to make it seem as all others are raced but whites are just … well, colorless humans.

The markers of white privilege have been a topic of conversation in certain quarters for a good number of years now, and I’m going to draw on those sources in what follows. Perhaps one of the most widely recognized names in the early presentation of this “way” of life is Peggy McIntosh, whose essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” (Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women, 1988) stirred things up. An excerpt of that longer piece—retitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”—condenses many of the concerns that frame this article, and that I summarize below. In the shorter piece, McIntosh provides a list of twenty-six examples of white privilege, which mark out the socioeconomic, political, cultural, and psychological benefits of whiteness in the United States as the dominant cultural symbol and as a physical majority.

McIntosh begins by pointing out what racial minorities experience: whites are often unaware consciously of privilege but their denial, if not their actions, speaks to their reality and a deep desire to protect those advantages birthed through the social construct of cultural whiteness, which is tied to certain physical markers of majority status. McIntosh puts it best when saying, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” And, she continues with a visual, “white privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” All these provide access to and transport around the various geographies of life in the United States.

Often these privileges are unacknowledged because they are coded into the very rights of citizenship in this country, and there is an assumption that, post-slavery (and other racial atrocities), these rights are available to all. Yet, while in theory this is the case, in practice full access to the “goods” and “grammars” of American life remain restricted and accessed by a particular membership card given to some at birth and denied others. Sure, some African Americans, some Latino/as, some American Indians, some Asian Americans, and so on, have the markers of success. And this is because economic success isn’t the only marker of this privilege. So, Asian Americans can have a median household income higher than the white population (according to some sources), and still face disadvantage because privilege has social-cultural dimensions not tied to a paycheck. Economic success doesn’t prevent having one’s identity determined by (or at least measured against) stereotypical depictions of one’s racial group, for instance. The general practices of life in the United States still disadvantage racial minorities.

What’s more, the failure of racial minorities to achieve is assumed a marker of a general and intrinsic inferiority, while this perspective isn’t generally applied in the case of white Americans who don’t succeed. Whites remain understood as entitled and the failure to access what they are entitled to isn’t a permanent stain on them. These, as McIntosh notes, are unearned advantages—the “stuff” that comes along with being born into the white race—and these unearned privileges can wreak harm on other racial groups that don’t share the same advantages.

The challenge is to recognize white privilege, react in ways that maintain this uncomfortable awareness, and rework systemic structures of collective life in such a way as to decrease white privilege and maximize the wellbeing of all. Denial of privilege won’t end practices of privilege. As McIntosh argues, such a stance serves to reinforce privilege by denying where it is present and how it works.

In certain ways, McIntosh and I are interested in the same thing: exposing white privilege as real, developing strategies to decrease its negative impact, and working to shift the focus for this activity to the racial minorities harmed by white privilege—to make them the center of conversation. One should think about this not strictly in terms of the loss of privilege but rather as gain, as advancement in that diversity of perspective and opinion is actually strength. As a result, by acknowledging privilege and supporting equity, we work toward the full humanity of all as accountable and responsible agents in the world. Within the context of humanist organizations and communities, there are numerous ways to tackle this work on white privilege. Here are just a few:

  • Make acknowledgment of white privilege central to the missions and aims of humanist organizations and communities. That is to say, through such a naming of white privilege within the context of collective self-understanding, it becomes possible to understand the dismantling of white privilege as fundamental to self-understanding and operational success.
  • Contextualize this acknowledgment of white supremacy. In other words, this public recognition of a problem must be tied to particularities of life and can’t be a general statement that doesn’t target real situations and concerns. Those sorts of abstract statements simply cloud the issues, preventing substantial thinking and working because they give no base upon which to ground praxis. Speak in detail and in light of particulars.

As part of this process, and within the conversations that are sure to ensue, I would suggest removing certain terms and phrases from the accepted language for conversation. Here are a two examples:

  • People of color—this term tends to assume racial minorities are the only raced groups, as if whites aren’t also connected to the social construction of race.
  • I’m color-blind—on the surface this might sound like progress, but in reality it keeps whiteness normative. It treats difference as a problem to solve as opposed to an opportunity for expansion and growth. When rendered a problem, the logical course of action is to solve it, and in the United States—based on the workings of race and white privilege—this fix maintains the centrality of whiteness in that the fix is to make racial minorities more like whites.

There will be setbacks and missteps, but the work needs to be consistent and marked by persistence, and a setting of goals (e.g., diversity in the leadership of our organizations; more than racial minorities lecturing on racial justice; strong public statements from our organizations in response to racial injustice; significant organizational resources devoted to racial justice work; and strong partnerships with racial justice organizations) that highlight discernable advancement over the long haul.