White Privilege

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Critique of Peggy McIntosh's original essay from 1989

Discussion of: White Privilege: Unpacking the Knapsack’, by Dr Peggy McIntosh

Xin Du:

"Much has improved for race relations since McIntosh’s essay. But it still came out at a time when Eddie Murphy, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson were among the world’s biggest stars. In 1988, Jesse Jackson won seven million primary votes in his second bid to run for the presidency. In the same year, Lenora Fulani ran as a third-party candidate for president and won the most votes of any woman in a national presidential election until Jill Stein in 2012. And in 1984, Ben Carson became the youngest ever director of paediatric neurosurgery in the US. Yet McIntosh still seemed adamant that black people were unlikely to find success.

McIntosh makes the kind of racial generalisations – and zero-sum arguments – that would not be alien to a Klan member. For example, she states: ‘In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable and alienated.’ It seems impossible for McIntosh to envision a place where both white and black people can be happy simultaneously. The logical conclusion from this casuistry is that for black people to be happy, whites have to be made less happy. And we can see some of this sentiment today, with the increasing demand of BLM for white people to step out of the way.

Even McIntosh’s assertion of ‘male privilege’ – the assumption on which the narrative of white privilege is based – is questionable. Most people who are homeless in the US are males (around 70 per cent), as are the majority (93 per cent) of the prison population. White males alone made up almost 70 per cent of suicides in 2018. Men also consistently make up over 90 per cent of work-related injuries and deaths and are the vast majority of those who have died in wars. Some privilege." (https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/07/23/the-origins-of-the-white-privilege-myth/)


Dyab Abou Jahjah:

“Next to defining the identity of the other as “problematic” and giving it an essentialist pejorative qualification as “whiteness” and hence silencing every debate by pointing out features of that “whiteness”, and imposing the “shut up and listen” relationship pattern, these POC and intersectionality activists are abusing the concept of privilege and using it in an absurd manner.

Not being discriminated is considered to be a privilege enjoyed by whites in the context of racial discrimination and by heterosexual men in that of gender discrimination. So instead of putting the emphasis on the plight of the discriminated and the wrongdoing of the discriminator(s) they are pointing the finger to those who are not discriminated and calling their privilege out, asking them to take distance of it.

Not being discriminated is not a privilege, it is the default status that should be enjoyed by everyone. When we are calling for equality and advocating measures to eliminate discriminations, the emphasis must not be on targeting the group that is not discriminated because of it enjoying an imaginary privilege. The true privilege in society does exist, but it is not the absence of discrimination on racial and gender features. The real privilege is that of people who can get away with wrongdoing, tax evasions, major crimes and who can abuse power. No regular white person can get away with wrong-doing because of their color. Only elites can, and elites come in all colors and ethnicities. The only privilege that exist is elite privilege and yes it must be abolished. Moreover, male heterosexual members of the majority in any country are all discriminated on age, on disability, on social status and financial situation. That they are not discriminated on their ethnicity or on their gender does not mean they are privileged, and they cannot and must not take distance of that. “ (https://www.aboujahjah.org/articles--columns/on-whiteness-privilege-and-other-tropes-of-minority-identity-politics?)


* Article: Branscombe, N. R., Schmitt, M. T., & Schiffhauer, K. (2007). Racial attitudes in response to thoughts of White privilege. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37(2), 203–215. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.348

URL = https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-04184-001

"Thinking about the benefits gained from a privileged group membership can threaten social identity and evoke justification of the existing status difference between the ingroup and a disadvantaged group. For White Americans, racial privilege may be justified by concurring with modern racist attitudes. In Experiment 1, White Americans randomly assigned to think about White privilege expressed greater modern racism compared to those assigned to think about White disadvantage or a race-irrelevant topic. In Experiment 2, we found that increased racism in response to thoughts of White privilege was limited to those who highly identified with their racial category. In contrast, when White racial identification was sufficiently low, thoughts of White privilege reliably reduced modern racism. We discuss the implications of these findings for the meaning of modern racism and prejudice reduction."


"A recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that the idea of white privilege may have an unexpected drawback: It can reduce empathy for white people who are struggling with poverty. The paper finds that social liberals—people who have socially liberal views on the major political issues—are actually less likely to empathize with a poor white person’s plight after being given a reading on white privilege.

Colgate University social psychologist Erin Cooley is one of the lead authors of the study. As a long-time researcher of prejudice and its impact on the way we think, Cooley was drawn to study the topic by related research she conducted on how Americans associate race with wealth. In another study published this year, Cooley and colleagues found participants were more likely to associate poverty with blacks as opposed to whites. They also found that this association predicted opposition toward welfare and redistributive economic policies—fed by the belief that these policies would necessarily benefit blacks over whites.

“When people imagine welfare recipients, they think to imagine black people,” she says. “So, this means when people have negative attitudes toward black people, because they’re imagining that black people are benefiting from wealth redistribution, they’re less likely to support wealth redistribution.”

The flip side of people associating black people with poverty, she says, would be to associate wealth with being white, and she wanted to study what that looked like." (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_happens_when_you_educate_liberals_about_white_privilege)


Xin Du:

"The highest earning Americans are ethnically Asians. Indian Americans come out on top (with a median household income of $100,000). Japanese ($74,000) and Chinese Americans ($70,000) also earn more than whites ($67,800). [1]

The number of whites living below the poverty line in 2018 (15.7million) is almost double that of blacks (8.9million). While the proportion of black people in poverty is higher than whites, the sheer volume of destitute white people should at least give pause to the sort of sweeping theory that McIntosh espouses and which has now become one of the most entrenched narratives in American politics." [2]


More information

  • Article: Cooley, E., Brown-Iannuzzi, J. L., Lei, R. F., & Cipolli, W. III. (2019). Complex intersections of race and class: Among social liberals, learning about White privilege reduces sympathy, increases blame, and decreases external attributions for White people struggling with poverty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(12), 2218–2228.

URL = https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fxge0000605 [3]

"White privilege lessons are sometimes used to increase awareness of racism. However, little research has investigated the consequences of these lessons. Across 2 studies (N = 1,189), we hypothesized that White privilege lessons may both highlight structural privilege based on race, and simultaneously decrease sympathy for other challenges some White people endure (e.g., poverty)—especially among social liberals who may be particularly receptive to structural explanations of inequality. Indeed, both studies revealed that while social liberals were overall more sympathetic to poor people than social conservatives, reading about White privilege decreased their sympathy for a poor White (vs. Black) person. Moreover, these shifts in sympathy were associated with greater punishment/blame and fewer external attributions for a poor White person’s plight. We conclude that, among social liberals, White privilege lessons may increase beliefs that poor White people have failed to take advantage of their racial privilege—leading to negative social evaluations."