Privilege and ‘white privilege’

All other things being equal, any white person in the USA is better off than if they were black.

That’s certainly true of me.  Nobody ever questioned me about a possible criminal record when I applied for a job.  Black acquaintances tell me that is routine for them.

And even if I did have a criminal record, testers have found that I would have a better chance of getting a job than a black person with a clear record.

I have never feared for my life when stopped by a police officer.  In fact, I have no complaints whatever about my interactions with law enforcement over my whole life.   That wouldn’t be true if I were black.

I can understand why black people feel angry.

It is true that, here and there, black people get something they’re not strictly entitled to through affirmative action or diversity programs.   But I don’t think that even the white people who are most indignant about such programs would really want to change places with blacks.

This used to be called “racial discrimination” or “racial prejudice” or “racial injustice”.   Now it is called “white privilege.”  I think the change is a mistake.

A privilege is something you have to which you’re not entitled.  The implication of the word “white privilege” is that the problem is not that black people are denied justice, but that white people are not.

White privilege” is part of a vocabulary intended to change the behavior of white people through shaming.  One problem with that is that the only white people who will be influenced by such words are those who are well-disposed toward black people to begin with.   Others will simply be angered and alienated.

It is also a way for educated, well-off white people to stigmatize poor and rural white people—to tell them that their struggles and problems don’t count because they enjoy “white privilege”.


It is true that, no matter how successful a black person may be, he or she will never be treated the same as an equivalent white person.

That’s true even if you are President of the United States.   Imagine the reaction if Barack Obama had been as sexually promiscuous as Bill Clinton or as ignorant as George W. Bush!  I won’t even mention Donald Trump, who is in a category by himself.

But the fact is that, even so, President Obama is part of a circle of rich celebrities to which neither I nor (probably) you nor the vast majority of white and black Americans have access.  The Obamas are friends of the Bushes, who are friends of the Clintons, who used to be friends of the Trumps, and, the last I heard, Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton were still close friends.

All four families have more in common with each other than any of them does with a limousine driver of their own race taking them to the airport.


Two corporate lawyers, one of whom is black, have more in common than two black people, one of whom is a corporate lawyer.


As a boy and young man, I thought of myself as a privileged person, but not because I was white, but because of the differences between me and certain classmates in school.

These classmates dropped out of school on the day after their 16th birthdays, because they wanted to earn money, and often because their families wanted them earning money, rather than sitting in a boring classroom and listening to classroom instruction that had no meaning for them.

I, on the other hand, was destined to go to college, and enjoy all the benefits that a college education could bring, which were considerably more than than they are now.

My friend Robert, who dropped out at age 16, once told me I had made the right decision.  But it wasn’t a decision—either on his part or on mine.   Of course Robert (who died young in an automobile accident) would have been even worse off if his skin had been dark.   Did this make him “privileged”?  In comparison to whom?


“White privilege” is not the only form of privilege.   There is a whole matrix of privilege—rich vs. poor, Anglo vs. Hispanic. male vs. female, straight vs. gay or lesbian, hearing vs. deaf, seeing vs. blind, cisgendered vs. transgendered and probably others I have forgotten or haven’t heard of yet.

One form of privilege is generational privilege.   If I were 21 instead of 81, I would be entering a much more unforgiving world than the one I entered 60 years ago, and I would not expect the comfortable retirement I now enjoy at the end of it.

If you think of yourself primarily as part of a matrix of different kinds of privilege and oppression, you risk being caught up in a contest as to who is the most oppressed—a lesbian Hispanic single mother, say, or a black male disabled Vietnam veteran?

This way of thinking undermines human solidarity and, if I were more paranoid than I am, I would think that this is its purpose.


The whole “check your privilege” matrix is an inadequate explanation of society because it focuses on individual differences and not on the social structures that produce these differences

What we need to understand how American society is controlled by various structures—the banking system, the political parties, the so-called military-industrial complex, among others—in ways that trap all of us, black and white, in economic decline and perpetual war..

What we need to do is to work together to change those structures, not just change  demographic characteristics of the people at various points within the structures.


How liberals still love diversity and ignore inequality, an interview of Walter Benn Michaels for the Chicago Reader.

The Privilege Paradox by Samuel Biagetti for Quillette

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6 Responses to “Privilege and ‘white privilege’”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    as usual you make sense. In church we recently had a discussion ( I think all of UUA did so) about using the word stand as in stand up for love. It is charged that this is no fair for the disabled. Then we celebrated various marches and school walkouts. They would seem to have the same unfairness. We have had a similar discussion over the term disabled. I remarked to one of my friends that I was ready to give to DAV but didn’t want to make someone uncomfortable.

    We need to focus on real problems.


  2. whungerford Says:

    I went on a business trip to a New England state with a colleague who happened to be a dark skinned man. We decided to go roller skating in the evening. I walked into the the unfamiliar skating rink without a thought, but my friend alert for trouble hung back. “Is everyone welcome here” he called out at the entrance, “is it ok if I come in?”


    • philebersole Says:

      I imagine that what you felt when that happened was sadness or righteous indignation or both.

      Righteous indignation can lead to positive action. Beating up on oneself, especially for things one isn’t directly responsible for, can be a substitute for action.

      Your own blogging – on – is an example of positive action


    • paintedjaguar Says:

      Yeah, I feel a similar anxiety every time I pass by a fancy dept store, hotel, or restaurant (I seldom go in) and have for my entire life. I don’t actually expect to be attacked or anything, and I doubt that your friend did either, but feeling that you don’t belong somewhere is unpleasant. By the way, I’m white skinned.

      Being a Baby Boomer is the new “white privilege”. Well there are an awful lot of us boomers who didn’t get the brass ring, and the fact that lots of our cohort did does nothing for us. Quite the opposite in fact – not only are we alienated, but we have to put up with the usual morons telling us how good we’ve had it.

      Are you better off being white in a majority white country – even with anti-discrimination laws, etc? Of course. Duh. Although my pal who went to high school in Hawaii didn’t find it much fun being a haole. The trouble with the “all other things being equal” argument is this – all other things are NEVER equal.

      Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      Just to clarify my point about generational privilege. I was referring to myself as a member of the Silent Generation, the one that came between the Greatest Generation and you Baby Boomers.

      Among my generational privileges was being too young to be drafted to fight in Korea and too old to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.


  3. whungerford Says:

    Doug and I had no problem at that New England public roller rink. I was neither sad nor indignant, only surprised, and I felt schooled.

    In Japan, visiting a Shinto shrine, I encountered a sign: “no foreigners beyond this point.” I had no need to invade the sanctuary, it was a very minor matter, yet I felt indignant.

    A friend told me recently of needing a hotel room on the interstate in rural Georgia. White families were being checked in, but they had no room for his family. A bell hop advised him to go on to Atlanta where he would find a room. That story did make me sad and ashamed at what we tolerate.


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