Denying White Privilege

Charles Blow of the New York Times does us all a service by pointing out the peculiar ability of some people (well, Bill O’Reilly, but he’s hardly atypical) to acknowledge nonwhite folk in this country suffer from discrimination while denying while folks are “privileged.”

[O]nce one acknowledges the presence of bias as an impediment, one must by extension concede that being allowed to navigate the world without such biases is a form of privilege.

That privilege can be gendered, sexual identity based, religious and, yes, racial.

When one has the luxury of not being forced to compensate for societal oppression based on basic identity, one is in fact privileged in that society.

Seems obvious enough to me. But it’s not surprising that some white people–and more particularly white men–have trouble accepting that they have been personally “privileged,” because they view it as devaluing their own hard work and talent (“talent,” of course, is typically a “privilege,” too, more than an accomplishment, but we can deal with that issue some other time!). That’s a product of the peculiarly American identification of success with moral worth, and of markets with the assessment of souls.

Most of us can acknowledge “luck” as an important factor in our lives, and usually on reflection we dimly understand that “luck” and “privilege” are often the same thing. Moreover, when very large groups of people–say “African-Americans” or “women” or “poor people”–seem to rise and fall as groups, it’s pretty apparent “privilege” and the lack thereof, not the sum of millions upon millions of individual moral credentials, is at play. As I always like to point out, when the Great Depression hit, did the one-fourth of the American working-age population that was thrown out of work suddenly lose its “character?” Or did “privilege”–and again, the lack thereof–separate the wheat from the chaff, and the “winners” from the “losers?”

Perhaps the only good thing about openly discriminatory regimes is that their defenders rarely deny their basic nature. My maternal grandfather was a classic southern white yeoman of the Jim Crow era–a steelworker, textile worker, and weekend farmer. He had an eight-grade education and no social graces, and never put on airs. But he liked to say: “I’m better than any [African-American] who ever lived.” He understood white privilege very well, and gloried in it. Those who don’t glory in it can at least admit it exists.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.