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.