Thinking about Emancipation: White Privilege

There's a very interesting dialogue about race here, at the Anti-Essentialist Conundrum, and here, at the Anarchist Black Cross Network.On ABC, Peggy McIntosh writes:

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks....After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don't see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us".

I find much of this valuable, especially coming from a white (American) feminist. It's part of what I talk about when I refer to hegemony -- the idea that what is "normal" is actually what is white -- and, from the perspective of The Bahamas, what is white and other (what is white and Bahamian is actually a rather African-flavoured form of whiteness; more on that later). White Bahamians are not white Americans or white Europeans; their Bahamianness -- from the national cuisine to, these days, the national accent -- already rendering them different from the norm.Now McIntosh is, as I say, a white feminist. Sylvia, author of the Anti-Essentialist Conundrum, a pretty cool blog that considers issues of race and equality, written by a black (American) woman, while agreeing broadly with her principles, also critiques them. As she says:

There are three main problems with the essay and its framework. The first is its voice: the author is a privileged, white, intellectual, feminist, American woman with some level of financial self-sufficiency and physical ability, and her mode of explanation proceeds from these characteristics in its word choice and description. To say that each characteristic needs its own privilege study would be too obvious; to say that one characteristic should monopolize the discussions of privilege for everyone — too divisive. The second problem is its method of identifying white privilege: its language leaves the gate wide open for white people engaged in denial to invoke defenses leaning towards white pride or white guilt. The third problem is the list of characteristics surrounding white privilege would function easier if separated into categories of the types/classes of privilege instead of specific situations.

This last critique is impotant, for, as Sylvia observes, people can be both privileged and oppressed at the same time. See what she says herself:

The third problem cycles back to the first: McIntosh invoked the list of items that existed in her perspective of the knapsack. Ongoing discussions of privilege in a variety of disciplines point to intersectionality — the ability for people to live within different frameworks of oppression and privilege simultaneously. It is disheartening, but not unsurprising, to see a black man boggle at a black woman’s accusation that he shares in male privilege. His understanding only reaches to both of them suffering under privileged whites. These debates enclose incidences where a white lesbian suffering under heterosexist privilege and male privilege engages in racist behavior, or where an affluent Vietnamese-American male’s class privilege and assimilation into white supremacist xenophobia turns on the ambiguous category of lowerclass, undocumented “Hispanic” American workers. While privilege manifests differently in each concentric circle of oppression, it never alters its M.O. As a result, we as human beings cannot cry hypocrite when a victim in one cycle switches sides in another cycle — especially with our knowledge that all privileges sprout from a fundamental hierarchy equally lacking in exposure what it gains in power.

In this year when we observe the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, it's important that we understand that emancipation is not a simple thing. Oppression and privilege are not simple, after all. Victimology is an insidious process, and imperfect understandings of history, of self, of location, of hierarchy permit all kinds of oppressions that go unrecognized. In our society, where most of us, well coached by the American mass media to view "white" as one thing and "black" as another, undifferentiated, thing, tend to imagine ourselves universally oppressed, we ignore the very real oppression we visit on one another: outrageous racism against Haitians, unexamined violence against women and children, and actions founded in self-hate.I encourage people to check out these sites. Yes, they're radical. But they're worth a good hard look.