Why We Should Talk Less About “White Privilege” More About ‘“Anti-Blackness”
Language can be a double-edged sword — revealing some truths while concealing others.
The term “white privilege” can illuminate the ways in which born into whiteness (the social experience not the skin color) affords certain advantages in our society; advantages which often manifest as protection — folks generally don’t assume you are criminal if you are walking around a neighborhood, or that you’re underserving of your job or college admission based upon your race. People don’t follow you in stores, doctors listen empathetically when you are in pain. When a politician uses the phrase “Real Americans,” it’s almost certain that they imagine someone who looks like you.
At bottom, the privilege of whiteness is merely that people treat you like a human being; that the inherent value of your individuality, your work, your life, is presupposed. White privilege does not dismiss the challenges and inequality that many white Americans face, it just means that race is not one of them.
But I also can’t shake the feeling that the term is a veil.
“White privilege” seems like happenstance. Like a prince born to a wealthy and powerful dynasty, you can’t choose to be born into the monarchy of whiteness.
James Baldwin said “whiteness is a metaphor for power” and it goes without saying that the more power (in whatever form it takes) someone has, the more they can consolidate certain privileges. In this sense and within our social context, “white privilege” seems redundant. But I think we should also remember, like Martin Luther King, Jr. said, that “Power is not the white man’s birthright.” Power is an active process, not a passive inheritance.
The term has entered our public discourse in a way that feels like it misses the mark. It obfuscates the true ill of our society — not that white people have privileges, but that black people are devalued. Blackness brings worthlessness or at least “worth less”-ness to the things it touches. In our society, the worth of black life is not inherent, but has to be established, proven. It is subject to the “marketplace of ideas.”
We know how deep anti-blackness is in America, stretching from slavery to the present: from studies that show support for economic policies go down if they are perceived to help black people to white flight to discourse on affirmation action to the perception that black people don’t feel as much physical pain to fights against affordable housing to not getting call-backs for jobs if you have a black-sounding name to disparities in criminal justice to the reactive “Well, what were they doing? response to black men, women, and children getting shot by police, etc. The list is too long to enumerate here, but it’s an obvious fact that black people have been fundamentally treated differently.
Talking about “white privilege” is a pretty charged conversation for most of us. But to a much greater extent, I think we are incredibly uncomfortable acknowledging how much the average person in America devalues blackness. Talking about “white privilege” feels like another way to kinda, sorta talk about what we know to be true; a baby step towards saying “there’s an elephant in this room.”
Lorraine Hansberry once said “We’ve been trying very hard in America to pretend that this greatest conflict didn’t even have at its base the only thing it had at it’s base.” She was talking about the Civil War and our memories (or mythologies) surrounding it. But I think this quote is useful for thinking about race in America, from cordial conversations amongst colleagues to mainstream political discourse to white supremacists on Reddit.
To be fair, I could be making a conceptual mistake here, not seeing the forest for the trees. It could also be a chicken or the egg thing: in our society, do white people get treated better or do black people get treated worse?
Maybe white privilege is just one concept in a larger conversation about race in America, and anti-blackness is another. Both can be useful in specific contexts, and both certainly have been argued against in others. If you don’t think anti-blackness is real, that the idea of white privilege is pretty absurd.
All I’m really trying to say is “anti-blackness” gets at the heart of the matter. It has a descriptive power and it also functions as a mandate. I think we should talk less about white privilege and more about anti-blackness.