To properly define racial privilege, we first must define race. We also need context, and to determine whether “privilege” in certain contexts is a bad thing. Maybe it’s just a product of that context.
The funny thing about race as a social construct is that it exists purely as a social construct. The more we feed it, or fragment it, the more it becomes a building block of society. Judging people by the colour of their skin, privileging certain groups over others, using unequal means to justify seemingly “equal” ends are all ways that place race – or gender, age, ability – at the centre of society.
Call me an idealist, but my version of equality and a healthy, vibrant and functioning society is not one where decisions are made around race. But it’s not in vogue to craft our world around utopian ideals.
“If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether [it] has racial overtones.”
This is point number 36 on a 46-item checklist meant to “check” your white privilege. Some of the others include whether you have access to makeup that matches your skin tone, can find a hair stylist who can deal with your hair, whether you get audited, and that you can “expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of [your] race” (emphasis added for dramatic effect).
Putting aside that the article presumes that, in our increasingly globalized world, all people of a race share the same experiences, I would like to point out a disturbing lack of Ukrainian-Irish “experiences” in my Top 40 playlist and my choice of abstract art.
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack was shared with me by a friend who was assigned to read it in a graduate program. It’s an opinion by an author whose work has been cited thousands of times (according to Google Scholar), yet actually cites no sources itself. It was also published in the late 80s and would be considered outdated, if it weren’t currently part of graduate-level curricula, or strongly similar to a lot of the rhetoric surrounding race relations in the U.S.
While it is just one person’s argument, it’s frightening that an opinion so one-sided, myopic and jaded is considered on its own healthy, challenging academic fodder. (Or maybe it is: it’s certainly challenging to read.)
The jist of it is that there are many “privileges” to being white in North America, and that you are not allowed to be okay with it. Whether “it” means privileged or white is irrelevant; they’re used fairly synonymously. The 46-point list itemizes the many things white people don’t have to concern themselves, something that results in privilege.
The author laments that her schooling “gave [her] no training in seeing [her]self as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture.” Because apparently, anyone who is white – and especially anyone who is a white male – is not only an oppressor, but should actively and continuously be aware of their role as an oppressor.
I think it’s inaccurate to think that everyone who is not white and living in the U.S. actively wonders whether their “bad day” has racial overtones. Ironically enough, if you are a white male seeking a job at a workplace with a racial and gender diversity quota that needs to be met, I think you may actually wonder whether not getting hired did, in fact, have racial overtones. But for all the privileges white men may have, one they don’t seem to have in this day and age is the privilege to complain. So let’s move on.
I don’t think the points made in this article, or in the many articles and columns on this topic that have come out since, encourage equality, regardless of race or gender. In fact these sorts of contributions to the ongoing public dialogue on equality instead highlight race, and create greater divisiveness. Articles like this create victims and abusers, oppressors and the oppressed.
Having access to makeup that matches one’s skin tone and being able to easily find a hair stylist that can deal with one’s hair have nothing to do with privilege. If I go to South Sudan, or Uruguay, and I can’t find the products or services I need, I wouldn’t say that either of those make me oppressed. I also wouldn’t argue that someone who has a low income is oppressed either, unless they live in a society that consistently denies that person employment, loans and assistance because of who they are or how they look.
The above is illegal in Canada and the U.S. It is illegal to pay a women less than a man would get paid for the same position, and it’s illegal to deny someone employment, or to pull them over, based on the colour of their skin. Society can’t force any individual to not hold views that are racist or sexist, but as members of that society we can ensure that we help create a system that does not promote or enforce either.
Articles that slam “whites” as oppressors (because you know, we’re all the same) and quizzes like Buzzfeed’s ‘How privileged are you?‘ (I’m at 66) just exacerbate our differences, and get us nowhere.