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The idea of white privilege has become indispensable in both academic and public conversations about race. It is the ultimate trump card to play when one wants to concisely and incisively describe the often unseen roadblocks that white people erect, which can thwart the thriving of non-white people. Undoubtedly you’ve been part of some debate where it was stipulated that one of the white interlocutors had unearned advantages, just because they were white, that made them ignorant of the many disadvantages suffered by people lower in the social hierarchy. But this ubiquitous way of discussing white privilege has real limits.
The problem with speaking of white privilege is how the term tends to gloss over the real nature of America’s socio-political framework and racial hierarchy. In confessing their white privilege, many people imply that the racial difference between Black and non-Black should mainly be understood in terms of an inequitable distribution of access and goods. From an Afropessimist perspective, however, such an understanding of the problems Black Americans face entirely misses the ways that our society is structured by whiteness in a way that denies the basic humanity of Black people. Endlessly discussing white privilege inevitably perpetuates the dangerous fantasy that Black people can ultimately transcend race and be assimilated into a fundamentally unjust political system, still premised on white supremacy.
In Peggy McIntosh’s famous short essay on “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she opens with an analogy to the sexism of her male colleagues and students, many of whom acknowledge the disadvantages of being a woman but cannot admit to the unearned advantages they enjoy simply by being men. She adds specifically in regard to white privilege, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” She goes on to enumerate the contents of this invisible knapsack, listing countless ways in which she is made comfortable or given advantages simply because she is white, and in ways that she has been programmed not to notice.
For instance, she comments on the relative safety of her neighborhood as well as the advantages she has in regard to gaining job- and school- related opportunities without bias due to her white-sounding name.
The ultimate goal of acknowledging these advantages is to create a new moral understanding of accountability, to erase moral neutrality as a starting point, and to recognize her unconscious advantages and/or privileges. Advocacy work would ultimately be geared to acknowledge and then renounce or redistribute these goods to others who have less, i.e. to “check one’s privilege.”
The shortcomings of this approach were vivified for me a few years ago when I came across an article from 2015 sent to me by a friend by Connor Kilpatrick entitled “Let Them Eat Privilege.” While Kilpatrick’s article is in many ways compelling, I still feel it misses the mark in a way that highlights the limits of current privilege discourse in regards to blackness. He argues that focusing on the superficial banalities of the certain privileges of moderately moneyed classes draws attention away from the larger class conflict that capitalism creates and supports, whereby the super-rich, the capitalists, or the one percent, are in an entirely different stratosphere than the other classes. In other words, those who shop at Whole Foods and those who struggle to find food altogether are ultimately of the same kind, despite their different experiences.
Simply naming the luxuries of the middle class as compared to the lack thereof of very poor people does not address the larger issue, he argues. “The one-percent concept” – popularized by Occupy Wall Street – “isn’t about a lifestyle or individual consumption habits,” he writes: “It’s based on concrete socioeconomic relations… The category of class, after all, is relational—not gradational.”
Perceptive though this essay is, it doesn’t really address directly, as Afropessimists do, the white supremacist political reality of American society, which defines the very being of all Black people.
In the Introduction to Red, White, and Black, Frank Wilderson III discusses a moment at the end of the first volume of Capital where Marx makes the distinction between the slave who makes no wage and the proletarian who makes a very small wage. The point is that the laborer, even if they have only a small amount of money, can purchase, say, a loaf of bread, just like the capitalist, while the slave ostensibly cannot since in the end of the day it would ultimately belong to their master. However, Wilderson takes Marx’s point a morbid step further.
“It is frightening,” Wilderson notes, “to take the ‘same relationship’ in a direction that Marx does not take it: If the workers can buy a loaf of bread, they can also buy a slave.” This distinction—the psychic dimension as Wilderson calls it—means that the white worker in principle can imagine enslaving a Black, while the Black worker must live in constant fear of becoming a psychological slave of the white worker. This is the key point that Kilpatrick’s article misses.
There may indeed be an exploitative relationship between the laborer and the capitalist, but the psychological security, and sometimes pleasure, that a white person enjoys as the result of the objectification of the Black Other is of a different sort. In the end, a certain amount of quantitative accumulation by the poor white worker could open the doors to becoming a capitalist. But a Black person will never be white.
In other words, in a white supremacist society like America, the poorest white laborer can imagine lording over a Black person simply by being white. This poses the question: In what ethical universe could the possibility afforded by whiteness to dominate another human being just because they are Black be considered a “privilege”?
In the ethical universe of white America today, apparently.
Mukasa Mubirumusoke is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Claremont McKenna College.