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Politics: What is White Privilege?

Find out what is meant by white privilege as we discuss the term and take a look at Tim Wise's opinions on the matter.
The concept of privilege was not common to political discourse more than two decades ago, and has its roots in political discourse grounded in McIntosh’s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. The Black Lives Matter, Diversify the Curriculum campaigns, as well as other contemporary civil rights campaigns are largely responsible for popularising the term and bringing the concept to popular attention.
Very broadly speaking, privilege can be understood as a special advantage or entitlement, used to one’s own benefit or to the detriment of others and, when used, it is often to describe white people in relationship to their economic and social status with regards to ethnic minorities. It is also often used by feminists to those they view as acting according to patriarchal ideas. The call to ‘check your privilege’ according is a provocation to ‘a person who is making a political point that they should remember they are speaking from a privileged position, because they are, for example, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or wealthy’ (Freeman 2013: np). As you can no doubt tell, the concept is grounded in identity politics and is expressed as an indignant objection to the terms of a debate.
The concept of privilege is, however, not ubiquitously accepted and has come under scrutiny. When used in the public sphere, it is common to see complaints (often poorly articulated by precisely those who are targeted by the concept) that it is some kind of pseudo Marxist left-wing nonsense that blames individuals for the sins of their fathers. This is not the sort of scrutiny that I’m talking about. Rather, I think that it is important to question whether or not those who are accused of historical injustice really are the people who carry it out – is history not more complicated than simply one group oppressing all others?
In a clip from the author and speaker Tim Wise, he articulates an alternative understanding of whiteness to that commonly held by both white people and people from other ethnic backgrounds.
Locating the development of the concept of whiteness in the mid to late 1600s (bear in mind that Frantz Fanon locates the development of the concept of blackness in the emergent colonial era some 200 years later), Wise argues that, originally, labour in the United States was separated by wealth: the wealthy landowners and those that worked the land, who were of mixed ethnic heritage.
These workers however began to protest the poor state of their working conditions and indentured servitude, to the extent that the wealthy landowners saw the need to undermine the strengths of their unions. The landowners couldn’t simply kill the peasants who revolted because otherwise they would have to do some work on their own plantations, so they have to think of a more ingenious solution.
The landowners therefore gave some land to the white peasants, removing them from their indentured servitude, whilst also putting them on slave patrol and giving them jobs. Whilst the landowners still did no actual work, this had the effect of separating the white workers from those from other backgrounds because they no longer had the same specific interests, and the former’s jobs were reliant upon policing the latter.
The white peasants were therefore co-opted by the landowners to believe that their interests were the same. Of course, for Wise, this was clearly not the case: the white peasants were still exploited for their labour by the landowners, prevented from owning any more land than that which was given to them by the landowners, prevented from any significant political engagement, and kept poor by artificially lowering the price of their labour. However, the non-white indentured servants were even worse off and felt a resentment against the white workers who subsequently began to police them.
Wise continues with a more contemporary example to demonstrate the manipulation of class interests that seems to separate people from different ethnic backgrounds. Ultimately however, Wise is not making the argument that ethnic groups do not have comparatively higher and lower levels of wealth, but rather he is providing an historical materialist analysis of this disparity. President Lyndon B Johnson said, ‘if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best coloured man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you’.
The white peasants were therefore co-opted by the landowners to believe that their interests were the same. Of course, for Wise, this was clearly not the case: the white peasants were still exploited for their labour by the landowners, prevented from owning any more land than that which was given to them by the landowners, prevented from any significant political engagement, and kept poor by artificially lowering the price of their labour. However, the non-white indentured servants were even worse off and felt a resentment against the white workers who subsequently began to police them.
Wise continues with a more contemporary example to demonstrate the manipulation of class interests that seems to separate people from different ethnic backgrounds. Ultimately however, Wise is not making the argument that ethnic groups do not have comparatively higher and lower levels of wealth, but rather he is providing an historical materialist analysis of this disparity. President Lyndon B Johnson said, ‘if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best coloured man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you’.
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Black, Linda L.; Stone, David (2005). “Expanding the Definition of Privilege: The Concept of Social Privilege”. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. 33 (4): 243–255.
Freeman, H., 2013. Check Your Privilege! Whatever That Means. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/jun/05/check-your-privilege-means.
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