Evidence for White Privilege

 Posted by on 17 March 2005 at 9:54 am  Uncategorized
Mar 172005

I’ve been thinking about the arbitrary of late, particularly what constitutes genuine evidence for a conclusion, as opposed to the mere illusion of evidence. In fact, when I taught my two recitations yesterday on Tom Regan’s seeming argument for animal rights, my basic criticism was the his critical concept of “inherent value” is not just arbitrary, but meaningless. So when I received this article (forwarded to the Boulder graduate student list by a faculty member) on the widespread effects of pervasive “white privilege,” I was interested to see exactly what kind of concrete evidence the author marshaled for such racism. Given his claim that “all white people have privilege, whether or not they are overtly racist themselves,” one might think that he would have oodles of clear evidence at his disposal. So what does he say to justify that claim? Absolutely nothing:

Some people resist the assertions that the United States is still a bitterly racist society and that the racism has real effects on real people. But white folks have long cut other white folks a break. I know, because I am one of them.

I am not a genius–as I like to say, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I have been teaching full-time for six years, and I’ve published a reasonable amount of scholarship. Some of it is the unexceptional stuff one churns out to get tenure, and some of it, I would argue, actually is worth reading. I work hard, and I like to think that I’m a fairly decent teacher. Every once in awhile, I leave my office at the end of the day feeling like I really accomplished something. When I cash my paycheck, I don’t feel guilty.

But, all that said, I know I did not get where I am by merit alone. I benefited from, among other things, white privilege. That doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve my job, or that if I weren’t white I would never have gotten the job. It means simply that all through my life, I have soaked up benefits for being white. I grew up in fertile farm country taken by force from non-white indigenous people. I was educated in a well-funded, virtually all-white public school system in which I learned that white people like me made this country great. There I also was taught a variety of skills, including how to take standardized tests written by and for white people.

All my life I have been hired for jobs by white people. I was accepted for graduate school by white people. And I was hired for a teaching position at the predominantly white University of Texas, which had a white president, in a college headed by a white dean and in a department with a white chairman that at the time had one non-white tenured professor.

There certainly is individual variation in experience. Some white people have had it easier than me, probably because they came from wealthy families that gave them even more privilege. Some white people have had it tougher than me because they came from poorer families. White women face discrimination I will never know. But, in the end, white people all have drawn on white privilege somewhere in their lives.

Notice that…

  • … the unknown actions of long-dead ancestors somehow still confers benefits upon whites — and only whites.
  • … learning in classrooms filled with white children apparently gives a child some kind of an educational advantage. (If that’s not racism, then nothing is!)
  • … history ought to be taught in accordance with racial parity, not the facts.
  • … white people must have some special innate advantage in reading comprehension, vocabulary, mathematics, and so on, since standardized tests favor them.
  • … the fact that the author’s career has been advanced in the usual ways by white people (i.e. the majority) is cited as evidence of white privilege, as if the author would come to a different conclusion if he had been hired by non-whites.

    Ultimately, I think that we are supposed to be impressed simply by the number of times that the author manages to mention the word “white.” Of course, that’s not genuine evidence for “white privilege” at all, just an illusion designed for the confused, gullible, and faithful. I wonder how effective it is.

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