White Privilege is Broken, Here’s How to Fix It

A better approach to Privilege that everyone can agree with.

White privilege gets people excited.

Those who feel victimized by it and those who deny its existence get riled up by it. But, there is a principle that works better than either rejecting or embracing privilege. The aggrieved, the deniers, and everyone between them already agrees with this idea. I’m talking about The Golden Rule; and if more people lived by it the rhetoric surrounding race would cool down.

Historically, whites have stolen away black people’s rights. That’s not debatable. Correcting those injustices is complicated though. Ending the drug war would be a good first step. And ideas like reparations deserve at least consideration, if not trials. But those policies are unreachable in our current political landscape. So, what do we do in the meantime? Also, what should we do about interracial relations on an individual level?

This is where the idea of white privilege comes in. Its purpose, to benefit mistreated brown people, is noble. Unfortunately, achieving that goal in any measurable way is difficult. Before we try to quantify it though, let’s define white privilege.

Various articles, scholastic works, and blog posts explain white privilege in different ways. The thread running through all of them is: Whites should act compassionately toward non-white people because white skin confers advantages. It’s an innocent idea on the surface. There’s nothing wrong with asking one group to be nice to another group. White Privilege creates problems though, especially when compared with The Golden Rule. If you dig into the logic of both ideas you see why.

First off, who is privilege rhetoric for? Is it only for jerks, or does it apply to nice people too? For example, if a white person is friendly to everyone, does white privilege say she should act even nicer to non-white people? If your interpretation of white privilege in this case is that no; she does not need to be extra friendly, then privilege has nothing to say to nice people. They’re already in the clear.

Then, the theory follows, people who are only nice some of the time should show special consideration toward brown people. Okay, but the problem here is that when someone is a jerk, they’re usually not a jerk to just one group. Racism and misogyny go together like confederate flags and pickups. I mean, how many Klan members are Lena Dunham fans? In this case, white privilege urges bigots to fix one type of prejudice, and ignores others.

Let’s jump back to the hypothetical nice white girl. If you believe a nice white person should be nicer toward brown people, that has consequences too. When a person forces an attitude which doesn’t come naturally, the resulting behavior seems insincere.

Phony graciousness toward minorities that results from ‘checking your privilege’ isn’t helpful. It puts white people in an awkward position. I’m not saying that awkwardness is close to the bad things blacks have endured, but it’s not contributing to a solution. Insincere niceness doesn’t seem like an optimal outcome for privilege theory either.

Also, if a non-white person harms a white person; should the white person accept it silently because of her privilege? I know the opposite happens way more often, but even if it’s infrequent it’s not impossible. And regardless of the frequency, brown people have agency in their own lives. Therefore, they have as much of a capability to mistreat a white person as a white person does of mistreating a non-white person. Excusing or tolerating unfairness, whoever it gets aimed at, is not the same as equality.

Should the scales of justice tip, based on the color of a person’s skin? Maybe the scales are unbalanced in whites’ favor. That might be true. But there are two ways to even out a scale; adding a counterbalance, or clearing the scales and measuring everything independently.

I’m arguing that White Privilege — the counterbalance approach — will only lead to the scales tilting in the opposite direction. Privilege is an inexact tool. How can you tell when you’ve checked if enough? I mean, how much privilege can a white person check, if a white person can check privilege? Fortunately, there’s a way to clear the scales of social interaction: The Golden Rule.

Treat others the way you would like to be treated. This idea is so universal that almost every religion and culture embrace some version of it. It doesn’t suffer from any selectivity. The golden rule is the scale, clear and even. It’s simple and straightforward.

The limited reach of White Privilege is a problem the Golden Rule does not have. Saying, “White privilege exists; therefore, you should check your privilege,” is not as powerful as, “White privilege exists; therefore, you should treat others the way you would like to be treated.” The former is limited, but the latter is universal.

The Golden Rule isn’t an exact science either. However, it’s easier to consider, “would I like it if someone did this to me,” than it is think to yourself, “I’m a straight, white, male. So I should behave this way towards white people and I should behave this way toward non-white people.”

And, advocating for the golden rule, instead of checking your privilege, is easier. The Golden Rule doesn’t require acknowledgement that White Privilege exists. That’s a difficult first step if you want to convince someone to be nice. If you can get to the desired behavior without having to wrestle them into acknowledgement that the problem exists, then why wrestle? Why try to counterbalance the scale when you can measure free and clear?

I’m not saying this will fix everything. Some people won’t embrace the Golden Rule. Sure. But, if it gets more widely embraced, and the struggle is still real for non-white people, there’s more things society can do as well. I want to emphasize too, I am not denying the existence of white privilege. I’m trying to break down why white privilege is an incomplete behavioral guide and suggesting a better approach.

It’s even more productive to look at interracial relations through the lens of gratefulness. Privilege gets hurled around as an accusation of unearned advantage. Whereas, gratefulness invokes mindfulness of one’s own good fortune. Saying that everyone should be grateful for what they have is less likely to generate push-back than accusing someone of having privilege. People feel more empathy toward others when they are aware of their own blessings, versus when they’re defending themselves from an allegation. Everyone has their own advantages and disadvantages, that’s life.

Even if you disagree with me, please, just be courteous. For whatever reason you choose.

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