Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece commenting on David Sirota’s wish that the Boston Marathon bomber was a white American. While his wish most definitely did not come true upon the discovery that the Tsarnaev brothers, who were ethnically Chechen and Muslims, committed the bombings, his piece raised another very important issue that has been slowly making headway in the news over the past several months: white privilege.

White privilege and male privilege had been making the rounds on the news during the months prior to the bombing, both in conservative and liberal circles. Some have said that this theory accuses men and whites of being inherently sexist or racist, but that is a misstatement of the theory. The technical version is that, because males/whites have had a dominant place in society for so long, they benefit from certain societal perks – “privileges” – that women and minorities do not.

The issue with the concept of white privilege or male privilege as a theory isn’t really the academics behind it. There’s a decent case to be made that yes, America is majority white and yes, that probably has impacted the way certain things run in American society. (Similar arguments go for the issue of male privilege.) This line of reasoning is very much different from accusing someone of being inherently racist/sexist. In legal terms, this is expressed as the difference between disparate impact (something that may have a discriminatory effect, but was not intended to) and disparate intent (actions explicitly meant to discriminate).

There are some ways to deploy this concept that are completely impersonal. Take, for example, race-neutral professional testing. Studies have demonstrated that standardized tests can result in different average outcomes between racial groups, and that these can often change in relation to the race of the author – if the author is white then whites do noticeably better, if black then blacks do noticeably better, etc. To address this, multi-racial panels were employed to cooperatively write and administer such tests, thus resulting in more proportionate results demographically. In other words, this makes sure that scores are reflective of actual job knowledge and skill rather than other unrelated factors like racial bias.

This is the kind of test that was made famous in the landmark case Ricci v. Destefano, better known as the New Haven firefighter case. Eighteen firefighters were denied their officer promotions based on the accusation that their promotions would amount to disparate impact racism (which is illegal under the Civil Rights Act), as all but one of the promoted firefighters was white. However, the promotion exams were written and administered by a testing company that used a multi-racial panel. The Supreme Court ruled that because the fire department and testing company had acted in good faith to mitigate any racially disparate results, the promotions did not violate the law.

The real issue with white privilege or male privilege is that it almost never stays confined to such neutral sociological and academic terms. When someone is asked to “accept” their privilege, that request is usually made along with the assumption that doing so will entail some very specific (generally liberal) political ideas. For example, asking someone to accept one’s male privilege might demand the acceptance of abortion, due to the idea that women are “oppressed” without having the option of terminating a pregnancy to escape the burdens imposed by carrying a child to term. Asking someone to accept their white privilege, for another example, could demand the acceptance of reparations for slavery.

The problem with this is that it wrongly conflates the phenomenon with the political conclusions. Again using the example of abortion, there are arguments about the moral and legal status of unborn fetuses that are still very important to consider. However, the final consideration among progressives about what constitutes “privilege” almost never brings these arguments to bear. The same goes for race: arguments about the moral complicity of modern white people in the actions of their ancestors, which they never personally condoned or were even present for, are likely to be skimmed over or ignored. Even my Ricci v. Destefano argument above could be problematic, because the majority of Supreme Court justices are white and therefore judged the case from a “privileged” position.

And this is where the demand that someone “accept their privilege” itself risks becoming racist or sexist. If someone seriously considers the issue of white/male privilege, but after doing so still holds some or all of the same political beliefs, their particular moral valuations aren’t given any credence. It’s all too easy to accuse someone of still being “privileged” after that point: i.e. “the only reason they believe that is because they are male/white and thus are privileged.”

Of course, especially in academia, few people are willing to make such a point, and even fewer are willing to listen. (I attempted to do so recently in my own school’s paper, twice, and was aggressively attacked as a result.) This is because separating the neutral sociological issues from their politicized baggage challenges the basic premise of what white privilege and male privilege mean for their most ardent liberal advocates. The debate becomes ideological rather than academic at that point, and the voice of the dissenting minority that questions the concepts of white or male privilege is drastically overrun by the majority opinion.

But wait, doesn’t that mean that liberals – especially in academia – enjoy their own special brand of privilege? With such large numbers in relation to their libertarian or conservative peers, no doubt they enjoy some major cultural and structural benefits in academia that their peers do not. Consider:

  • Liberals can, if they choose, associate exclusively with their ideological peers without much difficulty.
  • Liberals can almost always study under faculty of their own (or similar) ideological leanings.
  • Liberals can generally express political and ideological beliefs to those peers or faculty without fear of ridicule or social reprisal.
  • Liberals can express political and ideological beliefs in their academic work without having to worry about their grades or GPAs being negatively impacted as a result.
  • Liberals can enjoy a majority of campus media resources without encountering an idea that runs counter to their political beliefs.

This same sort of reasoning could also apply to staff and faculty members:

  • Liberal staff and faculty members can, if they choose, associate exclusively with their ideological peers without much difficulty.
  • Liberal staff and faculty members can express political and ideological beliefs without concern that they might face workplace or hiring discrimination. (This is a very real issue.)
  • Liberal staff and faculty members find it more socially acceptable to make politicized claims while teaching their students.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Any time that a group achieves a position of social or systemic dominance, they are going to benefit from certain social and systemic privileges – including groups defined by a common political ideology.

This, I think, is the core of the privilege issue: humans are multi-faceted creatures that are made up of many different aspects and characteristics. While it’s easy for us to essentialize people’s identities or positions in society based on obvious factors like race or gender, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the ideological baggage ascribed to that one characteristic is shared by every member of that group – and it should definitely not be used to condemn every group member equally! Rather than fighting racism or sexism as they may themselves believe, people who use white/male privilege only as a social and political bludgeon to promote their chosen causes are themselves being racist or sexist.

Until we start treating each other as individuals, and not as mere members of larger groups, we will continue to struggle with making society a more just place.


David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin