Peggy McIntosh (1997: 291) describes White privilege as ‘an invisible package of unearned assets’. A discussion on the relative advantages and disadvantages of this analogy in advancing our understanding of Whiteness
2013 essay revisited
The analogy put forward by McIntosh (1997) has a number of advantages. It is frequently assumed in social terms that whiteness is immutable. However, the experience of the white Irish in early twentieth-century USA suggests that ‘whiteness’ holds connotations beyond skin colour alone (Guteri, 2009). Similarly, the ‘one-drop’ rule that was used to define African Americans in rules regarding segregation in the early Twentieth Century suggested that any individual with one African-American ancestor should be considered as non-white (Khanna, 2011). However, difficulties occur in this analogy when white privilege intersects with other forms (Smith, 2007). White privileges can combine with other foundations with the effect of a different set of advantages and disadvantages; be they represented through as social, economic, gender or sexuality. ‘The cumulative effect of these unseen privileges for whites sustains the current racial group disparity’ (Mallett & Swim, p.58). The questions posed by McIntosh’s (1997) analogy focus on whether we can consider the interactions between all prejudice in solely terms of maintaining white privileges, or whether other factors arise. Are the privileges gained by being ‘white’ and ‘male’ simply the cumulative effect of the assets of either category, or does being a non-white male involve a qualitatively different type of maleness? To examine these issues the following structure will be adopted. First, a discussion will be made of McIntosh’s (1997) analogy in understanding whiteness. The suggestions of McIntosh (1997) and Ignatiev (1997) for active resistance to whiteness will be scrutinised. Second, the contribution of Critical Race Theory (CRT) will be assessed. Third, the intersection of race with other factors, including definitions of race, poverty, and gender will be discussed. In the ensuing discussion, the following disclaimer is made: race and racial terms are understood as social constructs rather than biological facts, and the terms will be used purely as they are understood contextually. This must also be recognised of the term African-American which is used in the ensuing discussion.
McIntosh’s (1997) analogy in understanding whiteness. A look at McIntosh (1997) and Ignatiev (1997) for active resistance to whiteness
McIntosh argues how a white perspective of racism is conditioned by ‘something that puts others at a disadvantage’, not something that puts white people at an advantage
The inherent problems that might plague the involvement of white people in social justice research are rendered something of an advantage by McIntosh (1997). McIntosh (1997, p.291) argues how a white perspective of racism is conditioned by ‘something that puts others at a disadvantage’, not something that puts white people at an advantage. She also argues that it is hard to disentangle the aspects of ‘unearned advantage which rests more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex, and ethnic identity’ than on other factors (McIntosh, 1997, p.298). Interlocking oppressions take active and embedded forms. White individuals are not taught to think of themselves as racist because racism is taught as an active element, rather than through the invisible systems that confer dominance. Recognition of these embedded systems is fundamental: ‘disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them’ (McIntosh, 1997, p.298). An approval of whether the prejudice is right or not does not change the advantages it confers on dominant groups through embedded systems.
McIntosh (1997) is less convincing when outlining the causes of white advantage. She states: ‘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’ (McIntosh, 1997, p.298). She states that it is in the interests of maintaining the myth of meritocracy by keeping most people unaware that the freedom of ‘confident action’ is available for more than just a small percentage of the population. This ‘serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already’ (McIntosh, 1997, p.299). It is not the case that most people are unaware that ‘freedom of confident action’ rests in the hands of a small number of people (McIntosh, 1997, p.299). Although it is mentioned that this principle is difficult to disentangle from its intersection with other areas of privilege, it remains that white privilege is understood; it is plainly evident in society (McIntosh, 1989).
Using the example of Rawls’ (2009) Thought Experiment that considers what makes a just society, we can contemplate the changes that would need to be made to make white advantages less apparent in society. White privilege is carefully constructed and clearly evident (Scheurich & Young, 1997). Although these systems can be argued to be embedded in culture, it would seem impossible to note the many different ways in which disadvantage is played out (Delgado, 1996). Residential segregation is perhaps the most conspicuous of these factors. In 2000, 64% of African-Americans would have had to move into white neighbourhoods for complete integration to be realised (Hill, 2009). ‘These statistics are highly visible on the ground in American cities in the Twenty First Century, in inner-city ghettoes and even entire cities and inner suburbs inhabited largely by people of color [sic], surrounded by sprawling outer suburbs inhabited largely by whites’ (Hill, 2009, pp.24–5). This kind of argument does not take into account the evidence that white neighbourhoods tend to be the richer and more salubrious neighbourhoods in cities in the USA (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). The existence of poor white neighbourhoods does not contradict this fact (Bell, 1995). However, in fairness, McIntosh (1997) does not argue against this evidence but merely suggests that it is framed in terms of non-white disadvantage rather than white advantage. Racism is commonly only understood in its active role rather than its passive, embedded form (Mitchell et al., 1993).
The contribution of Critical Race Theory
Critical Race Theory (CRT) provides an important perspective on the underlying causes of white privilege in society (Solórzano, 1998). A significant feature identified by this group is that racism is an ordinary feature of life, and it is this ordinariness that means it is not challenged (Delgado, 1996). The second tenet is that the privileges of whiteness means that it serves important purposes. This is both for white elites, in terms of material advantage, and for white working class individuals, in terms of the psychological advantage (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012). This is the interest convergence. Thirdly, the social construction of race states that it is the product of social interactions rather than a fixed or inherent part of society. It is also important to establish the extent to which the dominant group creates different racialisation for different groups at different times (Barnes, 1990). This is particularly difficult to establish when related to the intersection of racial privilege with other forms, but it is important to establish the changing nature of racialisation (Jensen, 2005).
McIntosh’s (1997) thesis can be seen as rooted in the CRT that personal experience of the racial grouping allows her to communicate elements that other racial groups are unlikely to know. This represents a shift in the traditional perception of racial competence, which suggests that those with experience of their racial group who have the perception that can inform their understanding (Mitchell et al., 1993). This has usually been applied to non-white racial groups, but McIntosh (1997) turns this on its head and uses her own experience as a white woman to inform her own knowledge of racial experiences from a white perspective. The intersection of race with other factors of advantage requires consideration; the difficulty is that white privilege confers other cumulative unearned assets through historical privilege (Kohnert, 2013). As McIntosh (1997) recognises, it is not easy, or even fully possible to establish the interaction of racial identity with other factors that confer privilege.
Ignatiev (1997) argues that the only course of action truly available is to abolish whiteness. His point of view is that there is no such thing as white culture. ‘Whiteness has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with social position’ (Ignatiev, 1997). This could be seen as confusing two aspects of culture. On one hand, culture has nothing to do with race and is to do with the social interaction (Case, 2012). However, if interactions includes a definition of racial relationships, then this has an effect on culture. Indeed, if interactions between races are limited to specific contexts, then it is undeniable that this has an effect (Kohnert, 2013). To be sure, there are different types of white culture, but given that race defines the nature of the social experiences of people, it seems undeniable that this would have an effect on the resultant culture (Stewart et al., 2012). For example, Country music is defined as part of white culture; embedded in its expression are decidedly white experiences (Hammond, 2011). The presence of other races in forms of cultural expression does not deny the fact that race played a part in the initial cultural expression: jazz music is seen by many as part of African-American culture; Classical music is seen as part of white culture (Stewart et al., 2012).
Ignatiev (1997) is effective in his denunciation of the creation of whiteness, but he does not take into account the extent to which white culture is a manifestation of the embedded racial systems. However, ‘whiteness was musically constructed through the development and promotion of progressive country music’ (Shank, 2001, p.264). Ignatiev (1997) argues that each white person should try ‘responding to every manifestation of white supremacy as though it were directed against them.’ At this point, he moves from considering the embedded nature of race relations and considers it as an active manifestation. How should a white person respond to the fact that Country music is an exclusively white form of cultural expression, despite not having any active forms of racism contained within it? Should all elements that are clearly manifestations of embedded racism, but not forms of active racism, be attacked? Country music reflects the peculiar circumstances of the culture in which it was made (Shank, 2001). Originating in a segregated culture, it continues as a segregated art form. The importance of considering the interaction of race with culture, and the difference between active and embedded forms of racial advantage are both understood by McIntosh (1997) but do not seem emphasised by Ignatiev (1997). He claims that the ‘point is not to interpret whiteness but to abolish it’. However, without understanding whiteness we cannot abolish it.
Bell (2000, p.77) argues that the problem of affirmative action is that it is based on the perception that ‘black gains threaten the main component of status for whites.’ The role of non-white people in society has not simply been in terms of increased status for whites, but in acting as a buffer between privileged whites and non-privileged whites. This type of doublethink is implicit in McIntosh’s (1997) argument, but it is not extended. Allen (2009) extends the analogy that is proposed by Bell (2000) and suggests that there is a two-way process. Not only do non-white people act as a buffer against inequality within one race; but inequality within white populations is used to justify racial prejudice (Soudien, 2010). He investigates the extent to which the socio-economic divide overwhelms the racial divide; in other words, are white people reading from the same hymn sheet, or is the intersectional relationship better understood as a three-part process with racial attitudes to non-white people used to undermine questions of socio-economic prejudice (Allen, 2009). The ‘race critique has its limitations in that although it can show us the construction of power and difference between racial groups, it cannot shed light on the construction of power and difference within racial groups’ (Allen, 2009, p.211).
The point that Allen (2009) makes is to question whether all white people have greater privilege than people of colour, regardless of class status. This is problematic: many studies tend to focus on whiteness as a privileged group, pointing to the fact that members of elite groups will tend to be white. This does not take into account those who are not. Allen (2009) argues that there is a hegemonic alliance that supports a skewed opportunity structure that gives all whites opportunity over people of colour. This serves the purpose to deflect attention away from the privileged whites that benefit the greatest from the hegemonic system. Poor whites allow themselves ‘to be the distraction that is necessary for non-poor whites to evade a high level of scrutiny’ (Allen, 2009, p. 218). However, although Allen’s (2009) linkage of the collusion between poor and non-poor whites offers a useful examination of the problem, it ignores the extent to which there is a secondary purpose. By establishing and embedding white privilege, non-poor whites can also justify their economic advantage. Racial prejudice serves to deflect attention away from other forms of advantage. The situation is therefore potentially more interlinked than Allen (2009) suggests.
Ansley (1997, p.594) suggests that ‘white supremacy binds all whites together so that their solidarity will ultimately reassert itself in perpetuity to conquer differences among them and confirm black subordination.’ What this analysis ignores, however, is the path dependency of non-white subordination. Path dependency refers to the notion that once the gains are obtained for a particular race in society, it will become more difficult to challenge these advantages (Armsperger, 2008). A position of supremacy provides advantages with which to resist challenges to this supremacy; likewise a position of disadvantage does not (Soudien, 2010). Arguments regarding the extent to which racial relationships are embedded in social institutions should perhaps take into account the economic problems related with challenging these issues (Case, 2012). It has been established that the advantages of socioeconomic status confers advantages to the next generation. It is thus impossible to establish how quickly socio-economic status can undermine challenges of non-whites to advantage.
The intersection of race with other factors
To ignore the fact that racial prejudice has resulted in unequal socio-economics is to undermine the intersectionality of race with other factors. This is not to argue, as suggested by Allen (2009), that we should use poor white people as an example of disadvantage. However, we should take into account that race has tended to intersect with socio-economic disadvantage. Race provides a disadvantage to economic furtherance, but the relationship is not one-way (Ansley, 1997). This intersectionality means that even if non-poor whites become colour-blind, the non-white population still has a significant economic barrier to advantage (Stewart et al., 2012). It can be argued that the appearance of non-poor non-whites in positions of advantage undermines this argument, but it remains the case that these individuals simply serve to deflect attention away from the firm dominance of whites in positions of advantage. If racial barriers, both active and embedded, were removed, then prejudice would continue to exist in the form of economic prejudice. As the experience of poor whites has shown, this can be a difficult ceiling to break (Stewart et al., 2012). Therefore, it might be the case that the intersectionality of economic and racial relationships means that if either one is removed, it would not be possible to observe an immediate difference. McIntosh (1997) argues that the myth of meritocracy extends to differences in race, but does not take into account that it is a discernible myth where every form of disadvantage is self-perpetuating (Mitchell et al., 1993). Non-white populations would continue in a disadvantaged position that might continue for generations. This is not to do with race relations in society, but with the difficulty in overcoming economic disadvantages.
The problem with this view is that it is open to charges of ascribing problems of racism to other causes of disadvantage. Gillborn (2005) cites how it is a common feature of maintaining embedded features of white supremacy by citing racial disadvantage as having other causes. However, it is important, though difficult, to recognise that the results of centuries of racism will be other forms of disadvantage. The existence of socioeconomic disadvantage prevents the extent to which the cycle can be broken. Recognising the intersectionality of disadvantage between other factors underlines the extensive impact of race (McIntosh, 1997). Recognition of this fact does not mean that overcoming it is impossible, or even that economic disadvantage is inevitable. Indeed, the arguments outlined above suggest that should racial discrimination be overcome, this would mean the existence of social and economic discrimination would receive closer attention. The existence of race as a buffer to justifying economic disadvantage would suggest that its removal would be of benefit to other forms of discrimination.
The intersection of racial advantage with other forms of discrimination should also be mentioned. There are similarities that can be drawn between the development of socio-economic class and racism and the gender/race intersectionality. Hooks (2007) describes how the experience of race can overwhelm the experience of gender discrimination, meaning that some African-American women do not feel discriminated by gender. However, Mernissi (2007) outlines how the expectations of fashion and clothing are based on white women. Norms of sizing and body shape come from a specific race. Cases such as Rogers v. America Airlines did not uphold the complaint of the plaintiff that the airline’s policy that prevented braided hairstyles discriminated against her as an African-American woman (Caldwell, 2007). This excises a racial identity that is articulated as a potential discrimination against all women. This hides behind the notion that the discrimination against a particular race on the basis that it is effectively discrimination against all women (Case, 2012). This demonstrates that racial discrimination can be effective if cloaked in the form of other discrimination.
A further dimension of the relationship of gender and race is the extent to which African-American women have felt that they cannot take part in feminist activism because of racism by white women (Hooks, 2007). This racial split within feminist activism has been dubbed a schism by Gordon (1987). There is an insistence that feminism itself is predominantly a white movement. The causes for this have been seen as the knowledge that informs and underlines the feminist movement. ‘Feminist praxis is greatly shaped by academic women and men. Since there are not many academic black women committed to radical politics, especially with a gender focus, there is no collective base in the academy for forging a feminist politics that addresses masses of black women’ (Hooks, 2007, p.38). In terms of the intersection of racial and gender discrimination in this case, it is perhaps the fact that white women need to overcome one form of discrimination; African-American women two (Case, 2012). For African-American women to be as equal as white women is still to be disadvantaged against white men. However, it appears to go further than this: to be an African-American woman is seen as different than simply being a woman who is African-American (Case, 2012). This forms an internal prejudice within the predominantly white feminist movement.
The definition of race has come under scrutiny by a number of researchers (Case, 2012; Soudien, 2010; Rose & Paisley, 2012). This can include the arguments surrounding the ‘one drop rule.’ This has its origin in the racial segregation laws in the USA that defines the extent to which any person can be considered African-American relates to their having just one African-American ancestor. ‘A black is any person with any known African black ancestry’ (Davis, 2001, p.5). A difficulty with this definition is the fact that race can also be affected in both directions. As Davis (2001, p.6) points out, ‘many of the nation’s black leaders have been of predominantly white ancestry.’ Definition of race can vary from country to country, and the use of the ‘one drop rule’ – as defined in law – is particular only to the USA. Similarly in the UK, as with the USA, despite a significant proportion of individuals self-defining as Mixed Race whilst partaking in respective census measures, the media in each country has continued to define ‘people of colour’ as black. Miscegenation promotes assimilation with all other racial groups, but for African-Americans it disadvantages the white element; for other racial groups it advantages the non-white element (Soudien, 2010). This varied definition of race can thus undermine the fuller understanding of the intersectionality between race: in the USA, not even all non-white groups are discriminated against equally. This renders patterns of discrimination more complex and multilayered than might otherwise be considered.
Irish Americans became accepted partly because they upheld racial segregation and disadvantage rather than overcoming it
There is, however, a clear direction to certain advantages when a historical perspective is taken. This demonstrates that there is a shifting perspective even on what constitutes whiteness. For example, Irish immigrants to the USA were not considered white at one point, whereas now this is no longer the case (Bonnett, 2000). The notion of whiteness as a set of privileges, rather than a construct that focuses on the colour of skin, can be supported by this example. In the Nineteenth Century, the Irish were denigrated as outsiders (ibid.). Irish Americans became accepted partly because they upheld racial segregation and disadvantage rather than overcoming it. Irish Americans enforced ‘deadlines’ which were boundaries of racial segregation, earning them the title of the greatest enemies of African-Americans in New York in the early 1920s (ibid.). However, it should be noted that the principle of deadlining was applied to all new immigrants rather than simply to African-Americans. They cultivated particular hatred for Italian-Americans, and it is perhaps the extent to which they were prepared to uphold racial segregation that allowed their ultimate entry to the set of white privileges. However, there are perhaps a number of other examples of individuals who maintained the set of racial disadvantage, who supported the oppression of other groups, for whom this principle does not apply.
The confusion over definitions of race lends support to McIntosh’s (1997) argument that whiteness is better understood as a set of advantages. It could be argued that oppression of Irish groups owed more to the fact that initially they could be identified through ethnic or cultural signifiers than later. However, then when we place this against the indications provided by the ‘one drop’ principle of arguing that every person with an African-American ancestor is de facto African-American, then this undermines this principle. When examined with these issues in mind, whiteness emerges as a bewildering array of privileges given to some on account of presumed race, and denied to others. When examined through this lens, racial prejudice is not necessarily distinct from other forms of prejudice. It simply appears as a different form of social prejudice that takes arbitrary measures of race to reinforce barriers to the participation of others in the same privileges. As Gillborn (2005), p. 488) states: ‘critical scholarship on whiteness is not an assault on white people per se: it is an assault on the socially constructed and constantly reinforced power of white identifications and interests.’
Emancipation is presented as the triumph of white civilising attitudes, and the role of slaves in the process is of a passive population
The role of education policy in structuring racial inequality has received some attention by Gillborn (2005). The normalisation of white supremacy in UK education policy remains a fundamental. He cites the use of history in subjugating: emancipation is presented as the triumph of white civilising attitudes, and the role of slaves in the process is of a passive population. Education remains a key as policy focuses the conflicts that lie at the heart of asserting white supremacy. Interestingly, Gillborn (2005) cites the refusal of recognising raced inequality as being fundamental to this process. The Prime Minister, John Major, refused to emphasise race as a condition of tackling inequality. The Labour government attempted to do so, but their intentions only came as far as granting funding to some schools based on ethnicity (ibid.). Additionally, the fact that East Asian pupils frequently do well at schools in the UK is cited as an example that the school system is meritocratic.
However, Gillborn (2009, p.17) also demonstrates how, in the UK, the failure of some white boys to achieve good grades is cited as ‘falling behind’. This means that the national press appear to baulk at the possibility that minoritised groups could do better than white children, regardless of social class or other potential disadvantage. The education system can thus reward continued racial prejudice by refusing to recognise examples of discrimination on race and choosing to ascribe disadvantage to other factors. Any evidence that white people are at a disadvantage when compared to other ethnic groups is seen as a problem. However, white males are reconstructed as the ‘new race victims’ (Gillborn, 2009, p.22). This could be seen as supporting McIntosh’s (1997) notion of a set of privileges in the sense that groups are created as race victims, even though this is plainly not the case in society as a whole. Such discourse creates the sense that perceived discrimination against such groups is more outrageous because of the expectation is that they should be socially dominant. Rather than identify the underlining causal factors in social and economic deprivation, the British media seems to direct its venom against the privileges of ethnic groups that are seen as getting beyond their rightful position of disadvantage.
In conclusion, McIntosh’s (1997) analogy has a number of advantages in understanding whiteness as a set of privileges. In particular, the different definition applied to race demonstrates that ‘whiteness’ is more than simply predicated on colour. The articulation of a mixed race person described as African-American in the USA and Black in the UK by the dominant social discourse means the inter-race discrimination is not fully appreciated. From the perspective of providing a further buffer that might undermine racial discrimination, this feature typically provides a racial group that suffers disadvantage from both sides. Miscegenation is seen as undermining adherence to either race for mixed race. McIntosh (1997) also clearly sets out the type of advantages and encourages a critical awareness of the concept of race by articulating it in terms of white advantage, rather than the more traditional non-white disadvantage. However, there are some disadvantages when applied to the intersection of racial identities with other privileges. Gender and socio-economic class both confer privileges that have qualitatively different results depending on race. Most importantly, the relationship of race to socioeconomic class can be seen as more fluid and dynamic than might be implied by McIntosh’s (1997) analogy: racialism acts as a buffer to other forms of privilege. Therefore, if racialism was removed from the equation, we may find other forms of disadvantage would be increasingly questioned. It would be impossible for McIntosh (1997) to confer all the different dynamics of racialism in one short article, and by establishing the discontinuities within racial definitions of whiteness, her analogy is of great use in advancing our understanding.
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