A short time ago, when #blackthoughts was trending on Twitter, I clicked through, intending to read a few...well, black thoughts. Instead, I was greeted by a tweet from @LadyFrills (whose icon looks like a white woman) that was so stunning in its explicit expression of white privilege that I just had to do a screenshot:
A few minutes later, she added
Tweets are fleeting and most have negligible impact. I doubt that the ones above created any tangible harm, but has there been a more egregious expression of white privilege than a white person telling anyone within ear-shot that what Black folks think is "stupid" and "ridiculous" and entirely irrelevant to her?
It's the last part, I think, that's really troubling, that there are among us those who think the views, opinions, and perspectives of an entire group of people, a group that makes up more than 13% of our population, has no weight, no relevance, no meaning in their life. And then they wonder out loud "why Black people have to be so loud." Isn't speaking louder the normal reaction to not having your voice heard?
But I digress. My reason for writing this piece is not to describe what white privilege is or show what it looks like, at least not beyond the example above. Others have done this far better than I ever could. In addition to Peggy McIntosh's classic Invisible Knapsack article, journalism professor Robert Jensen wrote one moving piece, and then another, back in the late 1990s, as did anti-racism activist Tim Wise. These days, Wise alone has several books out, as well as a DVD (here's a clip), and a google search for "white privilege" yields hundreds of thousands of pages, including this lecture and recent essay by Wise. What seems to be less accessible, however, are psychological and sociological explanations for how white privilege is formed and maintained, and it is these insights that I would like to offer here.
In my view, much of the foundation of privilege comes out of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is a point of view in which one's own group is the center of everything, and it is usually characterized by a tendency to judge other groups by the standards of one's own group. In many ways, ethnocentrism can be thought of as the opposite of multiculturalism, which values group differences and seeks to understand (not judge) each group from that group's own perspective.
Ethnocentrism is almost surely a universal phenomenon. When we are born (or adopted at birth) into a particular culture and grow up being socialized into it, we absorb that culture's values and behavior preferences. These become "normal" to us and if, sometime in our adulthood, we are introduced to values and behaviors different from our own, it is difficult to make sense of them in any way other than through our own cultural lens. To be ethnocentric is, to a degree, to be human. Indeed, evolutionary psychologists suggest that ethnocentrism is naturally selected because those who think the way we do are more likely to have greater genetic similarity to us. Thus, we are better able to protect and spread our gene pool by getting along with those who value what we value and think the way we think.
Why, then, all this critique of privilege?
The reason is that though ethnocentrism is natural and universal, it is not fatalistic. As "evolved" humans, we may have predispositions to aggression and ethnocentrism, but just as we can choose to not be aggressive, so we can choose to not be ethnocentric. Thus, expressions of privilege are seen as a choice, a choice to not value or seek to understand culturally different groups, even when members of those groups are our neighbors, our coworkers, our children's classmates, and sometimes even our friends - a choice that, as any race scholar or activist will point out, is available only to members of the majority group. Members of racial minority groups, like members of other visible minority groups, must understand majority culture in order to negotiate it with any degree of success. This, then, is the real privilege of whiteness: The ability to make choices regarding which groups are worth listening to, when, and under what circumstances, and this choice is often so taken for granted that many of us make it with hardly any awareness of doing anything at all. And because this choice-making is silent and invisible, it is easily denied and, for the past decade, has been almost impossible to address in a structural manner, no matter how many writers and bloggers have written about it.
Perhaps new technology will do what old technology could not. There's something about Web 2.0 that empowers some users to say in public spaces things that are usually either left unsaid entirely or said only in private, all-white circles. While some of these things are hurtful, their explicitness, combined with Web 2.0's easy accessibility and anonymity, allows a dialogue to happen that otherwise could not. And dialogue, especially inter-group dialogue, is the great enemy of ethnocentrism.