"White Privilege Doesn't Exist": Redefining Privilege

(Source Picture: Lucy's Cards)

Originally uploaded: 18th May 2020

It’s 4am on a Saturday. For some reason, I decide to take a walk with my ‘friend’ to Tesco to get food. Everyone with normal sleeping patterns are asleep and I’m watching the midnight blue hues collide with warm orange tones. I hear the gentle morning breeze and the hum of cars passing by. 

It’s absolutely beautiful. 

“Tell me about white privilege,” says my ‘friend’- this was a conversation we’d had many times.

“Well it’s the privilege that puts you, a white male, ahead of me, a black female.”

“But I’m not white,” he says. 

He was white. 

“I’m foreign white,” he continued. 

“So white privilege doesn’t exist, it doesn’t apply to me.” 

I tried (kinda), but I literally described privilege as privilege. So what is white privilege?

According to Peggy McIntosh's essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," McIntosh describes white privilege as 'an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions'. It is the idea of upholding the myth of whiteness as the average and default, while reinforcing the myth meritocracy. She describes white privilege as the belief that white people are inherently better than other based on merit and perceived strength but in actuality it is 'permission to escape or dominate.'

In other words, McIntosh describes white privilege like Dora The Explorer's backpack, in which, all the tools needed to thrive in a society are contained. She dismisses the idea that societal roles are based on merit and talent, but rather through bias, influence and favour. Your seat at the table is not a reflection of your strength but of mere access.

However, the essay undermines white privilege by identifying it to be a consequence of racism. Additionally, it overlooks the struggles and experiences of white people. As Cory Collin notes 'privilege, especially for poor white people, sounds like a word that doesn't belong to them - like a word that suggests they have never struggled.' 

This is what my 'friend' was referring to. He did not benefit from this privilege because he was not white.

No, he's not like Rachel Dolezal.

He was saying, he's not white British.

Now, what I will not do is dismiss his experience as a European immigrant living in a Brexit society. The European Sociological Association conducted a study with 1,100 secondary school students, originally from Central and Eastern Europe. The report found 77% of students reported experiences of racism, xenophobia and bullying since Brexit in 2016.

Yes, racism.

In my own bias, prejudices and subjectivity, I saw racism through a polarising lens. I found it hard to understand white people hating other white people - even when my 'friend' explained his own experience. But race is a social and cultural construct that changes according to historical context. Thus, the boundaries and criteria for who fits in each category changes.

Historically, Eastern Europeans have not been formally included in the ideology of white supremacy. According to Nazi ideology, they were regarded as 'subhuman' and 'inferior' (Bendersky, 161). Today, Britain has failed to integrate European immigrants into white British society, allowing them to be the scapegoat for the nation’s short-comings. They are stealing all our bloody jobs! Ultimately, it is the idea that Eastern Europeans fail to hit the mark - "you're just not white enough."

However, white privilege is not about cancelling other people's struggles - especially the struggles of low class white people or immigrants.

White privilege - and privilege in general - is about power.

Cory Collin's article "What is White Privilege, Really?" defines white privilege through power: The power of the normal - Who has the power? Who has the power to make the norms? The power of representation - Who is represented? Who's needs are catered to? Who is a stereotype? The power of access - Who is allowed in the room and who is not? And finally, what I like to call: The power of ignorance - who can simply ignore and shut the curtains on what is happening in the world on a daily basis. (I recommend reading the work of Sara Ahemd who investigates power relations and challenges universality.) This extends its application to a lot more areas within our society, i,e. gender, sexuality, religion, colour, body size, ethnicity etc. In all areas in which hierarchical categories are established, there is privilege. Privilege reflects attributes, characteristics, beliefs etc. deemed the most desirable, favourable and 'beneficial' for the continuation of a society. I'll give an example: male privilege allows my 'friend' to walk to Tesco alone at 4am, he is allowed to filter out the perceived dangers of walking alone. Walking into Tesco, we saw a group of black guys, he asked whether I knew them. White privilege allows for white people to be individually identified rather than the idea that "all black people know each other" or "are the same."

That. Those questions. That example. That's privilege.

But that's not the only reason I was asked. I was asked not just so he could defend his struggle, but also to address his guilt. 

When addressing privilege - and the questions it poses - there is an automatic backlash of guilt. People don't want to acknowledge the systematic problem, thus when privilege is addressed it becomes personal rather than systematic. 

But I was not asking my 'friend' for his guilt. I was not asking my 'friend' for a nice "I'm sorry I'm white" card. Addressing white privilege is not racist. Accepting white privilege is not racist. White privilege is about broadening recognition of bias and the myth of equality. 

When it comes to privilege, the privileged group are not aware of their privilege but rather perceive it as a 'necessity' and 'basic right'. Within the guilt, there is a focus on protecting the self and blaming the other for being other. If anything, it becomes part of the problem. Privileged people use their power of ignorance to shut the curtains on societal issues, in order to protect themselves.  But it is a societal and systematic issue.

Racism exists. White privilege exists as a consequence and cause of racism (and the institution of race). Addressing privilege should not be used to undermine people's struggles. [White] privilege is about power relations. It means to correlate systematic power to equality. It is about recognition and awareness. Addressing it means to start a conversation about changing the system. So privilege isn't privilege. It isn't an event in the Oppression Olympics. It does not amount to lack of struggle. What it does is show the aspects of you (which can be above your control) that are desirable and will aid you within society.

[White] privilege doesn’t exist - in the way you think it does.