What if analogous to the term ‘person of color,’ we used ‘person of white privilege’?

It seems the more disenfranchised a group is or the more s/he differs from ‘normative identities,’ the bigger a mouthful that person will have to use to describe her/himself. When we unpack what I like to call the ‘suitcase of our identity,’ if our suitcases contain all the social positions favored by society (i.e. white, male, wealthy, heterosexual, Christian, patriotic, etc) then we get to call ourselves simple things like ‘man,’ ‘guy,’ or ‘male.’ However, the more our identity diverges from these normative categories, the more words we must string together, as in ‘bi-racial queer working-class undocumented transwoman.’

With one word descriptors like ‘male,’ all sorts of assumptions come in to play. For example, when you describe someone as a ‘woman,’ many people will assume you are referring to a white woman as white is the ‘normative category’ in our racist society. This is especially true in the mainstream media where you only here racial/ethnic descriptors when the person is not white (and especially if that person is living up to the pervasive, socially sanctioned stereotype of being a ‘criminal’ – hence the phrase ‘driving while black’).

Now, in terms of linguistic equality, it doesn’t seem fair that some identities are (assumed to be) summed up in one word, while others require a whole string of complex descriptions. Let’s call it being ‘linguistically oppressed.’ In order to counter this oppression, I suggest a first move would be to begin calling ‘white people’ ‘people of white privilege’ instead. Just as the phrase ‘people of color’ nods to the system of racism that works against all of those without white privilege, the term ‘people of white privilege’ (or POWP), would own up to the fact that white skin, to borrow a phrase from the famous “Got Milk” add campaign, ‘does a body good.’ White privilege, as Peggy McIntosh and many others have so thoroughly elucidated, bestows one with all sorts of perks. The closing points of her widely anthologized piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” are well worth considering more closely:

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.

Her linkage of obliviousness to white privilege as being analogous to obliviousness to male privilege is worth unpacking further. (For a full article examining male privilege, see here.) These two modes of obliviousness seem particularly resistant to dying. In my women’s studies classes, one of the units each semester that seems to put people on the defensive most is the unit in which we examine racism and white privilege. The people of color, due to systemic racism, are generally hip to all the injustices having skin that is not white confers upon them. However, white students are most often not correspondingly aware of the privileges their skin color affords. In fact, many become highly offended at the suggestion they are privileged and attempt to list out a whole host of ways they are not privileged via reference to their class, belief system, appearance, sexuality, etc. Here, they miss the point that just because one has white skin privilege does not mean one cannot lack privilege in many other areas (it’s called intersectionality, people!). Rather, white privilege refers to the doors having white skin opens – that door might be slammed again when, say, your easy ride securing a rental lease becomes more bumpy when your landlord discovers you are a lesbian.

People also seem reticent to own up to white privilege as they seem to think doing so is akin to admitting they are racist. What many fail to realize is that NOT owning up to white privilege is in itself a racist act. By ignoring or silencing the many societal perks that white skin brings, one is participating in what McIntosh terms “unearned privilege” – a privilege which has its base in institutionalized and internalized racism.

Some POWPs will also claim they too are discriminated against, that there is ‘reverse racism.’ Not fans of being picked on for their ‘whiteness,’ they take offense when cites like Stuff White People Like try to humorously dismantle the erroneous attitude that ‘race’ refers to people of color, not to their own white selves. Yeah, cuz its funny when you make racist jokes about other racial groups, just not when they are aimed at your own white ass.

Another common reaction to an analysis of white privilege includes ‘white guilt’ – or feeling guilty because you are white. When I was lucky enough to see Peggy McIntosh speak at USD in 2006, she made some great points about this, noting that feeling guilty about racism does nothing to solve the problem. What is required to stop racism and eradicate white privilege is action, not guilt. Liza at Anti Racist Parent discussed this today in her great post “Is Privilege Offensive”:

Having privilege does not equal feeling guilty. However, owning the fact that I experience privilege forces me to open my eyes to the ways in which systems of oppression and institutionalized -isms keep others from achieving.

As McIntosh and Liza both point out, feeling guilty doesn’t achieve anything. We need to open our eyes (as Liza suggests) and then begin to take actions in our everyday lives to dismantle white privilege and call it out when we see it.

One small step I suggest is to think about how it would change our perceptions if, instead of using the term white (or caucasian), we used ‘person of white privilege.’ Now, I know this won’t catch on – can you imagine Chris Matthews or Anne Coulter describing themselves as POWPs?!? But, even thinking about this linguistic possibility is edifying. If society were forcibly reminded each day that whiteness equals privilege maybe, just maybe, this might begin to crack the fortress of racism that poisons our world.

Owning up to white privilege and working to dismantle that privilege must be a priority – not just for people of color who know all to well about having the burden of dismantling racism put at their doorstep, but for people of white privilege too. The onus to dismantle this crazy-ass ‘master’s house’ needs to be taken on by people of white privilege. So, all of you POWPs out there, pick up your activist tools, grab your social justice hammer, and own up to your white privilege if you have not done so already. There is still lots of work to be done…

*For a list of links to various other privilege lists, see this page at Alas, A Blog. Thanks also to this blog for linking me to Liza’s “Is Privilege Offensive” with this post.

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27 thoughts on “What if analogous to the term ‘person of color,’ we used ‘person of white privilege’?”

  1. It also helps to ease (if not eradicate) the defensiveness if a white person tells another white person about white privilege. If people of color do it, it can be too easy for the soon-to-be-enlightened folks to have an us v. them mentality and feel accused or feel that the people of color in they’re talking to are engaging in some kind of victim mentality.

  2. So true! The same is also true when talking about racism. When a POWP talks about racism to a person of color, sometimes the attitude is “what can you possibly know about racism, your’re white.” While no person can truly know what is like to be in another person’s shoes I think it is important to still analyze/talk about white privilege and racism with all people — not just people of the ‘same color.’

    But, as you point out, white people talking about white privilege is more acceptable, as is people of color talking about racism. I think we need to break down these lines though because the more people that teach/discuss/analyze these issues, the better.

    I think it is sad that many are silenced by fear of being attacked when they discuss these ‘hot button issues.’ And, this fear is not without merit as anti-racist educators, feminists etc, have often attacked each other rather than forming a united anti-racist coalition.

  3. I’m pretty sure you just said it all. Unfortunately it just seems to be a lot easier for people to pass off racism so long as it continues to benefit them.

  4. thanks for linking! Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts, reflections, observations on your site! Peace, Liza

  5. I agree, “white” is default. Similarly to how “male” is default. For example, we think default male when someone says “athlete”. If referring to a female athlete, we have to literally say, “woman athlete.” However, i don’t think the answer is saying “female” or “male” before “athlete” depending on their gender – because it leaves out trans folk AND it doesn’t address the systematic issue.

    Similarly, i’m not sure POWP would address the actual issue of privilege. Firstly, like you said, it won’t catch on because people are automatically put off and POWP won’t address themselves as such unless they truly understand the need, importance, and significance in doing so.

    The reason you get opposition and tension when you address privilege in your classroom may be because it’s extremely difficult for those that are privileged to have that privilege challenged. Acknowledging privilege means you have to do something about it, and that usually requires giving up the privilege in one way or another. Or, doing what McIntosh did which is using that privilege to further her agenda of equality. For example, she wouldn’t accept an invitation to lecture somewhere (or a book deal) unless they also booked a POC to share the space.

    The Feminist Underground wrote a similar post this week, though it was about allies: http://secondinnocence.blogspot.com/2008/06/privilege-and-feminism-do-allies-exist.html

  6. “Some POWPs will also claim they too are discriminated against, that there is ‘reverse racism.’ Not fans of being picked on for their ‘whiteness,’ they take offense when cites like Stuff White People Like try to humorously dismantle the erroneous attitude that ‘race’ refers to people of color, not to their own white selves.”

    Politically speaking –and I would agree with you–I don’t think some POWP’s realize that they really do have a major advantage in certain institutions in this country. A good example would be tenured University faculty members. I’m sure you are aware that there is a lack of diversity in some of the major 1st tier universities in this country. Although there is an awareness to be political correct in saying they want to have a faculty that reflects the student body, I highly doubt that this tradition of preserving higher education white tenure faculty is fading away any time soon. Just wanted your thoughts on that, professor.

  7. Minority Militant,
    Yes, POWPs certainly have major advantages in higher education in general — especially HMOWPs (heterosexual males of white privilege).

    I would say there is a lack of diversity throughout the higher education system, not only at 1st tier universities.

    I agree with you that often the dedication to recruiting and keeping a diverse faculty seems mere lip service that is not put into practice.

    Moreover, wen FOCs (faculty of color) are hired, they face huge battles when they want to de-whitify the curriculum, the faculty senates, or even the student organizationa.

    We recently had a wonderful WOC leave the campus I teach at because she was so dismayed at the lack of focus for POC faculty and particularly for Chicano faculty/Chicano studies at a college that claims to be “A Hispanic Serving Institution.” Alas, being a “Hispanic Serving Institution” seems to be more about the money this brings the university than about serving Latino/a faculty and students. Likewise, promoting Native American Studies and hiring the requisite faculty seems to be important when it is tied to funding. Call it the ‘corporatization of the university’ if you well. And we all know who runs corporations — POWPs!

    This is why the ‘Other disciplines’ such as Ethnic Studies and Women’s studies are always on the chopping block. For great posts about this issue see the blog WOC PhD, for example the post “Rutgers Dismantles Africana Studies” at http://profbw.wordpress.com/2007/12/06/
    rutgers-dismantles-africana-studies/

    or “Women Studies? We Don’t Need that” at http://profbw.wordpress.com/
    ?s=university+faculty+diversity&searchbutton=Go%21

    But, as I believe in the revolutionary possibilities of education, and as I see student activism at my campus growing each year, I have hope that our system of higher education will fade from being an institution of white privilege and grow into an institution of equity. My hope is that higher education will become more diverse, more radical, more progressive. This will take those of us who are dedicated to social justice to make it happen.

    As you can see Minority Militant, my thoughts are very long winded!

    Thanks for your comment.

  8. Well put, professor. I’ll check out those links.

    *The Minority Militant lays down his weapon and reloads.*

    I’ll be back for more. Thank you for your thoughtful and “long-winded” response. =)

  9. When I first read about “POWP,” my gut reaction was “but I’m hindered by other things too!”

    Then I realized, by the same things that people of color are hindered by: class, gender, sexuality.

    Nice, thoughtful post and responses. Lots and lots to ponder.

  10. Feminist Gal,
    Sorry your comment got lost in spam… It is now posted above.

    You make a great point that “Acknowledging privilege means you have to do something about it, and that usually requires giving up the privilege in one way or another.” I think though that privilege can be shared rather than given up — as McIntosh does in the example you cite.

    Thanks also for pointing out that male is the ‘default’ term and your highlighting the language issues surrounding trans people. Ah, language. Can’t live without it, can’t use it in a way that includes everyone without stringing 3,000 words together!

    Thanks for your comment and the link to The Feminist Underground post!

  11. Jeanne,
    Thanks for your comment! I think the tendency to react with ‘I am not privileged!’ is very common. We are reluctant to see our own privilege — it is easier to see the privileges of others. When we turn the critical gaze towards ourselves, it is easier to focus on the ways in which we are NOT privileged. But, we all have ways in which we are privileged and ways in which we are not — that’s why I like the phrase “complexities of oppression” and the concept of “intersectionality.”

  12. Why don’t you people just be honest with yourselves and call yourselves: people who hate and are envious of white people or professional victims of color.

  13. Wow, what a great idea Henry. This is so erudite, I will have to respond in a post. I always find it so edifying when people use the phrase ‘you people’ — when someone uses that, you just know a whole slew of truly original thinking is about to follow. Stay tuned for my post on “What if you hate and are envious of white people?”

  14. Why did I use the term “you people”? because that is how {white people) are viewed by those who claim to be anti-racist. In fact if white studies historians/sociologist are to be believed there isn’t a race of people called {white}. Other writers claim that being white is close to being a spawn of the devil. For instance Jennifer Harvey, an Assistant Professor of Religion at Iowa State wrote brief history of the horrors of slavery, genocide, displacement and colonialization that blacks and indigenous nations suffered at the hands of whites. Unfortunately the good professor appears to forget that both slavery and genocide have their roots in the behaviors of poeple of color. Also Noel Ignatiev, David Roediger, Robert Jensen and others have conveniently placed white people in the {you people category)!
    If any one thinks that racism will be eradicated by confronting white people about being privileged their sadly mistaken. Another poster on this board wished for a system of equity. Interestingly enough Lenin/Stalin expressed similar thoughts and they acted on the same. And, Afghanistan, in the days of the Taliban, practiced equity as well.
    Just remember the closing line in Animal Farm: “all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others.”

  15. Thanks for your reply Henry. As to there not being a ‘race’ of white people, biologically there isn’t a ‘race’ of any type. As noted in the “Race Literacy Quiz” from the series “Race: The Power of an Illusion”: “There are no characteristics, no traits, not even one gene that distinguish all members of one so-called race from all members of another race.” Race is not biological, but socially constructed and maintained. Thus, when we use the term race, we often mean culture/ethnicity rather than race.

    I would like to know what you mean specifically by “slavery and genocide have their roots in the behaviors of poeple (SIC) of color.” What behaviors are you referring to? Are you saying that slavery and genocide were not justified and perpetuated by global notions of white supremacy?

    And, if you don’t think examining white privilege will help to eradicate racism, what are your solutions? Or, do you feel racism is inevitable?

    As for the closing line of Animal Farm, that is called satire. The point is that no one can be ‘more equal’ in a truly equitable system. As the work points out, capitalist, fascist societies will never produce equality. And, as we live in a corporatist (ie advance capitalist) fascist society, guess what, we don’t have equality!

    As for your claim that the Taliban practiced equity, I am very curious as to how you are defining the term equity… Perhaps equity in your definition does not involve women?

  16. I would like to know what you mean specifically by “slavery and genocide have their roots in the behaviors of people of color.” What behaviors are you referring to? Are you saying that slavery and genocide were not justified and perpetuated by global notions of white supremacy.
    Actually such behaviors as genocide and or slavery are part of the human we used to refer to as evil-rationalized, explained, overlooked and excused, but still evil. Small and large scale genocides were the order of the day in ancient times practiced by peoples from the Hittites to the tribes of Israel. I don’t think that the Mongols or Pol Pot were concerned with global notions of white supremacy.
    We cannot claim that a particular race is a social construct and then assign that particular group a set of inborn (biological) characteristics. I view race as strictly biological and any behaviors/personality ascribed to such races as driven by religion, intelligence, geography, ability, genetic succeptibility towards disease and other factors.
    If you feel that you live in a fascist state-that is your perception. Might be interesting to read a bit on life in a real fascist state-Spain under Franco!
    No state or ideology can give humans the equality they seek. Robert Lifton in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism describes the quest for purity (equality?) this way:” the philosophical assumption underlying this demand (equality)is attainable, and that anything done (or said) to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral.” In the same book the author speaks of the guilt and shaming milieu, the cult of confession (I’m a white male) and the language he calls Nonthought: liberation, progressive, exploiting class, bourgious etc, etc.
    Animal Farm/1984 are classics with a powerful message.
    How to work against racism? it would be best to follow the example of the MSNBC show: meeting David Wilson. It’s my opinion that many people were disappointed with the outcome of the meeting. They wanted guilt, shame, anger, blame and self rightousness; what they got were two men who learned remaining in the past solves nothing and that learning from the past opens doors.

  17. As for your claim that the Taliban practiced equity, I am very curious as to how you are defining the term equity… Perhaps equity in your definition does not involve women?

    I did not include women in this case because under Taliban rule represent the ultimate equality. They dress alike, basically confined confined and under the domination of either a husband or male relative, are not allowed to attend school or go to market without permission etc, etc. The book: the Bookseller of Kabul speaks to all those issues and their rationale. Of course this is not equality as we view it in the West, their culture and religion are focused on obtaining and maintaining ideological purity.
    Websites such as the Anti-racist parent will do little to end racism. It’s members appear to have created little enclaves of racial groups each vying to appear more oppressed than the other. Not surprisingly their common straw man is the {white race}. Only when the straw man is gone will their vision of racial purity exist.

  18. Thank-you so much for posting this. I myself have just recently come to grapple with my own white privilege. As a third wave feminist I think I have a responsibility to not make the same mistakes of many of my white feminist foremothers. And having read Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the White Knapsack” not too long ago, both your article and hers were definitely helpful in this regard.

    I do, however, have one small point to make (and I can assure you it is NOT a defense of white “as a color” or a refusal to acknowledge white privilege!)

    “…Peggy McIntosh speak at USD in 2006, she made some great points about this, noting that feeling guilty about racism does nothing to solve the problem. What is required to stop racism and eradicate white privilege is action, not guilt.”

    Just in my experience, I’ve found that the guilt I’ve experienced doesn’t necessarily stem from acknowledging white privilege exists so much as I don’t know what I can do about it. I think one of the toughest parts about McIntosh’s essay is that at the end white readers must brainstorm for ourselves answers to the question ‘what will you do about your white privilege?’ And when I struggle to think of anything, having always lived in an all-white community and always gone to all-white schools, I feel guilty.

    I also understand that people of white privilege [:)], can’t require people of color to explain everything and anything about racism to us. It’s >>our<< responsibility to learn what we can do. Perhaps that is what is most frustrating about acknowledging white privilege; subconsciously or not, we immediately recognize it is the first step in what is to be an inevitably long learning process… and answers/solutions to addressing and obliterating white privilege aren’t immediately available.

    So, while I agree with both you and McIntosh, I just want to add that the “white guilt” we discuss may also come from frustration with an inevitably long learning process (oh no, our white privuleged brainz!) and the dearth of instant answers. Of course, despite this, I am going to keep trying, and I think other POWP should as well!

    Once again, thank-you for such an enlightening post. 🙂

  19. Dollyann,
    Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful comments.
    I am not suggesting white guilt isn’t part of the process, but rather that it is ONLY a part. As you indicate, guilt is an early step, and then figuring out what to do with that guilt is the next step…

    I think what McIntosh is trying to emphasize is that if we stop at the guilt stage, it doesn’t get any of us anywhere, we must move onto the trying to create change stage…

    And, yes, unpacking white privilege is a long process — but better to start the unpacking than to act as if our invisible knapsacks don’t exist!

    I am very glad to here you plan to keep trying to examine whiteness and white privilege — as such, you are an anti-racist ally and an activist, rather than a ‘guilty’ POWP.

    In solidarity,
    Prof What if

  20. Use any words you wish to describe white people just make sure that you understand that racism will never end when the equation is white people + white privilege=racism.
    Ms.Mc Intosh’s privilege list is purposely vague, based on feelings not facts with no amount of analysis required. Those who get suckered into her belief system will find themselves the owners of a perpetual state of self flagellation: also know as neurosis.

  21. This is exactly the second article, of your blog I really read through.
    However I like this specific one, “What if
    analogous to the term ‘person of color, we used ‘person of white privilege?
    | Professor, What If…?” sevenyearsgone.

    com the most. Thank you ,Wilmer

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