Safe terms, Euphemisms, Distracting Discursive Projects: “White Privilege,” What’s in a Name?

also check me at kameelahwrites.

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Racialicious pointed me toward an awesome blog called the North Star which is “an online forum of discussion and debate maintained by black activist and justice-minded students at Yale University. By creating an easily-accessible online library of social and political commentaries, we strive to foster a community voice that calls for positive change at Yale and across the world.”

I came across their recent post written by Naima and they put words to a lot of frustration I have held about the term “White Privilege” and those who use it so haphazardly. It is entitled “it ain’t privilege, it’s injustice” I have pasted a few parts here, with my response following the block quotes.

however, the fact that most white students at yale (or in this nation) do not think critically about the relationship between their whiteness and social power does not mean that those white, self-professed progressives who recognize their social and economic privilege have accomplished anything more than a certain degree of honesty about history.

This here is an excellent point. I have actually grown exhausted with such
“self-congratulatory” declarations of “I have White Privilege.” While such a declaration requires some introspection, for many Black folks it is a “duh” moment–a reality Black folks and other marginalized people have asserted for decades if not centuries. Sometimes I feel as if the “courageous,” “I have White Privilege” declaration is supposed to be followed by high-fives or gold ribbons or an award ceremony hosted by Black folks who have been awaiting the day some White people begin to acknowledge in some part that life isn’t peachy for all of this. Or maybe, after such declarations of “I have White Privilege” we are supposed to hold hands and hold a joyful funeral for the death of racism.


Declaring that you have white privilege does not make it disappear, nor does it make the lives of marginalized people any better. The problem with the self-congratulatory declaration of “I have White Privilege” is that sometimes-dang, all to often, after such a declaration, some White liberals will believe that their work is now done when all they have done is put together a truthful statement together. This is the danger of empty rhetoric and token sloganeering in anti-racist work. Of course, such a declaration does require some form of racial apostasy in the eyes of those who believe that slavery never existed and all the wealth and success held by White folks was gained from merit alone, but I challenge these people on the “privilege” tip to go a bit further. Now, maybe I am being too harsh, too critical, too acerbic, but at the end of the day, the term “White Privilege” does not even begin to address the relational power dynamics and the marginalization of people of color as Naima addresses with the following comment:

news to the aforementioned self-congratulatory white Leftists:

the much-beloved term “White Privilege” fails to capture the reality of racial injustice in this nation. moreover, unquestioning and incessant talk about the special position that white people inhabit in society reproduces racial divisions in progressive movements and upholds the logic of White Supremacy.

not exactly revolutionary…

“White Privilege” is a misnomer for it suggests that white people enjoy socioeconomic advantages and benefits beyond a standard level of rights and opportunity (which presumably non-white people are afforded). however, the term does not account for the exploitation and disfranchisement of people of color that is a consequence of “White Privilege.” people of color do not possess the freedoms and protections of full and actualized citizenship. the legal and social structures of this nation do not merely demonstrate partiality towards white people but also simultaneously deny people of color the most basic of human rights, such as housing, health, education, justice, peace. the corollary to what some would term “White Privilege” is “colored degradation.”

Safe terms, euphemisms, distracting discursive projects…these technologies are at the root of the term “White Privilege.” White Privilege has become a seductive phrase because it has a distracting and perfunctory purpose of dancing around the core issues of violence, injustice and continued repression that make “White Privilege” a reality. The term “White Privilege” like when folks use the term prejudice instead of Racism is a euphemism for something bigger, more destructive, more violent, and more divisive than the term “White Privilege” even begins to illustrates. “White Privilege” like the term “Diversity” (versus marginalization) signifies no active project of subjugation–no historical situatedness, rather it is more closely identifies an ontological state with no relation to the “others.” For someone to possess “White Privilege,” someone else (ie. me, my neighbors, etc.) have to be put at an extreme disadvantage.

I like the point the Naima makes because “White Privilege” implies that everyone else’s needs are sufficiently meet while white folks get a something extra on the side little. Like everyone in the world has a three piece Popeye’s chicken meal and White folks get an extra biscuit–everyone’s has something to eat, White folks have just a little extra. (I apologize for the fried Chicken analogy…) This arrangement while disturbing, is less discomforting then saying that a majority of marginalized people do not have their basic set of rights meet at the same time that white folks enjoy increasing levels of socio-economic advantages. So if we want to break it down to the Popeye’s analogy, that means that people of color are working with a one or no piece chicken meal because White folks are having a feast with extra sides, wings and biscuits. It is not my intention to distill this issue down to chicken and side dishes, but thought it would be a good visual analogy for our visual learners out there.

It is not the least bit revolutionary to latch on to a declaration that does not force you to confront how your privilege is connected to the continued degradation of others. The point is that before the “We’ve got White Privilege” crew goes running to collect their certificates for being “down,” I suggest that consider another point raised by Naima:

and so the white Leftists who think they are down because they have got the courage to lamentably declare, “We’ve got White Privilege,” it would be more accurate and truthful to say instead, “We are beneficiaries of racism,” or “We participate in a racialized system of oppression.”

how much more reluctant is the race conscious white activist to admit that his “privilege” has a consequence, that his whiteness is more than merely a personal reality about his own social power but is also an agent of violence.

Let’s see how many folks will walk around declaring “I am a beneficiary of racism.”

part of the project for white activists in recognizing their “privilege” should be the rejection of it – one must repent from, rather than embody an identity that represents oppression in its representation of privilege. “White Privilege” ought not be considered permanent or inherent, as if it inescapably resides in a white activist’s skin.

[…]

it is a great contradiction and injury that so much of white Leftist culture hinges upon the use of “White Privilege” as a badge, shield, or excuse. such toxic rhetoric and action naturalize and uphold the racial injustice that undermines the integration, equality, and solidarity we profess to seek.

Here, again, another meaningful point. Often the “I have White Privilege” declaration is stated in an immutable way as if it is an inescapable identity, an unchangeable ontological state. Such a posturing removes responsibility from White leftists. While the White Privilege declaration is problematic and discursively (as well as materially) violent, such a declaration should at least be followed by a sincere and well thought out project to exorcise this Privilege, not carry it around like a clutch purse or backpack that seems to be tethered to your body because to carry without unpacking naturalizes and normalizes the power dynamic, rather than problematizing and smashing it.

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Published on August 4, 2007 at 11:54 pm. 10 Comments.
Filed under academia,collective action,racial rhetoric,racism,radical politics.