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White Privilege: What It Is and Who Has It?

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Discussions about whiteness and privilege have become more and more common. Whites, it is argued, have a form of unearned societal privilege which therefore explains certain gaps between whites and non-whites. White privilege is the privilege that whites have in society—this type of privilege does not have to be in America, it can hold for groups that are viewed as ‘white’ in other countries. This, then, perpetrates social views of race, hence these people are realists about race but in a social/political context and do not have to recognize race as biological (although race can become biologicized through social/cultural practices). This article will discuss (1) What white privilege is; (2) Who has white privilege; (3) Arguments against white privilege; and (4) If race doesn’t exist, why does white privilege matter?

What is white privilege?

The concept of white privilege, like most concepts, evolves with the times and current social thought. The concept was originally created in order to account for whites’ (unearned) privileges and the conscious bias that went into creating and then maintaining these privileges, to unconscious favoritism/psychological advantages that whites give other whites (Bennett, 2012: 75). That is, white privilege is “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks” (McIntosh, 1988).

More easily, we can say that white privilege is—the privilege conferred, either consciously or subconsciously, to one based on their skin color or, as Sullivan (2016, 2019) argues, their class status ALONG WITH their whiteness is what we should be talking about—white privilege with CLASS in between ‘white’ and ‘privilege’. In this sense, one’s class status AND their whiteness is explanatory, not only the concept of whiteness (i.e., their socialrace). The concept of whiteness—one’s skin color—as the privilege leaves out numerous intricacies in how whiteness gives and upholds systemic discrimination. When we add the concept of ‘class’ into ‘white privilege’ we get what Sullivan terms ‘white class privilege’.

While yes, one’s race is an important variable in whether or not they have certain privileges, such privileges are held for middle- to upper-middle class whites. Thus, numerous examples of ‘white privilege’ are better understood as examples of ‘white class privilege’, since lower-class whites don’t have the same kinds of privileges, outlooks, and social status as middle- and upper-middle class whites. Of course, though, lower-class whites can benefit from their whiteness—they definitely can. But the force of Sullivan’s concept of ‘white class privilege’ is this: white privilege is not monolithic towards whites, and some non-whites are better-off (economically and in regard to health) than whites. Thus, according to Sullivan, ‘white privilege’ should be amended to ‘white class privilege’.

Who has white privilege?

Lower-class whites could, in a way, be treated differently than middle- and upper-class whites—even though they are of the same race. Lower-class whites can be seen to have ‘white privilege’ on the basis of everyday thought, since most think of the privilege as down to just skin color, yet there is an untalked about class dimension at play here, which, then, even gives blacks an advantage while upholding the privilege of the upper-class whites.

Non-whites who have are of a higher social class than whites would also receive different treatment. Sullivan states that the revised concept of ‘white class privilege’ must be used intersectionally—that is, privilege must be considered interacting with class, gender, national, and other social experiences. Sure, lower-class whites may be treated differently than higher-class blacks in certain contexts, but this does not mean that the lower-class white has ‘more privilege’ than the upper-class black. This shows that we should not assume that lower-class whites have the same kinds of privilege conferred by society as middle- and upper-class whites. Upper-class blacks and ‘Hispanics‘ may attempt to distinguish themselves from lower-class blacks and ‘Hispanics’, as Sullivan (2019: 18-19) explains:

Class privilege shows up as a feature of most if not all racial groups in which members with “more”—more money, education, or whatever else is valued in society—are treated better than those with “less.” For that reason, we might think that white class privilege actually is an intragroup pattern of advantage and disadvantage among whites, rather than an intergroup pattern that gives white people a leg up over non-white people. After all, many Black middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans also go to great lengths to make sure that they are not mistaken for the Black poor in public spaces: when they are shopping, working, walking, or driving in town, and so on (Lacy, 2007). A similar pattern can be found with middle-to-upper-class Hispanic/Latinx people in the United States, who can “protect” themselves from being seen as illegal immigrants by ensuring that they are not identified as poor (Masuoka and Junn, 2013).

Sullivan then goes on to state that these situations are not equivalent, since wealth, fame, and education do not protect upper-class blacks from racial discrimination. The certain privileges that upper-class whites have, thusly, do not transfer to upper-class blacks. Further, middle- to upper-class whites distinguish themselves as ‘good whites’ who are not racist, while dumping all of the racism accusations on lower-class whites. “…the line between “good” and “bad” white people drawn by many (good) white people is heavily classed. Good white people tend to be middle-to-upper-class, and they often dump responsibility for racism onto lower-class white people” (Sullivan, 2019: 35). Even though the lower-class whites get used as a ‘shield’, so to speak, by upper-class whites, they still have some semblance of white privilege, in that they are not assumed to be non-citizens to the US—something that ‘Hispanics’ do have to deal with (no matter their race).

While wealthy white people generally have more affordances than poor white people do, in a society that prizes whiteness all white people have some racial affordances, at least some of the time.

Paradoxically, whites are not the only ones that benefit off of ‘white privilege’—even non-whites can benefit, though it ultimately helps upper-class whites. They can benefit by being brought up in a white home, around whites (like being adopted or having one white parent while spending most of their childhood with their white family). Thus, white privilege can cross racial lines all the while still benefitting whites.

Sullivan (2019: chapter 2) discusses some blacks who benefit from white privilege. One of the people she discusses has a white parent. This is what gives her her lighter skin, but that is not where her privilege comes from (think colorism in the black community where lighter skin is more prized than darker skin). Her privilege came from “her implicit knowledge of white norms, sensibilities, and ways of doing things that came from living with and being accepted by white family members” (Sullivan, 2019: 26). This is what Sullivan calls “family familiarity” and is one of the ways that blacks can benefit from white privilege. Another way in which blacks can benefit from white privilege is due to “ancestral ties to whiteness.”

Colorism is the discrimination within the black community by skin color. Certain blacks may talk about “light-” and “dark-skinned” blacks and they may—ironically or not—discriminate on the basis of skin color. Such colorism is even somewhat instilled in the black community—where darker-skinned black sons and lighter-skinned black daughters report higher-quality parenting. Landor et al (2014) report that their “findings provide evidence that parents may have internalized this gendered colorism and as a result, either consciously or unconsciously, display higher quality of parenting to their lighter skin daughters and darker skin sons.” Thus, even certain blacks—in virtue of being ‘part white’—would benefit from white (skin) privilege within their own (black) community, which would therefore give them certain advantages.

Arguments against white privilege

Two recent articles with arguments against white privilege (Why White Privilege Is Wrong — Quillette and The Fallacy of White Privilege — and How It Is Corroding Society) erroneously argue that since other minority groups quickly rose up upon arrival to America, therefore white privilege is a myth. These kinds of takes, though, are quite confused. It does not follow that since other groups have risen upon entry into America and that since whites have worse outcomes on some—and not other—health outcomes, that therefore the concept of white privilege is ‘fallacious’; we just need something more fine-grained.

For example, the claims that X minority group is over-represented compared to whites in America gets used as a point that ‘white privilege’ does not exist (e.g., Avora’s article). Avora discusses the experiences and data from many black immigrants, proclaiming:

These facts challenge the prevailing progressive notion that America’s institutions are built to universally favor whites and “oppress” minorities or blacks. On the whole, whatever “systemic racism” exists appears to be incredibly ineffectual, or even nonexistent, given the multitude of groups who consistently eclipse whites.

How does that follow? In fact, how does the whole discussion of, for example, Japanese now outperforming whites follow that white privilege therefore is a ‘fallacy’? I ask the question, since Asian immigrants to America are hyper-selected (Noam, 2014; Zhou and Lee, 2017), meaning that what explains higher Asian academic achievement is academic effort (Hsin and Xie, 2014) and the fact that Asians are hyper-selected—meaning that they have a higher chance of having a higher degree.

The educational credentials of these recent [Asian] arrivals are striking. More than six-in-ten (61%) adults ages 25 to 64 who have come from Asia in recent years have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is double the share among recent non-Asian arrivals, and almost surely makes the recent Asian arrivals the most highly educated cohort of immigrants in U.S. history.

Compared with the educational attainment of the population in their country of origin, recent Asian immigrants also stand out as a select group. For example, about 27% of adults ages 25 to 64 in South Korea and 25% in Japan have a bachelor’s degree or more.2 In contrast, nearly 70% of comparably aged recent immigrants from these two countries have at least a bachelor’s degree. (The Rise of Asian Americans)

Avora even discuses some African immigrants, namely Nigerians and Ghanaians. However, just like Asian immigrants to America, Nigerian and Ghanaian immigrants to America are more likely to hold advanced degrees, signifying that they are indeed hyper-selected in comparison to the population that they derive from (Duvivier, Burch, and Boulet, 2017). Thus, to go along with the stats that Avora cites on the children of Nigerian immigrants, their parents already had higher degrees, signifying that they are indeed a hyper-selected group. This means that such ethnic groups cannot be used to show that white privilege is explanatory.

While Avora does discuss “class” in his article, he shows that it’s not only ‘white privilege’, but the class element that comes along with whiteness in America. He therefore unknowingly shows that once you add the ‘class’ factor and create the concept of ‘white class privilege’, that this privilege can cross racial lines and benefit non-whites.

In the Harinam and Henderson Quillette article, they argue that since there are some things that we say are ‘good’ that non-whites have more of than whites, therefore the concept of ‘white privilege’ does not explain the existence of disparities between ethnic groups in the US since some some bad things happen to whites and some good things happen to non-whites—but this is an oversimplification. The fact of the matter is, whites that do receive privileges over other ethnic/racial groups do so not in virtue of their (white) skin privilege, but in virtue of their class privilege. This can be seen with the above citations on class being the explanatory variable regarding Asian academic success (showing how class values get reproduced in the new country which then explains the academic success of Asians in America).

The fact that both of these articles believe that by showing some minority groups in America have more ‘good’ things than whites or better outcomes for bad things (like suicides) misses the point. That whites kill themselves more than other American ethnic groups does not mean that whites do not have privilege in America compared to other groups.

If race doesn’t exist, then why does white privilege matter?

Lastly, those who argue against the concept of white privilege may say that those who are against the concept of white privilege would then at the same time say that race—and therefore whites—do not exist so, in effect, what are they talking about if ‘whites’ don’t exist because race does not exist? This is of course a ridiculous statement. One can indeed reject claims from biological racial realists and believe that race exists and is a socially constructed reality. Thus, one can reject the claim that there is a ‘biological’ European race, and they can accept the claim that there is an ever-changing ‘white’ race, in which groups get added or subtracted based on current social thought (e.g., the Irish, Italians, Jews), changing with how society views certain groups.

Though, it is perfectly possible for race to exist socially and not biologically. So the social creation of races affords the arbitrarily-created racial groups to be in certain areas on the hierarchy of races. Roberts (2011: 15) states that “Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.” She argues that we are not biologically separated into races, we are politically separated into them, signifying race as a political construct. Most people believe that the claim “Race is a social construct” means that “Race does not exist.” However, that would be ridiculous. The social constructivist just believes that society divides people into races based on how we look (i.e., how we are born) and then society divides us into races on the basis of how we look. So society takes the phenotype and creates races out of differences which then correlate with certain continents.

So, there is no contradiction in the claim that “Race does not exist” and the claim that “Whites have certain unearned privileges over other groups.” Being an antirealist about biological race does not mean that one is an antirealist about socialraces. Thus, one can believe that whites have certain privileges over other groups, all the while being antirealists about biological races (saying that “Races don’t exist biologically”).

Conclusion

In this article I have explained what white privilege is and who has it. I have also discussed arguments against white privilege and claims that those who argue against race are hypocrites since they still talk about “whites” while claiming that race exists. After showing the conceptual confusions that people have about white privilege, along with the fact that groups that do better than whites in America (the groups that supposedly show that white privilege is “a fallacy”), I then forward Sulllivan’s (2016, 2019) argument on white class privilege. This shows that their whiteness is not the sole reason why they prosper—their whiteness along with their middle-to-upper-middle-class status explains why they prosper. It also, furthermore, shows that while lower-class whites do have some sort of white privilege, they do not have all of the affordances of white privilege due to their class status. Blacks can, too, benefit from white privilege, whether it’s due to their proximity to whiteness or their ancestral heritage.

White privilege does exist, but to fully understand it, we must add in the nexus of class with it.


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