While the concept of white privilege can be traced to the writings of W.E.B. DuBois in the early twentieth century, the popular adoption of the term began with the 1988 publication of Peggy McIntosh’s seminal paper on the topic. McIntosh used the term to explain her personal observations regarding sex and race at Wellesley College. It proved infectious. It has since been incorporated in university curricula, forms the basis for diversity trainings in the workplace, and is axiomatic in anti-racist social activism.
According to McIntosh, white privilege is “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”
As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.
—Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
By definition, one can’t have an advantage one place without there being a corresponding disadvantage somewhere else. However, as we will see, just because two viewpoints are different sides of the same coin, that does not make them interchangeable. For one thing, the term white privilege generates resistance in white people:
As you will have noticed... the phrase “white privilege” triggers anger in many people. For example, many working-class white people who have worked very hard all their lives feel frustrated to be told that they have any unearned advantages.
—Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege, An Account to Spend
If we want to increase awareness around these issues and encourage white involvement in the racial justice movement, does it make sense to adopt an approach that frustrates and angers whites? Clearly the answer is no. It’s worse than ineffective, it’s counter-productive.
The other emotion that often arises when white people are told they have white privilege is shame. To take one now-famous tweet from actress Rosanna Arquette: “I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” The reader has no-doubt witnessed similar anguished confessions from white people on social media.
While it’s true that shame can be a powerful behavioral motivator, we should question it here. It concerns something the individual can’t do anything about: their skin color. The idea that people should feel shame because of their race is repugnant to many, so employing the term white privilege is likely to alienate whites, again making it a counter-productive strategy. And we know that shaming is psychologically harmful:
Having a positive self-image about who we are and what we do is a fundamental human need. When we’re balanced and on good terms with ourselves, we are more energetic and have greater cognitive and emotional resources. By contrast, when we feel bad about ourselves, it’s much more difficult to be prosocial... . These studies suggest that, instead of focusing on ‘doom and gloom’ messaging that zooms in on people’s shortcomings and risks alienating them, policymakers and strategists might find that positive messaging, speaking to people’s positive sense of self, might be a more powerful lever of behavioural change.
—Claudia R. Schneider, Psyche
White privilege is a term that is casually used to refer to a wide range of conditions and behaviors. It is better understood as encompassing three very different types of racially significant differences, as described by Lawrence Blum in his mild critique of the term. He labels them: spared injustice, unjust enrichment and non-injustice-related. These are important distinctions, and failing to understand the difference quickly leads to confusion.
Blum’s paper is recommended for those interested in the topic, and these terms will be referred to below. But in short, we must keep in mind that statistical racial differences can be the result of:
• Whites not suffering an injustice that would be visited on Blacks in similar circumstances.
• Whites being unjustly enriched at the expense of Blacks.
• Factors which are unrelated to injustice. Not every difference is the result of discrimination.
Not Every Difference Is an Injustice
One example of white privilege given by McIntosh is the idea that “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” Setting aside the obvious rejoinder that Black people can and often do hang out with other Black people, there is something else happening here. As a demographic, Blacks are 12% of the US population. To the extent they are engaging with society as a whole, that’s going to make it very unlikely that a Black individual will find themselves in exclusively Black company. Yes, it’s a racial difference, but it’s a function of demographics, and therefore an example of Blum’s non-injustice-related category. It’s not a result of malice or discrimination; and in any case, there’s nothing that can be done to change it. (McIntosh’s example classifies being in the company of people of one’s own race as a desirable condition, which in itself is a bit questionable.)
On the other hand, redlining was an institutional policy that deliberately discriminated against Blacks in the allocation of home loans. That’s an example of unjust enrichment that had far-reaching consequences.
In the following quote, Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility) enlarge on how the definition of the word privilege differs in academia from its colloquial usage. The reference to “at the expense of” suggests that, at least here, they see privilege as a zero-sum game; that is, Blum’s unjust enrichment category.
The definition of privilege that we use in critical social justice education may be different from how our readers use the word. … [T]he lay usage of “privilege” means to be lucky, to have fortunate opportunity and to benefit from this luck and opportunity. These definitions suggest that privilege is a positive outcome of happenstance. However, when academics use the term in describing how society works, they refer to the rights, advantages, and protections enjoyed by some at the expense of and beyond the rights, advantages, and protections available to others. In this context, privilege is not the product of fortune, luck, or happenstance, but the product of structural advantages. One automatically receives privilege by being a member of a dominant group (e.g., men, Whites, heterosexuals, the able-bodied, Christians, upper classes). Because dominant groups occupy the positions of power, their member receive social and institutional advantages.
—Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education
Even if that definition of privilege is acceptable for academics (and there are dissenting voices), it’s problematic when it comes to messaging designed to influence public opinion. Lay people have an existing understanding of what privilege means, and demanding that a conversation on race begin by having them accept one’s own definition will predictably miscarry.
Also, just because there is a statistical difference at the aggregate level does not mean the difference applies at the individual level. When they write “One automatically receives privilege by being a member of a dominant group...” they are making a logical fallacy. In practice, there are a lot of factors contributing to an individual outcome, not merely race.
If one could salvage one fragment of white privilege it would be here, though. It’s perfectly legitimate to point out differences that are the product of unjust enrichment, and to envision ways of remedying them. And yet, there is no example of unjust enrichment that is not the result of a contemporary or historic act of racial discrimination. For that reason, there is little to be gained from the white privilege narrative, and multiple drawbacks, as will be shown below.
In any case, allegations of white privilege are typically not limited to instances of unjust enrichment but are generalized across the other categories of difference, muddying the waters.
Regardless of its shifting definition, racism has been a term with negative connotations for decades. Being called a racist is understood to be an attack or insult by all but the most reprobate members of society. While racism itself remains a problem, our public attitude toward it is overwhelmingly negative. That’s a good thing, the result of hard-fought battles; we should not discount that success.
In addition to its use in labeling individual prejudice, racism is also used to describe systemic bias, for example in social institutions. It’s easy to understand how an overtly racist system such as redlining prevented Blacks from participating in post-war prosperity, leading to impoverished neighborhoods; and funding schools based on a school district’s property values resulted in inadequate education; and inadequate education created disadvantages in the workplace. It would be hard to understand such interlocking, cyclical effects without systems thinking.
Unfortunately, critical theory academics have distorted and blurred the definition of systemic racism (i.e. to be prejudice + power), and then incorporated the logical fallacy of division, claiming that if a society is racist and you are part of the society, then you, too, are racist. This leads to woke axioms such as “People of color can’t be racist” and “If you’re white you’re racist.” They also incorporate other fallacies which are relevant, but which have already been exhaustively examined elsewhere: confusing correlation for causation, epistemological problems, the fallacy of reification, as well as the aforementioned fallacy of division.
Racism comes out of our pores as white people. It’s the way that we are.
—Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
The discouraging thought that racism is inherent in simply being white is based on the critical theory redefinition of racism—which is not widely shared.
Instead of building on the well-established, widespread revulsion with racism, critical theory forces a redefinition which demands that well-intentioned white people apply a morally hateful term to themselves. It should be obvious that that is going to backfire. Not only that, but to the extent that white people can be grudgingly persuaded that they are racist because of the color of their skin, there is nothing that can be done about racism. That’s a pretty self-defeating approach.
This redefinition of privilege and racism, the logical fallacies, and the conflation of the white privilege narrative with the reality of racial inequity, leads to a closed, self-referential system. If you care about racial justice it’s an enticing trap—easy to fall into, but difficult to get out of.
For those who have not been exposed in academia to the study of critical race theory, an assertion like “All white people are racist” seems bizarre. It will be interpreted according to the existing definitions of words, not the new, contrived, post-modern definitions used in critical race theory. The predictable, defensive response will be: “I’m not privileged and I’m not a racist.” It alienates potential allies.
Ironically, the term “woke,” which had for many years been part of the African-American lexicon, was appropriated in the mid-2010s by white social justice activists, who incorporated privilege as one of their core tenets. In the hands of critical race theorists and activists, the term evolved beyond merely referring to awareness of injustice. Being woke came to incorporate a performative aspect. To be woke is to express allegiance to woke doctrine and to promote wokeness in others. Its similarity to other systems that elevate belief over science has led some to refer to it as “Wokeism.”
[Wokeness] is centrally concerned with being aware of the intersecting systems of racism, sexism, and other forms of alleged societal oppression and analyzing these in terms of privilege. This is most often done, under woke consciousness, by engaging in discourse analysis, especially using close reading, which enables racism (or other systemic bigotries) that are assumed to be present in all situations to then be read into them. This is then treated as proof of the systemic problem that was assumed to exist in the first place.
—New Discourses, Translations From the Wokish [emphasis in the original]
Privilege is foundational to wokeness. In addition to the current discussion regarding race, there is male privilege, heterosexual privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege, religious privilege, age privilege, passport privilege, and even beauty privilege. Virtually any human attribute can be viewed from the privilege perspective, dividing society between those who have it and those who don’t.
Meanwhile, the right is having a field day. They can take shibboleths like “All white people are racist,” and mock the woke six ways to Sunday. On top of that, they use it to smear non-woke liberals by association. It has the effect of distracting from the measures society could take to effect racial justice. At the same time, the woke can bask in the conceit that they constitute the progressive vanguard against racism. In reality, they are a liability to the causes they champion.
Furthermore, by putting an emphasis on racial identity, white privilege unconsciously reflects and reinforces the use of racial identity by the right. It’s a case of “what you resist, persists” at the societal level. The alienation of some liberals and moderates, occurring in a politically polarized society, will force some people into the opposing camp; or have them abandon the pursuit of racial justice entirely, muttering “a pox on both your houses.” If Wokeism and racism are the only two choices, who can blame them?
White Privilege and Diversity Training Results
Has the spread of the white privilege meme lessened racism? Overall, have corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs had a beneficial effect?
A lot of research suggests not. Sociology studies by researchers at Harvard University, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Minnesota in 2007 and 2016 that examined more than 800 companies over three decades found that firms that used diversity training did not hire significantly more diverse managers, and that the trainings actually correlated with a decrease in Black female managers.
—Sophia Chen, The Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Industrial Complex Gets a Makeover, Wired Magazine
But that doesn’t tell us specifically about the effect of the white privilege meme. Some research indicates that white liberals exposed to the idea of white privilege do not empathize more with Black people, but instead empathize less with white people struggling with poverty.
The almost exclusive focus on whites’ experience not only diminishes the experience of people of color, it serves as a distraction. It glosses over the question of how blacks’ and other racial minorities’ interests are served by whites holding forth on what it means to be white in America, and whether people of color might benefit more, not by stripping whites of their privileges (if such a thing were possible), but by finding the means to possess them too. In other words, the discourse that claims to support blacks’ interests by denouncing whites’ privileges fails to consider how whites’ privileges can be extended to blacks, and how blacks may in fact deserve what whites already have. This is a significant omission since McIntosh (1988, p. 13) herself acknowledges that many of the privileges she lists (like the “privilege” of living in a neighborhood of one’s choice, a place that’s safe, where one’s neighbors don’t harm you), are not privileges at all, but “should be the norm in a just society and should be considered as the entitlement of everyone.” The irony here is that McIntosh’s main concern, and the main concern of white privilege pedagogy in general, despite its antiracist front, is not with extending these basic human rights to people of color so much as giving whites a chance to hold forth about their own and others’ experiences.
—Leslie Margolin, Unpacking the invisible knapsack: The invention of white privilege pedagogy [emphasis added]
In any case, we should not be surprised to discover that the concept of white privilege generates resistance in white people in diversity trainings and in society at large. There are many anecdotes supporting that assertion, though research is scant. However, there is one very visible proponent of the white privilege concept who has described the resistance she encountered at length: Robin DiAngelo.
Robin DiAngelo is famous for coining the term white fragility to describe the push-back she got from white people while leading racial diversity trainings. That resistance was significant enough that it merited what became a bestselling book.
In her own words,
White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.
—Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
However, DiAngelo never considers the possibility that her workshop participants are responding to something else, namely the curriculum she is promoting. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that telling white people they are racists is going to generate negative reactions. In addition, when we consider that the trainings were often mandatory and in corporate settings, it’s not a big leap to speculate that many more participants silently suffered through the sessions for fear of workplace reprisal or social disapproval.
Positing racial “fragility” to explain resistance to DiAngelo’s presentations presumes a kind of personal, psychological insight that DiAngelo simply doesn’t possess. If there were evidence that the resistance DiAngelo encountered was due to “fragility,” that would be one thing—but there’s not. There is no independent research corroborating DiAngelo’s central claim, and neither her theory nor her methods have been subjected to rigorous analysis. Any accusation of fragility is also not falsifiable, since there is no way to prove one is not fragile. What is apparent is that participants got angry and stalked out (or in her academese, “left the stress-inducing situation”). But the theory’s obvious subjectivity has not prevented others from treating it as if it were scientifically valid.
White fragility has the inestimable rhetorical advantage that denying one has white fragility proves that one has white fragility! This circular logic should be a warning that we are being manipulated. It’s probably not that white people are made uncomfortable by discussions about race, as DiAngelo would have it. It’s that white people react negatively to being told they are racists because of the color of their skin. Even when they can’t quite put their finger on the circularity of the argument, people can tell when they’re in a Kafkatrap.
White fragility (the book and the concept) has suffered withering critiques that find it nebulous and weakly researched, dangerously incoherent and condescending toward Blacks. Despite the criticism it has become one of the go-to books for people interested in expanding their understanding of racism. For that reason, it merits a skeptical approach. Surely, the pursuit of racial justice is a serious enough endeavor that we should carefully consider the conceptual framework we use.
White fragility has the same vulnerabilities as white privilege when it comes to messaging. Fragile has negative connotations, and rather than inspiring whites to engage in the work of racial justice, there will be many whom it alienates.
That brings us to the topic of messaging and the critical importance of issue framing.
Framing is a way of conceptualizing how humans think about, organize and communicate about reality. A frame is an internal representation, a way of understanding something, as well as an external way of communicating about what is understood. Every person carries within them preexisting images, interlocking ideas, knowledge and personal experiences associated with the words we use.
Framing is of critical importance in politics and social change, and has been the subject of extensive research. The key when framing an issue is to leverage frames that already exist in the demographic you want to influence so that your issue is understood as intended. As might be imagined, introducing new definitions of words and concepts is going to be ineffective.
In the case of white privilege, the words evoke the idea that white people are treated differently and better than non-white people; that they enjoy unearned advantages that are unfairly denied to non-whites. As DiAngleo says in the quote above, it is understood to mean “fortunate opportunity.” And it draws our attention to white people’s experience.
To the extent that white privilege is defined as a problem, the solution to white privilege lies in eliminating it. But since by default privilege is seen as a positive thing, that will be perceived as a loss by the people whom one proposes to dispossess.
For whites who find themselves in an economically precarious situation, telling them they have privilege and that they must surrender it is a non-starter. Ironically, it’s similar to the conservative formulation. They, too, are dividing people along racial lines, claiming that people of color—in this case immigrants— are “stealing our jobs” (in the language of privilege, whites are losing the privilege of being employed). Thus, white privilege unintentionally buttresses messaging from the right that emphasizes allegiance to racial identity.
The privilege frame has an implicit baseline, or expectation about norms. Privilege is the idea that some people receive special treatment not available to others. Therefore, the implicit baseline for how people are treated is low, and we are calling attention to deviations from that norm: the experience of white people, which is better, that is, privileged. And white privilege becomes the defined problem.
Now, this is already questionable because it goes against human nature, which is to notice deviations from the norm. We focus on unusual “man bites dog” events, not the reverse. News outlets don’t run stories about planes that don’t crash.
In the white privilege frame, the experience of white people is not intrinsically problematic from their point of view. To take a few of McIntosh’s examples of privilege, if a white person is not followed around a store, or is approved for a loan, or asks to speak to “the person in charge” and that person happens to be white—these are not noteworthy events, they are the unremarkable norm.
If white privilege is the defined problem, then eliminating it would mean dragging white people’s experiences back towards the norm. In other words, we would have to make sure that whites were treated on average as badly as Blacks are. We could insist that white people be followed around stores, be detained by police more often, and that they be searched in equal numbers. Obviously, it would be hard convincing white people that this is beneficial. However, it does flow from the invocation of the white privilege frame. As McIntosh states:
I now believe that white privilege, rather than discrimination, is the central actor in racism—the central force that creates racism and keeps it in place. To lessen racism we need to lessen white privilege.
—Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., White Privilege, An Account to Spend
This is one of those places where nuance makes a difference. Here we are dealing with Blum’s spared injustice type of privilege. The solution to whites being spared injustice isn’t to abuse whites, it’s to address discrimination against Blacks. Therefore, we should choose a frame that calls attention to acts and structures of racial discrimination. That way we are working with human nature—the tendency to notice deviations from the norm—not against it.
In addition, it is well established that expectations shape behavior. It behooves us as a society to set high expectations that represent our aspirations for desired behavior. White privilege implicitly sets the baseline at a much lower level.
Something is actionable if we can do something about it. When police treat a white motorist with respect, one could argue they’ve enjoyed white privilege. But what is to be done about it? No law has been broken. The officer is simply doing their job, the white motorist has no reason to complain, and there are no grounds nor constituency for taking any action to mitigate the “problem” of white privilege.
In contrast, if a cop abuses a Black motorist, that is actionable. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not easy enforcing accountability. But an act of police abuse, depending on its severity, can lead to a complaint, a reprimand, dismissal, criminal and civil penalties, and in cases of systemic bias, legal and political challenges and social activism. The police may have violated a regulation or broken the law; the Black motorist has a legitimate reason and motivation to complain, there is a legal structure in which to lodge protests, and a constituency of citizens with an interest in addressing abuse. This is not to minimize the many well-documented impediments to accountability. It’s simply to note the difference in actionability resulting from the frame used to understand the problem.
As a thought experiment, consider any situation in which a) people of color are treated differently than white people and b) the difference is that they are treated worse. One can easily think of examples in education, housing, hiring or healthcare (Blacks are three times more likely to die of Covid-19). Let’s take the domain of policing since that is arguably one of the most troubling areas, and there is an abundance of empirical data demonstrating differences. For example, Blacks are more likely to be stopped, they’re more likely to be searched once stopped, more likely to be booked on drug offenses, and so on.
If we were to chart police encounters in some community for some period of time, and objectively rate them on a scale of 1 (abusive, degrading, humiliating) to 10 (professional, respectful, courteous), an abusive locale might look something like this simplified illustration.
Each dot represents a police encounter. In our hypothetical example, the average rating of police encounters by whites is 60% positive, and by Blacks only 40% positive. Sometimes Blacks are treated respectfully, and sometimes whites are abused, but on average the likelihood of being abused is higher if you are Black.
The point of the illustration is merely to call attention to something which is very, very simple, but which, because of its simplicity, is often overlooked.
The data are simply the data, as objective a description of what occurred as we can manage. But how we interpret the data is up to us. Do we say that whites are treated well because they have white privilege, or do we say that Blacks are treated badly because of racial discrimination? Either story could explain the pattern we see in the data, but they are definitely not interchangeable! They create very different frames, with different baselines, different opportunities for remedial action, and ultimately different prospects of success.
The Woke Dilemma
This should be a thorny point for those who have swallowed the white privilege pill because they have conflated certain statistical realities of racial differences with their preferred story about them. Thus, it’s nearly impossible to discuss the shortcomings of the white privilege frame with its adherents. They adamantly insist that “white privilege exists!” because for them, their narrative is indistinguishable from reality. Since the white privilege frame is a disaster as a strategy for addressing racial injustice, its proponents must ask themselves which they are more attached to: the white privilege frame, or meaningful progress in racial justice.
In short, the woke must choose between religion and reality.
However, they won’t see it that way. For them, racism is a given, independent of any acts of racial discrimination or real-world instances of structural bias. Racism already exists by definition—theirs—and the work of social justice lies in discovering it where it is assumed to exist. To be fair, DiAngelo doesn’t even pretend to use methodologies that correspond to reality. In her seminal dissertation she uses discourse analysis to evaluate her hypothesis:
Thus validity functions differently within discourse analysis than in research methodologies that assume correspondence with an external reality as the primary standard.
—Robin DiAnglelo, Whiteness in Racial Dialogue: A Discourse Analysis (p.42)
Unsurprisingly, disconnected from the need to correspond to reality, she finds what she was looking for: pervasive performance of Whiteness and implicit racial bias in her white study participants. This sort of thing (confirmation bias) gives white fragility and privilege a shaky foundation, or really, no foundation at all. Since it lacks a fundamental connection to reality it must depend upon belief. And while reality is unaffected by our opinion of it, belief is chronically vulnerable to contradictory points of view. This explains the fervor with which the woke defend the privilege meme, as well as their need to convert—or condemn—non-believers.
The world of the woke is divided into those who have seen the light of privilege and accepted it as the core of their belief, and the rest, who must be either not yet enlightened, or confirmed racists. As the proselytizing proceeds, some percentage of the unenlightened are converted, but the rest are cast into the racist category. There isn’t a category for people who reject the privilege concept and the methods of the woke; they too are cast into the racist pile. In this way, the woke are continually creating more racists—at least in their Manichean world view—even as they gain more disciples. Their efforts are therefore to some extent self-canceling—but at considerable cost.
Every cult is populated with people for whom the cult’s recruitment tactics worked. This leads to a mutually reinforcing mono-culture. Members reason that since the tactic worked for them it must be effective for the population at large. Wokeism is a belief bubble inhabited by people who, though well-intentioned, were inadequately critical when adopting the underlying precepts and practical ramifications of its theoretical foundation.
Essentially, Social Justice scholarship and activism tries to replace one set of ideological biases with another... they understand their own conception of society as objectively true and believe themselves to have a moral imperative to read society through it, detect prejudice everywhere, draw it to the attention of society and have offenders reprimanded or punished. Suggestions that they might be suffering from confirmation bias and utilizing motivated reasoning are usually understood as evidence that you are the one still comfortably ensconced within your privileged ignorance and behaving defensively and selfishly. It can be very difficult, if not impossible, to convince them otherwise.
—Heather Pluckrose, What Social Justice Gets Right
To have a sane conversation about the white privilege frame you have to be able to step outside it. It’s simply not possible from within the frame itself.
An Alternative Narrative
There are multiple narratives that could explain difference in circumstance along racial lines. Here I will mention one that is simple, explains the phenomena, and has been proven to work.
We can call it the “fairness frame.” It’s easy to point out ways in which society is grossly unfair; often those are things that are actionable; and it’s much harder for people to argue openly in favor of unfairness. You’re appealing to people’s better angels. There is some controversy over whether fairness is a genetic trait or a more recently acquired product of social evolution. But either way, it is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. That works in our favor when we activate the fairness frame.
In the fairness frame, the baseline is set high. Our expectation is that people should be treated fairly and with dignity, regardless of their race. By making that the norm, we are implicitly calling attention to deviations from the norm, i.e. individual acts of racial discrimination, and systems that perpetuate racial bias.
And those deviations from the norm are actionable.
For white people who are newly examining the problem of racism, appealing to their innate sense of fairness is a good way to enroll them in efforts at change—especially when the alternative is demanding that they swallow woke dogma and confess their supposed racism... under threat of being labeled a racist and ostracized.
While the white privilege frame elicits envy and resentment towards whites, and anger and shame among whites, the fairness frame is more likely to elicit compassion towards those who suffer unfair treatment, and indignation at the individuals and conditions that have caused and maintain it. The focus is more precise. Whereas with white privilege culpability is diffused across all people with white skin (and those who are white-adjacent), with the fairness frame we can pinpoint specific individuals and specific systemic conditions that are causing the unfair treatment. We can focus on deviations from the desired baseline of fairness.
But the fairness frame is hardly a new invention. It is essentially the frame that was predominant during the Civil Rights era, well before white privilege came along in the 1990s. Thus we can have some confidence that it is effective. Just because something is newer does not make it better.
The Personal Appeal
It’s hard not to suspect that part of the unconscious appeal of the white privilege frame is that, counter-intuitively, it is ineffective. If you start looking at discrimination, especially the systemic variety, you will quickly run into the social and economic forces that have kept it in place. That is guaranteed to generate some real conflict. If you cut funding to the police, you need to understand that there is a whole industry built on incarcerating Black men. It is not going to just sit there, it is going to fight back. That’s a fight worth having, though. If you want change you must fight and defeat the prison industrial complex.
In a kind of “streetlight effect,” white privilege locates the battle elsewhere, on the abstract field of racial identity, culture wars and white guilt; simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. It provides a kind of psychological, expiatory function, while sidestepping the conflicts that would ensue if one were to target the economic and political loci of systemic racism. It diverts attention from the places action could be effective.
What is troubling is that there are political motives for the woke and the establishment to form an alliance. Wokeism provides a palatable way for the establishment to affect a progressive stance that poses no threat to their hegemony. For the woke, an alliance promises power within the existing system—an opportunity, perhaps, to extend the reach of cancel culture and give it some real teeth. Strategically, an alliance is advantageous for the Democratic establishment as an intra-party strategy. It splits the nascent progressive insurgency and assimilates its most strident faction. However, as an electoral strategy it’s detrimental because Wokeism is either unintelligible or reviled in the electorate at large. To be blunt, the more woke the Democratic Party gets, the more it will lose elections at the national level and in more conservative states.
The problem with the woke isn’t that they are angry, it’s that they are not angry enough. Yes, they will retweet a racial faux pas made a decade ago, or try to cancel a pundit, or harangue a detractor on social media. But they aren’t angry enough to take a hard look at the contradictions in woke doctrine, its glaring strategic defects—and its personal appeal.
Abandoning the Woke
One can be committed to racial justice without subscribing to the concept of white privilege. But you can’t reject woke dogma without risking being called a racist. This is the role canceling plays. It’s there to punish the individual, but also to threaten anyone else who would demur, and to police that line between obedience and apostasy.
In The End of Wokeness? (an optimistic and certainly premature title!) John McWhorter, in conversation with Glenn Loury, uses a pungent metaphor to explain why so few members of the intelligentsia are willing to stick their necks out to criticize the woke. The whole conversation is worth watching, but that particular segment starts at 21:25. Essentially, he chalks it up to cowardice; but this criticism really applies to everyone, not just the intelligentsia.
In the short term, this foray in the cul de sac of wokeness may cost us a generation of progress on racial justice. The political and social consequences are potentially devastating. That said, sometimes the only way to learn is by doing.
However, we will all eventually need to abandon the narrative of white privilege. It locks society into the racially defined roles of victim and perpetrator and their emotional complements: anger, resentment, guilt and shame. It’s impossible to evolve beyond racism while also insisting that racism is an inevitable and unavoidable result of race. The sooner we put white privilege and wokeism behind us, the better.
Photo credits: d_pham © 2012 License, James Bentley