Got privilege? Deconstructing whiteness

Christopher Neil
Aug 14, 2014 · 5 min read

Invariably absent from discussions on race and your average diversity training seminars in organizations is the concept of whiteness and the implications of being white. Indeed, the very idea of race is premised on the false binary of ‘white’ and (/versus) people of color, wherein the invisibility of whiteness precludes critique of the relative power white people enjoy. Legal academic Baraba J. Flagg notes that white people, -a group that holds more social and economic power than people of color, are often unconsciousness of being white, but tend to be aware of people of color. This lack of awareness is one fundamental aspect of what it actually means to be white;

whiteness is to be invisible, being of color is to be made conspicuously visible and aware of your visibility.

Being white is often unconsciously understood among whites in North American and European societies as being normative. Norms reflect the values and beliefs of the dominant groups in society (and also cut along lines of gender and sexuality). The idea of white normativity was reinforced by the now discredited ‘scientific’ field of eugenics, which held all races to be divergent from, and to digress from the white norm. Remember that race is a social construction with no relation to biology or genetics. The social basis of race is underscored by the historical experience of the Irish and Italian migrant communities in the United States. Once considered non-white races, they eventually came to be seen as white (and their social and financial position greatly improved thereafter).

For historical reasons, being white has provided advantages that are rooted in the oppression of non-whites. The false binary of race reinforces the preponderance of whiteness as a privileged racial category.

Until today many social institutions such as the legal system and education policies discriminate in favour of white people, even if unwittingly or in subtle ways. Statistics showing far higher rates of incarceration for African American users of cannabis compared to white Americans are a more glaring obvious example. In their everyday lives, whites seldom have to think about their race or the perception of their race by others. One could say that to better understand racism, it is best not to think of discreet racial categories, but to critically examine the relationship of race, and especially whiteness, with social, economic and political power. Whilst bigotry and prejudice can be committed by anyone, racism is described as prejudice + power, which is why some social scientists assert the notion that because of the disproportionate and normalized privilege of white people in the United States and Europe, and the systematic nature of racism in our institutions, anyone can be a racial bigot but only whites can be racist.

Exposing and critiquing white privilege challenges the notion of meritocracy, especially in such ideals as the American Dream, which has more to do with the privileges available to those who hold, or upon whom is bestowed, social and political ascendancy.

If white privilege exits, it follows that there is a moral imperative to provide redress.

Some policies such as affirmative action (positive discrimination) are direct, highly visible, and very controversial. Much of the controversy stems from the lack of awareness of white privilege. Some whites become agitated to learn that scholarships or recruitment preferences are reserved for minority or disadvantaged groups. This is perceived as unfair or even as racist against whites since they are being penalised for historical ills they had no choice in abetting. Yet they have likely benefited from their whiteness (or maleness, or heterosexuality etc) in ways they are unconscious of. The essence of white privilege is this blissful unconsciousness.

Many well-intentioned people believe in multiculturalism as way of addressing the issue of racial (and religious etc) equality. What is missing from multiculturalist approaches however, is the acknowledgement of race as a position of social power. Multiculturalism instead portrays every group as equal but different, and posits that the answer to racism lies in mutual respect and celebration of our differences. Whilst it would be wrong to disagree with this premise, activists from the social constructionist camp argue instead that all groups should be equal, and that all groups indeed are worthy of celebration, but that when it comes down to it, we are not in fact equal in terms of social power.

From this perspective race is not about difference, it is actually about power and how power produces what we observe as the distinctions between the groups we consider to be racial categories.

Whilst multiculturalism as an approach is praiseworthy, it is lacking in its ability to critically analyze the unfair power of whiteness over all over groups. Because of this, multiculturalism feels very safe to white people, — it might entail a superficial exploration and celebration of the foods, clothing, language and customs of other groups. Without discussion of the inherent power relations between the groups, there is not likely to be a greater understanding of how social injustices and inequality create differences- the same differences often seen as being racial differences. To give an example, a predominantly white organization may ask someone (a white person) to arrange more whites at the organization to work with people of color in staging an event at which other whites are able to ‘look at’ the clothing, music, dance or food of other cultures. If power remains un-addressed as such events, they can act to reinforce the power of whites to be introduced to other cultures as a form of amusement, and from a position of comfort and relative power. Challenging racism then, has more to do with rendering whiteness visible and exposing the power imbalance.

Although racial categories are social constructions, the abiding irony remains that we must preserve them for the time being as a framework to negotiate issues of redress. We request job applicants to disclose their race for statistical and strategic purposes, and then report on how our organization is doing its part.

It is common for well-meaning people to say ‘When I see a black person, I do not really see them as black, just as a human being’, or ‘I try to be blind toward race’. Upon closer inspection it should become clear that seldom do people exclaim ‘When I see a white person, I do not really see them as white, just as a human being’. There is no need to make such a remark. What accounts for this is the privilege produced by the subconsciously-accepted invisibility of whiteness. Making whiteness visible, rather than merely focussing on specific programmes for people of color, is what will help us address racism more effectively.

The ideas in this essay are taken from Seeing White; An Introduction to White Privilege and Race by Halley et al.

    Christopher Neil

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