Why It’s So Important For Us To Discuss White Privilege

White privilege isn’t about guilt or blame, it is about identifying how racist social structures perpetuate inequality so that we can dismantle them.
Former Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly discussing white privilege – August, 2014

Former Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly discussing white privilege – August, 2014

Co-Written By Dr. Roland Clark and Dr. Nikolaus Hagen

Concepts, such as white privilege, white fragility, structural racism, intersectionality, and the importance of a ‘call-out culture’ associated with the #MeToo movement, have become critical to the way English-speaking scholars approach the Alt-Right and other racist movements in the contemporary world. Although such ideas are occasionally dismissed as authoritarian attempts to police free speech, the vast majority of English-speaking academics now embrace perspectives on racism that have been profoundly shaped by critical race theory and its attendant fields. This is not the case globally. In German-speaking Central Europe, in particular, even anti-racist, left-wing scholars reject discussions of white privilege as a problematic import from a specifically American experience of race relations.

As Barbara J. Fields helpfully pointed out some time ago, in the United States talk about race is grounded in a long history of slavery. The idea that races exist was used to justify oppressing one group of people over another. Over time, it became an ideology that structures how people perceived the world around them. Not just slavery, but British imperialism more generally was grounded in racist hierarchies and Fields’ observations about how racism continues to create unjust societies are pertinent in most English-speaking countries.

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In their efforts to overcome racism, well-meaning white people tried living as if they were ‘color blind’ – treating everyone equally regardless of the color of their skin. In a famous essay from 1987 entitled ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, Peggy McIntosh argued that being color blind in a society where racism structures almost every aspect of everyday life actually perpetuates the problem rather than addressing it. McIntosh reminded us that – from being able to buy a band-aid that is the same color as your skin to being able to talk with your mouth full without people assuming that is because of your race – white people have significant privileges in American society that do not extend to people of color. These privileges shape access to jobs, education, housing, and healthcare, meaning that they have a significant impact on quality of life – and even life expectancy.

The idea that white privilege exists received a great deal of backlash, not least from the far-right. Poor whites argued that their lives were hard too, so obviously they weren’t privileged, to which McIntosh and others responded that having white privilege doesn’t mean that your life is easy, just that it isn’t made harder by the color of your skin. Others objected too that because they had never done anything to hurt someone of color it was wrong to make them feel guilty for being white.

Once again, supporters of McIntosh replied, the idea of white privilege isn’t about guilt or blame, it is about identifying how social structures perpetuate inequality so that we can dismantle them. For the far-right though, talk about white privilege is evidence of how far left-leaning liberals have come to dominate the public sphere. Attacking the concept in the name of free speech, far-right groups argue that talk about white privilege is just another way of silencing those people who are proud of being white and of making them give special benefits to immigrants and others who don’t deserve it. Understanding white privilege, and its corollary, white fragility, has thus become crucial in analyzing the radical-right in recent years.

But whereas these insights are all too pertinent in places such as the United States, Britain, and Australia, the idea of white privilege sounds different when applied to societies like twenty-first-century Germany. In the struggle to overcome their Nazi past and heritage, scholars of the humanities and social sciences by-and-large abandoned race and ethnicity as analytical categories. The German term Rasse has literally become a taboo, not to be used in scientific and everyday discourse. In 2008, the German Institute for Human Rights even advocated deleting the word from a number of anti-discrimination laws and the German constitution (which forbids racial discrimination), arguing that the term itself carries racist implications and perpetuates racist ideas.

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This resembles the republican French model, which had long been uncomfortable with the semantics of race. Meanwhile, the majority of EU member states stopped or even banned the collection of statistical and personal data on the basis of race and ethnicities; a move recently contested by agencies and NGOs working in the field of discrimination. The assumption that identity politics and speaking about race and ethnicity further racist inequalities runs deep, especially among left-wing scholars.

In recent years, the adoption and the perceived success of ‘Critical Whiteness Studies’ by segments of German social sciences and political activists have thus created a conflict in both academia and the left – and the positions seem to become increasingly hardened. German ‘Critical Whiteness Studies’ have come under attack in editorials and commentaries of major leftwing newspapers and magazines, such as Der Freitag and Jungle World. One common accusation is that they aim to reestablish and normalize the concept of race and that they stress group identities, both of which, as most left-wing critics claim, is racism disguised as anti-racism.

Moderate critical voices, such as historian Massimo Perinelli, argue that while the notions of ‘whiteness’ and race may be useful in the US context, they are inadequate in Central Europe and even hinder successful anti-racist and anti-fascist alliances. German nationalism, Perinelli argues, has primarily developed in opposition to France originally and later became defined by its eliminatory antisemitism, eliminatory antiziganism, and anti-Slavic racism, all of which targeted Europeans, rather than ‘black’ people (whose numbers were and are arguably still quite marginal in Central Europe). ‘White’ migrants from Eastern, South-Eastern and Southern Europe have, at least until the 1990s, been at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Central Europe and were the primary targets of violent racism – including the Neo-Nazi NSU murders. This, Perinelli argues, makes critical whiteness studies a “mis-import”, as the field has developed based on the century-old experiences of racism of Afro-Americans.

Debates over the value of “white privilege” as an analytic concept are far from over, either in Central Europe or in the English-speaking world. In the meantime, the challenge for us as scholars and as human beings is to see both sides of the story and to try to appreciate why both supporters and opponents of this concept make the arguments that they do, their opportunities and pitfalls as well as real-world impacts. Only then can we get a sense of how prejudice can be appropriately tackled and defeated in society and politics more broadly.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

Opinion // CARR / Racism / Radical Right / White Privilege