White Privilege

I have debated with myself on whether I should write this post, since an article in the Huffington Post  got me thinking more seriously about the issue.  Some might say I am incapable of writing on the subject (since I am a white male), but I don’t believe the ‘ad hominid’ fallacy that my genetics prevent me from being logical.

This is a difficult issue, because it embodies a lot of emotion and experience in addition to a long philosophical history.   Anyone who denies the pain and suffering based upon racial and gender differences has to have a very narrow experience of life.  I do not want to minimize the real pain, both individual and social, but I would like to try and separate the reality of the pain from what is presented as the ‘obvious’ cause and solution.

The woman in the article sites a number of personal experiences when she felt singled out and abused for her race and gender.  For some there were clear connections (racial slurs), but not in all cases.  Not having been there, it is hard to deny her conclusions, but I begin to get uncomfortable when she starts ascribing almost all of her interpersonal hurts to ‘white privilege’.

I don’t want to start a debate of ‘my hurts are worse than yours’, but what do I ascribe my hurts from bullying in high school to (or am I not allowed to claim ‘discrimination’)?  Before I started high school, my parents moved to a small southern Indiana town.  One day, a teaches was visiting our house and said, “You are not from around here, are you?”  When asked why they said this, the response was, “You have too many books.”  I felt an outside minority much of the time, and there were days when walking down the school hall someone would randomly punch me in the back, or throw things at me.

My point is not to deny racial and gender problems, but that the problem is bigger (but not less).  Differences threaten people, whether the differences are racial, nationalistic, gender, economic or culture.  There is a fear of the different, that turns to hatred; and while it starts out between large groups, it eventually divides individuals and can even internally tear a person apart.  I don’t think that the philosophical solutions that are going around in recent times are willing to grasp this complexity; it is not just ‘my group’ that has a problem, but it is universal.

One of the problems I have with ‘white privilege’ is that I see it as the most current manifest of a long philosophical history of trying to identify the root of evil.  Ever since the Enlightenment, when the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘the Fall’ was rejected in favor of wanting to affirm the goodness of all humanity, there has been an effort to identify a new cause of evil.  Rosseau wanted to blame civilization for our ills, the ‘noble savage’ was his ideal of a person free, wise and good in a state of nature.  Freud ascribed our problem to sexual repression, and Marx blamed economic differences between the bourgeois and proletariat classes.  Modern leftist view hold that our problems (inner city or international) are the result of poor education and economic opportunity.  With ‘white privilege, it is now DNA that is the popular deterministic cause.

Whatever is pointed to as the potential cause (economics or white privilege), there is a common pattern:

  • The person or group suffering is a victim, who is not responsible and limited in being able to bring about change.
  • Someone, or something, else is to blame.  The problem is in the system or someone else.
  • The solution is to remove any privilege or advantage, bringing everyone to the same common level (usually the lowest common denominator).
  • It requires government force, or group violence to change (or eliminate) the problem.

While the logic may be new, the attitude is embodied in old humor.  It reminds me of the old Russian joke about a poor peasant who’s only cow has died, and he sits in despair staring at his neighbor’s cow.  His guardian angel feels sorry for him, and asks God what can be done for him.  God tells the angel that he can grant the peasant one wish.  The angel goes to the peasant and asks him what he wants, “Do you want a new cow, do you want a horse?”  The peasant looks at the angel and says, “No, I want you to kill my neighbor’s cow.”

While economics and opportunity are contributing factors, I think that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn more correctly understood the fundamental problem when he said

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956


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