Part 2—Genesis of a term: In its entry on “White privilege,” the world’s leading authority on the topic offers an interesting account of the concept, and a history of the term’s origins.
In a section called “History of the concept,” the authority seems to trace the term “white skin privilege” to the work of Theodore W. Allen, starting in 1965. We can’t tell you if this account is correct, but here you see the quick thumbnail sketch:
In 1965, ...inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Theodore W. Allen began a forty-year analysis of “white skin privilege,” ”white race” privilege, and “white” privilege in a call he drafted for a “John Brown Commemoration Committee” that urged “White Americans who want government of the people” and “by the people” to “begin by first repudiating their white skin privileges.” The pamphlet, "White Blindspot," containing one essay by Allen and one by Noel Ignatin (Noel Ignatiev), published in the late 1960s, focused on the struggle against "white skin privilege” and significantly influenced the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the New Left. By June 15, 1969, the New York Times was reporting that the National Office of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was calling “for an all-out fight against ‘white skin privileges.’ ”There’s more, but that’s where the term got its start, according to this history. A bit later, one slightly discordant note is perhaps allowed to creep in:
Though Allen’s work influenced Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and sectors of the “new left” and paved the way for “white privilege” and “race as social construct” study, and though he appreciated much of the work that followed, he also raised important questions about developments in those areas.For the record, some of our best friends were in SDS at that time. We just thought we’d throw that in.
New terminology can sometimes help people see situations more clearly. (At some point, someone came up with “purple” to help us get past simple “blue.”)
On the other hand, careless use of mew political language can sometimes produce less helpful outcomes. Is there any possible way in which that is happening now?
In recent weeks, the concept of “privilege” has been extremely hot, thanks in part to the depredations of history’s most demonic college freshman. All week, we’ll look at some of the ways the concept of “privilege” is now being used.
That said, what is the concept of “privilege?” In the political context, can this basic concept ever be murky, unclear, overwrought, perhaps unwisely used?
Presumably, any such concept can be misused or overextended. In the following passage, the leading authority gives its basic account of the term, “white privilege.” Already, we see the possibility of a nagging conceptual problem:
White privilege (or white skin privilege) refers to the set of societal privileges that white people benefit from beyond those commonly experienced by people of color in the same social, political, or economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.). The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white persons may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one's own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one's own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal. It can be compared to and/or combined with the concept of male privilege.Should white people be helped to see the advantages they may have as compared to others? Absolutely! Why not?
That said, we have a question: If someone is able to “love, buy, work, play, and speak freely,” why would you call that “privilege?”
That should be the normal state of affairs. Why not simply describe it as such? If someone isn’t permitted those freedoms, why not attack that state of affairs as “discrimination” or “oppression” (or “bias”)? Is it helpful to hang a term like “privilege” around everyone else’s heads?
Alas! This term, like any term, can be overextended, unwisely applied. For our money, the following passage describes one way the use of this term and concept can perhaps possibly start to drift in an unhelpful direction:
The concept of white privilege also came to be used within radical circles for purposes of self-criticism by anti-racist whites. For instance, a 1975 article in Lesbian Tide criticized the American feminist movement for exhibiting “class privilege” and “white privilege”. Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dohrn, in a 1977 Lesbian Tide article, wrote: “...by assuming that I was beyond white privilege or allying with male privilege because I understood it, I prepared and led the way for a totally opportunist direction which infected all of our work and betrayed revolutionary principles.” The term gained new popularity in academic circles and public discourse after Peggy McIntosh's 1987 essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack". McIntosh suggests that anti-racist white people need to understand how racial inequality includes benefits to them as well as disadvantages to others.To our ear, Dohrn sounds a bit like a Chinese convict, arms pulled behind her back.
“Self-criticism” can be a good thing; it can also be carried to unhelpful lengths. Her fervor stoked by her self-criticism, chastened by her total opportunism, Dohrn and them turned to the bombs.
This probably wasn’t especially helpful. (Except to Nixon and Reagan?)
Should anti-racist white people understand how racial inequality includes benefits to them as well as disadvantages to others? Absolutely—why not? (Assuming your work makes sense.)
But everything can be overdone; critiques can always be overdrawn. Tomorrow, we’ll look at one case in which this concept, which is quite hot, is perhaps being used as some have described—as an ad hominem tool designed to stifle debate.
Tomorrow: Should Julia Fisher speak?