Terms That Burn;
Analyzing Sources of Privilege
Mark J Anderson
The Essence of the Issue
I would like to propose alternatives to the term “White privilege.” This term is often used derogatorily and villainizes a race of people rather than addressing behaviors and policies which are the sources of social privilege. I propose use of the terms majority privilege, elitist privilege, power privilege, financial privilege, and race privilege, which are more accurate in dealing with the sources of privilege and remove any one race from being the primary perpetrator of injustice. I am not raising this issue as a means to deny, ignore, or obscure the privilege that White people in America have held and continue desperately grasping. It would be deceitful and devastating to our social progress to deny the association of race and privilege. However, if the sources of privilege are addressed, rather than blaming a group identified by their race, then we will truly be working towards a society based upon justice for all.
This paper recognizes that there is only one race, the human race, but uses a traditional definition of race based upon visual characteristics that humans have used to group themselves: Black, White, Asian, Latino, etc. Our definition of racism is critical. If we start with the premise that all ethnic groups possess an inherent right to celebrate their unique qualities, and that social “color blindness” is not a desirable goal, then we are free to probe the essence of racial conflict: When one ethnic group asserts superiority, power or dominance to the detriment, oppression, or harm of another ethnic group this is tribalism or what we call racism. Leon-Guerrero explains that ethnocentrism is the core issue of racism, “Although feeling positive about one’s group is important for group solidarity and loyalty, it can lead groups to believe that certain racial or ethnic groups are inferior and that discriminatory practices against them are justified. This is called racism” (2014, p. 95). From this definition I propose that racism has been a plague on humanity since our earliest days and that any group of any color or ethnicity may commit this when conditions are in their favor. This paper requires critical thinking about the essence of racism and employs a definition of justice that holds all groups accountable for their treatment of others.
Why be upset about a term? Clearly terminology is important in our society. Derogatory words that were acceptable in previous generations have now been banned, which has effectively sent a message to the public that the terminology and the underlying attitudes are not acceptable. Proper terminology should:
Address behavior – not heritage
Not stereotype groups
Not deprive people of their constitutional right to innocence
Seek justice for all
Terminology has a long history of villainizing ethnic groups. We also have a history of correcting that terminology for the purpose of promoting social sensitivity. For example, a generation ago Black women on welfare were given the pejorative and racist term, “Black welfare mom.” Earlier in our country’s social history this racist term would have been embraced, but in the 1960’s and 1970’s people began objecting to these terms. It was objected to on the grounds that: it is inaccurate because many people of many colors are welfare recipients, it is racist because it stereotypes one race of people, and it is not helpful in addressing the social problems related to poverty or welfare. Today we use the equitable term, “welfare recipient.”
The term “illegal immigrant” has been used to describe a person who is in America without proper legal documentation. The word “illegal” can carry negative connotations and so the “Drop the I-Word Campaign” was launched (https://www.raceforward.org/practice/tools/drop-i-word-campaign). The Associated Press elected to no longer use this term, “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally” (https://blog.ap.org/announcements/illegal-immigrant-no-more). If the Associated Press, an organization which exemplifies ethical communication, deems a term unacceptable, then we also should reconsider the terminology used for addressing the issues of social privilege.
The sociological theory of symbolic interactionism teaches us that, “we use language, words, and symbols to create and maintain our social reality” (Leon-Guerrero 2014, p. 16). When Whites are burdened with the label White privilege it produces a sense of shame and leaves them with only one remedy, “I’m sorry for being White.” Labeling theory asserts that labels attached to a group only serve to reinforce that group’s isolation and encourages them to, “act in conformity with the label” (Chambliss and Eglitis, 2014, p. 139). Labels not only reinforce a group’s self-identity but they perpetuate the broader society’s perception and interactions with that group. Use of the racist label “white” when addressing privilege will only force Whites into defensive posturing or shame, but will not bring about change.
We should ask a very difficult of our current polarized and hostile discussion on privilege; do we truly want social change, or do we actually love our hatred of other races so much that we revel in hating Whites? And are there many Whites who revel in a morbid self-righteous, self-abasing, penance, which seems to atone for their guilt, and elevates them above other less noble Whites? I say again; the purpose of this paper is not to deny that privilege is a reality, but to actually promote social justice by examining the sources of the problem.
Addressing behavior rather than labeling produces a very different social scenario. We can send the message to society that, “Seizing privilege, individually or as a group, is unacceptable,” and then behaviors are addressed which provides potential for change. Race is something we are born with, but using race for privilege, individually or as a group, is a choice. This reflects the premise that a healthy society seeks to hold both individuals and groups accountable for their actions. Oppressive social systems do not just happen by accident; they are created by the choices people make over long spans of time. Addressing the sources of privilege is the key to true change. Therefore, I propose the neutral terms: majority privilege, elitist privilege, power privilege, financial privilege, and race privilege.
Sources of Privilege
Majority Privilege: Majority privilege is an asset possessed by a group that gives them a larger democratic voice and gives their cultural values a place of prominence over the values of minority groups resulting in more obvious ethnocentric attitudes (minorities may have ethnocentric attitudes but their voice is not as loud). In Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” most of the privileges listed in it can actually be attributed to majority privilege. For example privilege #1 “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time” (McIntosh 2014). Globally this is true of anyone living a community where they are part of the majority. In China who holds majority privilege? In a Latino dance club who holds the majority privilege? It is not Whites. This is not denying that White people have partaken of and relished in their majority privilege. However, acknowledgment that majorities in any society hold some degree of privilege is a key to analyzing the sources of privilege.
Related to majority privilege, is our democratic value; majority rule. The writers of our US Constitution were apprehensive about majority rule referring to it as “mob rule” and cautioned against the potential of the majority trampling the rights of the minority. To truly address this source of privilege and systemic racism we will need to address the American cultural value of majority rule and change our laws if necessary. If we choose to accept majority rule as our cultural norm we must stop villainizing Whites, or any group who is the current majority, for this aspect of privilege.
Elitist Privilege: Elitist privilege includes sources of status such as education, religion, politics, and celebrity status. In some societies membership in a dominant religion can provide individuals privileged status. Here in America the status awarded government offices and those associated with political parties is easily recognizable. Intangible membership in Hollywood’s elite grants people enormous privilege, regardless of race.
Elitist privilege is often gained through education. Colleges advertise that privilege can be gained through education. They may not use the word privilege but advertisements show graduates enjoying the tokens of success in the American dream. This entrenched cultural value probably originated in the values of our Anglo European heritage. At times Whites have dominated this area and so have held privilege. Today it is open for people of all colors to seize a portion of this privilege. It is not an issue of race; it is a systemic problem. For example, two highly educated professors may both experience privilege; one is White the other a person of Color. If we say that one possesses White privilege and the other possesses earned status through the hard work of education, this is a double standard. If there is something dysfunctional in our society with granting privilege to the educated, then the source of privilege should be addressed.
Power Privilege: Power privilege may be seized through violence or military conquest. Violent power can nullify majority power as in South Africa under Apartheid. Whites have obviously committed this aggression. They violently seized lands from the original inhabitants of this continent and they violently bought and sold people. The principle of privilege by power is as old as mankind. That does not justify it. But it also should be noted that people of every color have committed this aggression. What color was Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, or Chairman Mao? By using a term such as “power privilege” rather than “White privilege” we objectively look at the issue of power and violence. By reframing the conversation around actions rather than a particular race we will focus on the sources of unjust privilege and potentially find equalizing solutions.
Financial Privilege: Financial privilege has allowed Whites to hold inordinate amounts of privilege. Financial privilege is claimed in various parts of the world by people of various colors. Carl Marx was right, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” (Marx & Engels 1888, p. 11). We cannot assault Whites with racist terms for doing better at what other groups are trying to do. This is only envy, not justice. Unbridled capitalism will always trample the weak. A society seeking justice for all should address this source of privilege. People – of all color – should be held accountable for financial justice.
Every person in America, regardless of color, holds great financial privilege over the workers in other countries who manufacture our goods. But why is this called “White privilege?” In reality this has become American privilege. The challenge for us is to see beyond our borders and realize that as a country our privilege may be an issue of injustice on a global level. If we are truly concerned about the injustice of privilege we Americans should be willing to relinquish a large portion of the power of our American dollar. We should pursue economic policies which demand that any product imported into the USA be manufactured by workers who are paid a wage high enough to lift them out of poverty. This will surely result in our privileged lifestyle being disrupted, but that is the price of justice. I can imagine a slave holding family of 1863 lamenting the loss of their privileged lifestyle. I can also imagine the grief of Americans when they find their electronics are increased in price so they cannot have a TV in each room – so that workers in Asia can make more than $3- per day.
Race Privilege: When any race of people is able to use a combination of these sources to gain privilege over others then this should be acknowledged as race privilege. At the core of race privilege is racism, or tribalism; one group against another. By using the term “race privilege” we are able to identify and correct behaviors and systemic problems.
When one tribe is able to align several sources of power in their favor, they become similar to a dirty card dealer that you can never win against. Imagine a poker game against a dirty dealer. You naively believe that you could play by the rules and win, but the cards “are stacked against you”. You begin to be suspicious when his opening hand has three aces. You try harder and double your bet. But after the draw the dealer gets four aces and a wild card-the race card. This is why race privilege is resented so deeply, and is an obvious source of injustice.
The positive Solution
This paper has not sought to deny that privilege exists nor that White people have been the largest beneficiaries of privilege in the USA. If we are truly seeking solutions to the problem of privilege then we must be willing to address the sources of privilege, otherwise we are just looking for a group to blame. Continued use of the pejorative term “White privilege” is an insult to our entire society because it reveals that our quest for justice is not justice for all. A failure to recognize the demeaning nature of this term reveals our double standard; that racism against Whites is acceptable. Most of all, it alienates Whites from the conversation, to which they so desperately need to be involved. The goal of a society free of privilege is that each group is treated with dignity and respect and that none assert dominance. This term should be removed from public discourse and replaced with terms that heal rather than terms that burn.
Keywords: social justice, white privilege, privilege, race, racism, racial terminology,
Chambliss, W. J., & Eglitis, D. S. (2014). Discover sociology. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Colford, P. (2013, April 2). ‘Illegal immigrant’ no more. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from https://blog.ap.org/announcements/illegal-immigrant-no-more
Leon-Guerrero, A. (2014). Social problems: Community, policy, and social action (Vol. 4). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Marx, K. (1888). The communist manifesto (F. Engels, Ed.; A. Lutins, Trans.) [Release date 1993 Etext #61]. Retrieved April 27, 2014, from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/23905
McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988. Paper 189. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
Race Forward. (2016, April 19). Drop the i-word campaign. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from https://www.raceforward.org/practice/tools/drop-i-word-campaign