Thanks in part to recent police atrocities, increasing numbers of white Americans are apparently coming to awareness of the pervasiveness of anti-black racism in our society and of the burdens it places on African Americans. A phrase that comes up now and again in this awakening is “white privilege,” sometimes rendered as “white skin privilege.” It denotes the various advantages white people enjoy over black people by virtue of the color of their skin. I think “white privilege” is a bad term, for a variety of reasons.
Let’s start with the observation that “white privilege” constitutes a curious inversion of language, bordering on the oxymoronic. As one student of language pointed out to me, the word “privilege” originates in the idea of private law (priv-lege), a set of rules developed to favor a select set of people. Typically, a privilege is something enjoyed by a minority. But whites are still the majority in the US. Can a majority be privileged? “White privilege” seems like a clumsy way of expressing the fact that whites don’t suffer the deprivations that blacks and other minorities do. But to my mind, “white privilege” misstates the problem: the problem isn’t that whites are privileged; the problem is that blacks (and others) are oppressed. It’s not a privilege to be free of fear of cop harassment; it’s a basic right that we should all enjoy. “White privilege” turns the problem upside down–it says that anyone who isn’t oppressed is privileged.
But so what—isn’t this just a matter of semantics, two linguistic sides of the same coin? Maybe, but semantics matter in politics, and “white privilege” is politically tone deaf. There are many millions of poor and working class white people who would resent your telling them that they are privileged, and they would be right to do so. Most likely, they would then be distrustful of anything else you might want to say to them. Any politician who takes up the cry of “white privilege” is in effect telling all whites, no matter how disadvantaged, that they are privileged. Unless, that is, he/she carefully tailors his/her appeal to affluent white liberals, who really are privileged. But speaking in different tongues to different audiences is politically risky and morally dubious.
The big problem with “white privilege” is that it reflects and reinforces a longstanding trend on the center-left in American politics: to largely ignore the white working class. That trend has helped give us Donald Trump. So far I haven’t seen any prominent Democratic politicians embrace the “white privilege” meme. That’s good. But if we don’t want politicians talking that way, we shouldn’t talk that way ourselves. We can and must talk about structural racism and the centuries of cruelty and injustice white people have inflicted on African Americans. Underprivileged white people can and should be involved in that discussion without being turned off.