Some Twitter-driven thoughts on “white privilege”

August 28th, 2015

This morning I struck up a conversation with @GRIMACHU on the topic of “white privilege” — a term he rejects as nonsensical. I composed my reply in the form of a series of tweets, but he and I agreed in a friendly exchange that it would be simpler to itemize them here.

(I’ve retained the original numbering of my tweets for ease of reference, even though I posted only the first 6 of them on Twitter.)

1. IMO, @GRIMACHU, your ire over “privilege” is misplaced. But you’ve obviously given it much thought, so I’ll lay out my logic in detail.

2. Others are free to follow along, but I’ll frame the rest of these (30+) as replies to @GRIMACHU to keep from cluttering streams.

3. I also acknowledge that Twitter is cramped for this kind of discussion. We can change venue, if you want.

4. And I get it that we may simply disagree. If we do, please tell me where the disagreement arises. I genuinely want to know.

5. Okay, here goes. Let’s keep in mind a short vers. of that OED defn: “A special advantage available only to a particular group.”

6. The “Basic, expected, societal standard of treatment” you cite definitely SHOULD be equally available to all. Totally agree.

7. Alas, what do we observe IRL? That standard isn’t equally available, in this context, because racism still exists in society.

8. Now, COULD a POC be biased against white people? Of course. But is that really what we’re talking about when we say “racism”?

9. I don’t mean some abstract, philosophical definition of “racism” that applies it equally to any race. I mean in real life.

10. In the US, Europe, and many other parts of the world, whites have traditionally held most power, influence, and wealth.

11. And we’re not only talking about long ago. Whites remain the overwhelming majority of legislators, CEOs, the wealthy, etc.

12. This doesn’t mean that all whites are racist, or that things are as bad as they used to be. Not at all.

13. But wouldn’t you agree that POC continue to suffer from racial bias far more often & far more deeply than whites do?

14. If you don’t agree, what evidence would you cite that whites have it anywhere nearly as bad as POC in terms of racism?

15. There’s tons of evidence that IRL the basic standard of decent treatment is disproportionately afforded to whites.

16. Or, more precisely, that when the standard is denied on a racial basis, it’s disproportionately denied to POC.

17. This is no mystery; it’s grounded in mountains of research in history, psychology, etc. We know where it comes from.

18. So, unfortunately, the basic standard of treatment is not equally available to everyone. And the pattern isn’t random.

19. I’m a straight white native-born male. Through no action of my own, I experience nearly zero racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

20. To use your term (which I have no problem with), I’m not “underprivileged” in any of those dimensions.

21. So how could we label MY experience? For instance, does it work to describe it as neutral?

22. Alas, it’s not really neutral, because it’s way better than what a lot of people get.

23. One way to describe it would be to say that I benefit from “A special advantage available only to a particular group.”

24. Philosophically, sure, it SHOULDN’T be an advantage. It SHOULD be the standard everyone enjoys. But IRL it’s not.

25. And in the abstract, sure, I COULD suffer from anti-white bias. But IRL: nearly zero instances, & none w/power behind them.

26. None of this means I did anything wrong. In fact I couldn’t have done anything to change my race, where I was born, etc.

27. Rather, it’s an observation that I benefit from a sort of exemption-from-systemic-B.S. that POC routinely don’t receive.

28. So my question for you is: What term SHOULD we use for that unearned, unwanted exemption-from-systemic-bullshit?

29. “Racism” doesn’t work, because racism is not what I’M experiencing.

30. I experience a 2nd-order effect CAUSED by societal racism, but I don’t suffer b/c of either racism or this 2nd-order effect.

31. (By the way, this is why I can’t agree with your rephrasing of my earlier question, or that I engaged in tautology.)

32. In fact I BENEFIT from this 2nd-order effect, relatively speaking – even though I didn’t ask for it or want it.

33. So what shall we call that benefit? “White exemption”? “Pro-white bias”? “Status quo bias”? What would you suggest? [End.]

12 Responses to “Some Twitter-driven thoughts on “white privilege””

  1. Vicki Brown Says:

    I like status quo bias.
    Or perhaps unintentional inequality blindness?
    Social ignorance?
    Accident of birth?

  2. Grim Says:

    1. For other readers I should probably state my position up front.

    My position is that there is no such thing as ‘White privilege’ (or male privilege, or many of the others that are alleged as well). Obviously I’m talking contextually to the modern western world and, in my case, to Europe. I recognise that things are more fervid in the USA and racism plays a larger and different role there.

    The crux of it is this, a semantic issue, and – as a writer – I take that fairly seriously.

    The OED defines ‘privilege’ as: A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

    The baseline expectation of rights, treatment etc we have as a societally universal application cannot be properly called a privilege. So if we expect, endorse and demand – by law – things like fair trial, equal treatment before the law etc, this is the base and not a privilege.

    Those above this line may be called ‘privileged’ (royalty, officers of the law, perhaps the wealthy) while those beneath this base level might be called ‘underprivileged’ (the impoverished, in past times races were actively discriminated against in law).

    So we cannot describe someone who is, merely, white as being privileged unless there’s some other factor at work. It is simply too broad a brush and to assume that all white people are privileged is insulting and, frankly, racist – something I hope we are both against. In it’s own way it’s as insidious as referring to all black people as ‘thugs’ or ‘welfare queens’. It’s a dismissing stereotype that we should not tolerate.

    2-6. And this is what defines the base, the state of ‘privilege’ and the state of being ‘underprivileged’. I _suspect_ that some of the problem is down to PC newspeak which often avoids ‘negative’ terms such as ‘underprivileged’ or ‘disabled’. Sometimes this may be justifiable, but it complicates and obfuscates communication and in this instance creates a negative, dehumanising stereotype on the basis of race (whites).

    7. We do indeed find that certain groups (the wealthy, the political class etc) have privilege and that other groups are more likely, perhaps, to be underprivileged, but you still cannot productively describe those who sit at the societal standard as privileged, and you cannot break it down so simplistically by race.

    8. Yes, that is what racism means. Again to the OED: Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

    Simply put, prejudice on the basis of race. Yes, absolutely people can be racist against any race. A brief viewing of #BlackLivesMatter or #WhiteGenocide will show that within seconds.

    So yes, that IS what we’re talking about when we say racism.

    9-13. Probably, but in my studies I’ve found THE major contributing factor to be wealth disparity and the lack of social mobility. Race seems to largely be a distraction. It is true that PoC are more likely to be impoverished, but this merely reinforces my earlier point.

    None of this changes the definition of racism PLUS it makes a somewhat insulting presumption that somehow white people necessarily lack empathy or can’t look beyond differences that are – literally – skin deep.

    14. I wouldn’t, and this seems to be an unrelated claim to what I’m talking about when I dismiss white privilege, it only relates in terms of this being a racist and dehumanising term used to dismiss others. Unconscionably racist in fact. Do black people suffer racism more? Sure. Can whites also suffer racism? Hell yes. None of this really addresses the point on privilege.

    15. But is still the basic, societally expected standard of treatment and this is not a universal truth either of whites or PoC.

    16. Which would mean that they are more likely to be ‘underprivileged’ as a group, not that whites are privileged as a group.

    17-18. It’s mostly wealth based. Racism is a much smaller part and from my studies and number crunching I think that would almost disappear if you dealt with the wealth issues.

    19. I would disagree with your assessment, but anecdotes are not data so mine are equally irrelevant. Still, this is not a privilege, this is what we expect, want and legislate for as a society. This is the expected and demanded norm. The baseline.

    20-21. Yes.

    22. And way worse than what a lot of people get too, but it’s the goal, the expectation, the demand (if we assume you don’t run into trouble too, which we may as well for the sake of this).

    23. No, because it’s not special. It’s the expected norm. Those who do get this same degree of regard are underprivileged. You’re not privileged (unless you’re a Mason or something ;) )

    24. It’s neither an advantage above the societally expected norm, nor a dip below it. Nobody will fit the exact average in all degrees and regards, but by and large this is neither a privileged nor underprivileged position.

    25. In talking about White Privilege you’ve demonstrated a large one. There’s also things like affirmative action – which on many axes will go against you – and context.

    26-27. No, you don’t have an exemption. You are not privileged. Other people are underprivileged and again, it’s not so simplistic as race. If none of it means you did anything wrong, why is it treated as a secular ‘original sin’? Invalidating anything and everything you say and do and holding you accountable for long-dead ancestors?

    28. Normal.

    29. Except for the charge of ‘white privilege’ – and we cannot know what else.

    30-32. No, you don’t. Again, you’re at the baseline norm.

    33. It’s not a benefit, or a drawback, so we don’t call it anything. It’s just our societal norm, how we expect and demand everyone should be treated. Calling it ‘white privilege’ introduces a racial charge, dismisses people’s contributions, shuts them down, denies them basic human empathy and stereotypes a whole racial group with a broad brush, prejudicially, so that term would – indeed – be racist.

    To briefly sum up.
    Privilege: A right or special regard beyond the societal norm.
    Underprivileged: Not having access to those accepted societal norms.
    Racism: Prejudice on the basis of race.

    Assuming for sake of argument you suffer no prejudice on the basis of race, gender, sexuality etc (which we have legislated for) then you exist at the societal norm, neither privileged nor underprivileged.

    Assuming a PoC – ignoring any nuance or complication – is treated in a more negative manner by law enforcement, then they are underprivileged, denied that base level of treatment we, as a society expect.

    That’s all philosophically and semantically speaking.

    On a pragmatic level, telling someone they have had a cushy, privileged life when you know nothing about their life, assuming it purely on race and using their race and presumed circumstance to shut them up, dismiss them and treat them like crap is a) hypocritical when you’re fighting against racism and b) will make people defensive and closed to what you might be saying.

    Having just come out of arguing with a bunch of Stormfags, I can say – beyond the shadow of a doubt – that they gain great benefit from this kind of racist language and treatment, pointing to it as an ‘aha!’ moment that, sadly, many people are finding convincing.

    As an ancient and creaking old leftie I see things much more in terms of class/wealth and my concept of equality is one where identity (race etc) is irrelevant, while ID politics seems to give it primacy and in so doing makes genuine equality and fairness seem impossible.



  3. Tim Walker Says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, and sorry it’s taken me so long to reply in turn. A few thoughts in response.

    A. We are, indeed, talking about two different settings, insofar as you’re in Europe and I’m in the U.S. The United States has a very particular and poisonous history of white supremacy, and that historically accurate term — “white supremacy” — isn’t applied lightly. For centuries before and after the abolition of slavery here, there were explicit, systematic means in place to ensure that whites as a group received the best treatment possible under the law, and that blacks as a group received the worst treatment.

    This didn’t, of course, mean that all whites had it “cushy” in general terms. Many of them were poor to the point of bare subsistence. Yet every white, especially in the South, effectively enjoyed more civil liberties than any black.

    (As a point for future discussion: the legal privilege enjoyed by whites during that period was strongly reinforced by a white-supremacist status quo in science, theology, business, education, etc.)

    B. You’re applying an extra criterion when you say that something that’s considered a baseline set of rights can’t be construed as “privilege.”

    I’ve made my living by writing for many years, too, so I’m also very sensitive to the meanings of words, so I want to point out that you are doing this. That extra criterion might be highly appropriate, but it’s not actually logically necessary or inevitable. Privilege means only that one group is getting an arbitrary leg up over others; it doesn’t actually matter if the most privileged group is at the baseline you and I would set, above it, or below it.

    Consider a thought experiment: what if there was a starving group of people shipwrecked on an island, and some subset of them — people with curly hair, say — were the ones granted the privilege of eating a full ration from the meager stores? No one in the whole population is getting what we would consider the baseline of adequate nutrition; yet one group would still be in the relative position of being the “haves” while everyone else was condemned to be the “have-nots.”

    I agree with you that everyone SHOULD have the same basic civil liberties that you and I so devoutly agitate for. But not everyone DOES. And — in the United States at least, this have / have-not situation isn’t randomly distributed, nor is it adequately explained by economics or class. In many cases (redlining of bank loans, denial of voting rights, unjustified arrets or death at the hands of police), it correlates most directly to race. Still — today — not just historically.

    C. If anybody is going to use “white privilege” to bash or dismiss all whites — yes, that’s racism. If anybody’s going to use “male privilege” to bash or dismiss all males — yes, that’s sexism. And if anybody’s using this as a way to drag you and me and every other white person through unsolvable problems of the distant past — yes, that’s totally unfruitful.

    BUT . . . blacks as a group in this country STILL demonstrably suffer more from the ill effects from racism than whites do. Women as a group in this country STILL demonstrably suffer more from sexism than men do.

    D. Let’s set aside any semantic debates about the word “privilege” and get down to the brass tacks of this one issue: blacks suffer from racism in this country much more (more often, more severely) than whites do . . . yet many whites can’t or won’t accept this fact. They think that anti-black racism is pretty much over (even though it isn’t), or that affirmative action, welfare, etc. made up for it a long time ago (even though it hasn’t). And they want to ignore or explain away evidence such as the fact that blacks die at a rate 22 times higher than whites at the hands of law enforcement officers. Not 22% more, which might be explained by poverty; 22 *times* more.

    So: there are a lot of whites who think that anti-black racism is a thing of the past — like back when it was embodied in slavery or Jim Crow laws — rather than still existing.

    These oblivious or denialist whites are able to think that because (a) they personally don’t do racist things; (b) they personally don’t suffer the ill effects of racism; and (c) they personally don’t see racism in their daily lives. Thus they have the relative luxury of denying that racism is all that bad anymore. They’re wrong, but they’re oblivious.

    I grant you that “privilege” is a loaded term. So what should we call that phenomenon of obliviousness?

  4. Vicki Says:

    Tim – I think you left out an insidious option from your list in the penultimate paragraph above.

    You wrote:
    “These oblivious or denialist whites are able to think that because (a) they personally don’t do racist things; (b) they personally don’t suffer the ill effects of racism; and (c) they personally don’t see racism in their daily lives.”

    I would add (d) they don’t recognize / believe that their actions are racist or can be construed as racist. (Case in point: the “historical” Battle flag of Northern Virginia)

  5. Vicki Says:

    >> I grant you that “privilege” is a loaded term. So what should we call that phenomenon of obliviousness?

    The phenomenon of cultural obliviousness.

  6. Tim Walker Says:

    It’s a good point, Vicki.

  7. GRIM Says:

    A. Am historical perspective is interesting, but eventually you have to let go of the past. Nobody today was responsible for these situations in the past and it is unfair to apply a doctrine of ‘original sin’ to all white people, everywhere around the world for the actions of a relative few in the past. Especially when such behaviour is pretty much a universal trait of humanity – sadly.

    White Supremacy is a very specific doctrine of what you might also call white exceptionalism. This is, these days, limited to a tiny minority – the kind of idiots you also see screaming about ‘white genocide’ on Twitter, ironically.

    It’s not really relevant today.

    B. I’m not adding an extra criterion. A privilege is something over and above the norm. There’s legal privilege – such as the police have certain privileges with regard to private property etc that your average citizen doesn’t have enshrined in law – and there’s genuine social privilege – such as the ability for the wealthy to access better lawyers, to be able to afford to sue etc. The second are not rights and not genuine legal privileges per se, but they are still over and above the norm.

    As per OED (emphasis added): “A SPECIAL right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”

    W/regard to what you say there is no special leg-up being given to whites. You can argue that PoC are being given a ‘leg-down’ so to speak, but that reinforces my original point. We’re not talking about a state of privilege, but of underprivilege and the extent of that is still up for debate and I still believe that the majority of this is down to class/wealth disparity and race is a distraction.

    The thought experiment also reinforces this point.

    I dispute your claim that it correlates with race. It’s devilishly hard to get a hold of the proper statistics and I am not a statistician (though I know some good ones at the cutting edge of Big Data). When I examined some crime statistics – for example – attempting to refute a ‘White Genocide’ creep’s claims that black people were inherently more criminal I controlled for wealth (poverty being linked to crime) and a huge chunk of the disparity disappeared. I couldn’t compensate for other factors (urban living etc) as I didn’t have that data but that blow to their claim is also a blow against this claim and support for my contention that THE major social force is poverty. PoC have an additional disadvantage in that they’re disproportionately poorer (immigration, lack of social mobility in general and other factors) and easily SEEN because of their skin colour but that is not really racism, but classism.

    C. Glad we seem to – mostly – agree on this point.

    I can, somewhat, agree that PoC suffer from racism more, though events around Black Lives Matter and various controversies in universities and around online discussion and cultural debate make me think that white people are increasingly suffering from racism too. Then there’s the dogma of the Nation of Islam… ;)

    On sexism however, I no longer think that’s true at all. I’ve become sensitised to sexism against men however, which biases my perception (though no more than feminists suffer the same). Still, men and boys IMO are suffering a great deal in recent years, arguably more than women and certainly on paper now have less legal rights than women to the point where educationally, legally and with regard to health men can be considered an underprivileged class.

    D. Mostly see ‘C’. However I’ll append that it is a good thing that most people are no longer racist and do not see racism around them every day. It’s a good thing that such blatant bigotry is considered beyond the pale. However we now run the risk of over-extension on issues of both race and gender. I see militant feminists and militant racial activists starting to turn people against them and – more worryingly – fuelling the fire of the ‘white genocide’ nutters by giving them ammunition. These activists are appallingly sexist and racist and as such have ended up aiding their own enemies with nonsense like ‘killallwhitemen’ or making racial claims about ‘whiteness’ or gendered claims about ‘toxic masculinity’. Hypocrisy isn’t a good look, but then we’ve gone from trying to look beyond colour or gender to identity politics, which IMO is ultimately self-destructive.

    As to affirmative action it’s a supremely bad idea that enshrines racism into law and, again, feeds the ‘white genocide’ mob. Just help people in need, regardless of colour, and you’ll end up proportionately helping more minorities (so long as they’re unequal, if that’s the case) without stirring resentment amongst underprivileged whites and feeding the racists.

    Obliviousness isn’t a good term either. People aren’t oblivious where there’s actual, confirmable cases of racism etc. They just don’t buy into the wilder claims of ‘white supremacy’ or ‘patriarchy’ which are unfalsifiable bugaboos.

    D. I know this wasn’t one of yours, but I’ll tackle it anyway. I watched that controversy over the flag with interest. What you had was a mob mentality going up against free speech, something enshrined in the US constitution and in international law, yet faltering in the face of hatred. Genuinely to many people this is not a racist flag but a part of southern identity, even black people many of whom took to social media to defend it. While it’s also used by racists that doesn’t make it inherently racist, or mean that the meaning can’t change. Our flag here in England, the Cross of St George has an association with racism that has developed in the modern era, a similar shift of meaning but in the other direction. The swastika has changed meaning since it was adopted by the Nazis. Things shift in meaning all the time.

    There’s a weasel sentence there about ‘construed as racist’. That’s dangerous because interpretation and construing can be done with the most innocent of things – and often is by SocJus activists. Those are some muddy waters.

    For my part I regard the flag as a relic of a racist era, but as a free speech advocate I believe that yes, even racist speech should be allowed (I also no longer believe its meaning to be unambiguously racist). As a historian I also cannot in good conscience go along with an erasure of history.

    Not to mention it got really stupid with things like The Dukes of Hazzard being taken off repeats on cable etc. This is the kind of thing that feeds the genuine racists and their paranoid conspiracies.

  8. Tim Walker Says:

    GRIM — You make plenty of fine points, some of which we never disagreed about. For instance, I would not ever support “a doctrine of ‘original sin’ [applied] to all white people.” I also agree with you that ‘killallwhitemen’ is nonsense, and that it was silly to take The Dukes of Hazzard off the air because of the presence of the Stars and Bars.

    Also, to be clear, I’m not talking about what happened in the past for its own sake, but because of its connection to racism in the U.S. today.

    Let me ask you this question for clarification: Do you believe that anti-black racism is an active, meaningfully large problem in the United States today?

  9. Rick Hamrick Says:

    For me, the single most-glaring example of institutional racism occurred in the past. The FHA guaranteed over 200 billion dollars in home loans in the 50s and 60s, and more than 98% of those loans were to white people.

    Here’s the important thing: while the actions took place decades ago, the consequences are with us now. Over generations of accrued wealth, much of it from the appreciation of real estate, we arrive at 2015, when the mean net worth of white families is SEVENTEEN times the net mean worth of black families.

    This is one example of history meaning something today and my first reply to anyone pointing out that we live in a “post racial” society.

  10. Tim Walker Says:

    Good points, Rick. The institutional racism of the past has a looooooong hangover into the present.

  11. GRIM Says:

    Tim: Racism exists in all directions between all kinds of peoples. It’ll likely be with us forever. We still don’t live in the past. We live today. The context is different, most people don’t believe as they did and we’re only responsible for our own actions.

    I don’t believe racism is, at a societal/practical level, a meaningfully large problem any more. At least not in reality. Culturally and socially it’s still a huge problem, not least of all because it fuels hatred and masks/distracts from the more meaningful and universally relevant dividers of wealth/class.

    Take the Halloween blackface arguments we have every year. While a few people are being genuinely racist, many people don’t know what it once meant and are dressing up as black celebs and characters – including blacking up – out of innocent hero worship. Is that racist? No. Is it blackface as it once was? No. Are Blacktavists doxxing, threatening and attacking schoolkids on social media over it? You bet your arse.

    Rick, you unwittingly made my point for me about wealth/class being the big issue and about how we don’t live in the past. The wealth gap and lack of social mobility being masked as a race issue weakens the ability to agitate for social change by making it divisive.

  12. Tim Walker Says:

    “Tim: Racism exists in all directions between all kinds of peoples.”
    Grim, I agree with you, and indeed there’s a lot of fascinating neuroscientific research lately about how people may always tend to identify with their in-groups ahead of their out-groups, no matter how nice we make about multiculturalism.

    But I also want you to see that you’re talking about things at an abstracted layer that flattens out actual events on the ground. This racism that exists in all directions? It’s profoundly beside the point for the many black Americans who still routinely experience racial prejudice in intense, life-altering ways that most white Americans never do. There are millions of black Americans today — people without any particular desire to live in the past — who rightly feel targeted by CURRENT racism, and not the generic kind of “racism exists in all directions” racial bias that you’re talking about.

    In this country, there have been demonstrated disproportionately anti-black trends in, among others:
    —which unruly students get kicked out of school
    —which drug offenders serve sentences (and longer sentences) in prison
    —which people receive bank loans
    —which non-criminal citizens are injured or killed by law enforcement

    I’m not talking about Jim Crow in 1905. I’m talking about active trends today, and trends that are still evident even after accounting for poverty and so on.

    I don’t fault you for focusing on class and economic differences. It’s good to focus on those things. But they aren’t somehow exclusive of race. I would ask you to look at how, at least in this country, racism is STILL bound up in the coding of class differences, much less the legacy of poverty.

    We are, indeed, responsible only for our own actions. As far as I know, I’ve never intentionally done a racist thing. That doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the possibility of carrying around certain racially coded ideas, or an ignorance of the racism that non-whites suffer today. And sometimes those ideas play themselves out in the disproportionate ways I mentioned above.

    That doesn’t have to be divisive. (Apologies, but you seem to think that it MUST be divisive to point out that a lot of white people might not perceive racist things happening to their black fellow citizens.) It could be an area for rich awareness as we continue to work for societal justice along economic, class, *and* racial lines. They need not be incompatible.

    “I don’t believe racism is, at a societal/practical level, a meaningfully large problem any more.”
    I invite you to take another look at this, and to think about the ways that wealth and class could even be the *prime* drivers, but with race along for the ride. Because that’s how it works in this country.

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