Some of the most athletic leaps in logic I’ve experienced have been in discussions about race and gender. Lines become blurred as differences of personal perspective become synonymous with “fascism” and “discrimination,” alchemical transformations come over topics, viewpoints and values. In one particular instance, I was accused of being racist over my stance on free speech…in a disagreement about feminism.
The ultimate example of these bizarre shifts, however, is the all-answering and unanswerable allegation of “white privilege.” I say unanswerable not because it is a legitimate claim, but because the types of people who will use this as an argument are generally not the type who are open to hearing the other side. It's a perfectly self-sustaining and self-winning argument, you see: as soon as you deny white privilege, you're a bad person and a racist (somehow?), and your opinion is no longer valid. Bellevue College has had a number of events talking about race-issues, where talk about white privilege elicits somber nods of agreement, and disagreement, if and when it occurs, is rebutted with the same two magical words.
Before I go further, there is a small biological hurdle: race isn’t a thing. There is no race gene. It doesn’t exist. So, in order to talk about white privilege, let’s ignore the illusionary nature of race that the idea relies on, since without the existence of race, we couldn’t make claims about any kind of racial privilege.
What we end up with is essentially the following line of argument: “Racism is bad, and in today’s society, white people end up doing better in many aspects of life than black people. This means that if you are white, you must be benefiting from a set of unearned societal gifts that you probably aren’t even aware of, and you should acknowledge this.” No doubt, some academic somewhere probably has an infinitely more nuanced post-modernist thesis that somehow gets around the issue of Asian privilege (which is statistically greater than the white variety, when the race premise is granted), but the gist of the idea is approximately the same. When it's actually articulated in public, there's usually an implicit message that white people should feel ashamed, and perhaps feel obligated to give something back as penance for the imperialistic crimes of their great-great-great-grandparents.
A short point of order: racism can be roughly defined as attributing traits to an individual solely on the basis of their skin color. We say it's racist, for example, to assume that a black person will like hip-hop music solely based on race because it's assigning group values to an individual without warrant. Even if we grant the idea of “race,” people are different, and you can’t expect to know anything, let alone everything, about an individual just because they happens to be black.
So why on earth is it magically okay to assume someone is “privileged” based their skin color if they’re white? This is the painful and irritating irony of white privilege; it’s fighting fire with gasoline. Before you assume that someone is “privileged” based on skin color, think about what racism actually means, and what you’re expecting based solely on their race. A little introspection will go a long way in stopping the divisiveness this stubborn bastion of disguised bigotry has been inflicting on campus.