Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"White Privilege" Is a Racial Slur

Sorry. But it is. This is obvious if we think of how other racial/ethnic slurs are used

A definition of White Privilege/Entitlement (n):
[W]hite men [...] carry the absent mark which grants us the invisible power of white privilege. Everyone else gets discrimination. [...] White privilege is the right of whites, and only whites, to be judged as individuals, to be treated as a unique self, possessed of all the rights and protections of citizenship. I am not a race, I am the unmarked subject. I am simply, whereas you might be a black man, an asian woman, a disabled Native [American] man, a homosexual Latina, and on and on the qualifiers of identification go. 
~Michael Mark Cohen 


The Internet has proven again to be a nearly perfectly efficient rendering engine. That is, it outputs whatever you look for before you know you want to look for it. If you think of a snarky comment or the most outlandish point of view, the odds are that someone has already posted it --seriously or not-- on some social network. Exhibit #1, a petition has been proposed at Change.org stating
"We demand that Adele publicly acknowledge that although she has a little bit of talent, it's her white privilege that is selling her album. We also demand that Adele donates her money to African-American causes such as #Blacklivesmatter."
In case you don't know, Adele is a super-popular singer-songwriter who initially got attention from demos posted on MySpace that she had recorded for a class project. Is this "Rhianna Jones" serious or is this satire? I don't know. Who is this person? I don't know. Googling "rhianna jones",  the first 10 hits gets me a person who labels herself a "fashion creative" but I don't know if this is the same person. Let's assume not. However, although the Internet has rendered little support for this petition (this is Adele after all), there's not much discussion whether the actual labels being applied to this recently wealthy young woman are acceptable language in any frame. In fact, this is an excellent example of how vile the term "White Privilege" (or its A.K.A "White Entitlement") has become. It is simply another racial slur. I'll show you, but first, let's step back a few paces. 

Some time ago, Michael Mark Cohen -- believing that the world lacked an essential racial slur -- wrote an article in Medium entitled "Douchebag: The White Racial Slur We've All Been Waiting For". Yay! A racial slur for white people! The universe is just a bit better now. But there was a weakness in that awesome new toy for hateful people. Cohen identified it in his article when he explained what is a white person is to do about their Original Sin of being white:
"It’s a long argument, and an endless series of principled choices, but the short version is simply: don’t be a douchebag."
That advice shows that "douchebag" is a lousy racial slur. A white person can opt to not be douchebag. And anyone else can presumably opt to be one. The qualifications for a proper racial/ethnic slur cannot be expunged and they can't be adopted. A black one-percenter investment banker or neurosurgeon, regardless of her accomplishments and life experiences, can never be above being called any of many derogatory slurs. When she is, the implication is “Yes, you might have risen to impressive heights from your roots. But [insert term] is who you really are. You are merely punching above a weight class that nature has designated for you.” For those who use such terms  a Jewish person is always a “heeb” or maybe an Arab is always a terrorist under the skin.  It doesn't matter what they do or what they overcome. 

Conversely, if someone were to call me (a white guy) an "eggplant" I'd only be befuddled. You cannot apply someone else's slur to me. This would be true even if I were to go about disguised as a black man as the author of Black Like Me did in the late 50s. Knowing that I was not truly a black man would exempt me from any personal offense. If a white person can opt out of his assigned racial slur by a choice of mindset, I guess white people win again. But…maybe not. Maybe there is a slur we can apply to white people that they cannot escape. And Cohen and Jones both used it: white privilege.
[An aside: To define douchebaggery, what Cohen meant when he said "White people, don't be a "douchebag" was "Don’t imagine you deserve your social or economic status." But, to the extent this is valid, it is good advice to any American whatever his background or heritage: We are all the winners of life’s lottery here. If you are at the bottom 20% of American income earners, you are still in the top 20% of income earners worldwide—not including any additional subsidies you might get from the government, not including the many free social benefits we all have just for being here. And by at least one measure, if Western European countries were US states many of them would be the poorest states in the Union. Poorer than West Virginia. Poorer than Mississippi. On the other hand, a presumption of entitlement — the default attitude of all Americans, relative to people worldwide, regardless of income bracket— is a luxury and it bears significant costs over the course of a lifetime and over the course of generations. I suspect this is why Asians in America on average have been improving relative to Whites on average. It’s why Black immigrants tend to do better on average even though they are subject to unwarranted traffic stops as frequently as American-born Blacks. They or their parents have only recently come here and have not yet forgotten to be grateful. They do not take it for granted.]
For "white privilege/entitlement" to be a racial slur, it must make implications that are devoid of personal facts that might exempt the target. And, indeed, it is incorrect and unsupportable to say that Whites are immune from discrimination based on crude, ignorant categorization. The belief that they are so immune is founded on the same blindness as any bigot when he meets an accomplished, honest, hardworking, intelligent black woman and only sees a “jigaboo”. His error is that ancestry is a useless proxy for weighing the human soul or guessing the path of a human life. 
Per Wikipedia, Prof. Luvell Anderson (University of Memphis) argued that "for a word to be a slur, the word must communicate ideas beyond identifying a target group, and that slurs are offensive because the additional data contained in those words differentiates those individuals from otherwise accepted groups."
In the case of a white person, it is true that if your skin color is classified with 70% of the population, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that anyone will discriminate against you because of the color of your skin. You’ll never stand out because of that. But that just means that you will only face discrimination for other things instead: Because you’re a “hippie” and people stereotype you as flaky and drugged-up, or a Mormon and people think you are weird and narrow-minded, or because you have Southern accent and people assume you are stupid and racist, or because your car is an older model than what is common in your neighborhood so the cops stop you all the time.

Or it could be that people think you are too FAT to be a female pop star of worldwide acclaim. Heaven, knows that having 50 pounds over the ideal makes you worthy of all the approbation people might throw at you. You did it to yourself, after all. And you're a burden to society to boot. 

Or maybe it is that (despite your white privilege) you are socially awkward and you don’t have any valuable social connections because you were raised by an alienating, clinically-depressed, alcoholic single mother in a small, unfashionable town and your academic scores were lackluster, and your household had just enough reportable income to not qualify for enough meaningful university grants to make a difference. 

Yes, people of all races might face these same sorts of disadvantages as well. But white people encountering them do not have a secret superpower called White Privilege that they can whip out to overcome them. They have to overcome them the same way anyone else does, or not.

When Adele grew up in relative poverty, the daughter of an alcoholic who abandoned his wife to raise their a two-year-old alone, she couldn't make that go away by asserting White Privilege.

In the real world, your White Privilege and a dollar will buy you a pack of gum—although in a high crime neighborhood, maybe you won’t have an immigrant store owner following you around while you pick it out.

There are at least two false beliefs about that mysterious Race of White People that underlie this idea of White Privilege.  

1) If you are not white and male, you might well believe that there are lots of secret benefits those people confer on each other when you aren't around. Benefits that are apart from good looks, social affability, intelligence, health, wealth, or connections, or the college you went to, the organizations you joined, the church you attend. But I can report from the other side that that it isn't true.

This notion reminds me of a 1984 Saturday Night Live mockumentary where Eddie Murphy disguised himself as a white man and discovered that when no one was looking white people give each other things for free. When there is only white people on public transportation, suddenly, it becomes a party bus. 

[And, lo, the Internet renders again. Because less than two months ago, a writer for the New York Daily News asserted that this very Eddie Murphy humor skit had "got it right" on White Privilege.]

2) The other false belief is that, I, as a white man somehow receive a benefit every time anyone who is not white is hassled by the police or is microaggressed  in hundreds of little ways each day. To think that is to adopt the most wooden, simplistic concept of the complex world of human interactions that... well, now that I think of it, that sort of thinking is probably near the heart of all bigotry.

Now, it is true that class privilege is a valuable thing. A child of a household in the top 5% of income earners probably has a statistically better chance in life with only a high school diploma than someone raised by the bottom 25% has with an undergrad degree (that is by some measurements). It is not a crazy anomaly when a white person is in the bottom 25% of income earning households, but the belief that that is at least relatively rare is an underlying assumption among those who conflate class and race. But even class privilege doesn't trump everything. In the 50s lots of white, high income, leftist artists in the movie industry were discriminated against for associating with Communists, and even more feared they would be. To many of their peers, they were just another pinko. When the Internet rendered the fact that Mozilla CEO and co-founder, Brendan Eich, had contributed money to an anti-same-sex-marriage initiative in California, his corporate peers and employees turned their backs on him until he was sufficiently pressured to resign. To them, despite knowing him for years, Eich was suddenly just another teabagger.

"White Privilege" is a label that denies the individuality of the target and forces him to into a set of predefined stereotypes. That's what slurs are for.

There is nothing the target to can do to exempt himself. It is beyond achievement, effort, or choice. You just are Black or Latino or Jewish or White Privileged. Definitively, a person of Euro-Caucasian descent can never stop being white privileged for to be white is to be white privileged. The most degraded white man sleeping on the streets in a 10 degree blizzard at least has white privilege in his pocket.

 And just like those other racial slurs, being "white privileged" undercuts anything a person accomplishes: past or future. Maybe he can be the nicest White Privileged chap that his Black and Latino friends know. Maybe he can be “one of the good ones” who “knows his place” as the beneficiary of American institutional racism. But he can never be other than white privileged. If you are white privileged, it means that — although you might have never treated anyone inequitably based on their race, creed, or national origin, although you might have even shown a degree of favoritism to races different than your own, although you might have had no valuable socio-economic connections when starting out, although you might have worked very hard and risked much to achieve whatever you have — but still you vicariously share in the sin of every cop (white or black or brown) who stops and tickets a black man in an expensive car because he stood out on the highway. And it asserts you have even reaped unspecified rewards from those encounters—rewards not shared by anyone in another category...even if someone in that category has never been similarly harassed. 

It does no good to say "Well, other slurs denigrate a person, but the label "White Privileged" merely says the person is better off." If you imply that a Jewish family has secret hoards of wealth in their basement accrued by cleverly manipulating naive gentiles or that their causes benefit from Jews controlling the media, that is still a slur. "White Privilege" is intended to denigrate a person morally and on merit. 

As a racial slur White Privilege is far more offensive and derogatory than "honky" or "cracker" (which white people never really cared about), and no one has shown the least embarrassment in throwing it around. It is used the same as any other racial slur: To deny the target his individuality, to brand him with the failures of the worst member of his category and with the stereotypes in the minds of others, to disparage the quality of his achievements and potential, and to implicitly demand more from him than others.

[A version of this article was originally published on Medium.com.]




Addendum

How Can You Say That White Privilege Is Not a Real Thing At All?

I don't say that. I don't have to, because it doesn't a matter if it exists or not. As I said, stereotypes have a high degree of accuracy in some aggregate form or did at some time. Are Jews and Scots especially frugal? Probably many were once. Having to thrive in hostile economic environments means you have to watch every penny. Are blacks lazy? That stereotype started during a time of slavery. Slaves and otherwise economically exploited people probably appear lazy to their task masters. Why should a slave work hard unless there is a whip driving them on? What benefit would they gain? And malingering is often the only resistance available. But a stereotype is unreliable when applied to any single person or instance. In real life, when the special circumstances are not in play -- circumstances that would lead the stereotype to be true for anyone (social ostracization, economic exploitation, benefits of class)-- the stereotypial behavior parts like fog at noon. 

And, anyway, in an incredibly rich country like the US, most specific discrimination is a small issue for success relative to other factors (save for a few very limited fields and circumstances). Life is full plusses and minuses. Just because one of those values *exist* doesn't mean it is relevant in the totality of your experience:

For example, if you live on the beach, the wind will frequently whip up sand in your eye. This is incredibly painful. If you don't live on the beach, you can see that a decreased possibility of this happening is a benefit for you - that is your Inland Privilege. But that doesn't mean that sand in eyes is even in the top 10 downsides of living on the beach. 

Your happiness in America --where, again, the poor are well within in the top 20% of income earners worldwide and where if European countries were states almost all would be among the poorest in the Union -- is influenced by the quality of your family, your physical ability and attractiveness, the affluence of your parents, your connections to church and other secular organization, your natural charm, your curiosity, your skills and the degree to which those skills are esteemed and capitalized by others. Race and where your ancestors were born is a factor just as anything has a theoretical butterfly effect, but they are behind all these others. 

Attributing significant power to things beyond your control is destructive and self-fulfilling.

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