Why I Avoid Using the Term “White Privilege”

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By Mark Naison (September 26, 2016)

In challenging racism, even in ways that get in people’s faces, I usually avoid the use of the term “white privilege”. Here is why:

Addressing “whites” as privileged not only erases vast differences in their economic status, including the downward mobility and hardship many have been experiencing in the last 20 years, it fails to account for the trauma that many carry in their personal histories that still haunt their imaginations. US whites are the descendants of many groups, whether Appalachian “hillbillies”, or Jewish, Irish, Italian and Slavic immigrants, who not only had a harsh path to escaping poverty, but have historic memories of starvation, disease and persecution, in some cases in the US, in other cases in their countries of origin. And while an objective observer may see that most now have significant advantages over their African American counterparts in wealth, income, and personal security, traumatic memories still haunt their imaginations in ways that make them feel anything but secure. Trying to erase these experiences and memories by presuming they are irrational virtually assures that the person you are addressing will not hear you, or regard your intervention as hostile or insensitive. And since you want to win some of these people over to fight for the rights of
 Black people, or others under duress, you end up making enemies where you could have recruited friends and allies”

Some of you will write off these reflections as coming from one of the most privileged people in the country, someone who is white, male, tenured, and advantaged in numerous other ways. I make no pretense to hide my own privileges. They are many. However, at a time when many white working class voters and former Democrats are rushing into the arms of Donald Trump, others will consider the argument on its face value.

One more thing: When you describe fair treatment by the government that is supposed to represent you as a “privilege” rather than a basic human right, it reflects a much lower expectation of how government is supposed to function than I would endorse. How black people are treated by law enforcement is UNACCEPTABLE because it violates their basic human rights.  If we regard fair treatment as a “privilege” rather than a right, than the presumed norm we are invoking is that of a dictatorship, not a democracy.

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