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Opinion: More White Puzzle Pieces

Feb 24th, 2017 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article

Elizabethtown College recently made national news. The college’s democratic club promoted a program to spread awareness of the idea of white privilege. The story was picked up nationally and internationally.  Not surprisingly, it elicited quite a bit of response. Ever in the mix, The Elizabethtown Journal posted a submission by a reader and local columnist concerning the matter. I made a comment on the submission.  This article is an extension of that comment:

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” Cooler hands would serve us well and we must avoid cutting the heads off parking meters. Sides have been chosen. The teams are familiar. But the discussion is not a discussion, just two soliloquies. “White privilege,” is wise language for building movement participation, but a poor choice for starting a conversation or for persuasion. Even though it is unlikely that an open conversation would take place given our guiding narratives, starting it with a moniker that will elicit an interpretation likely to be considered an affront can’t help matters.

What’s going on here? We have one team whose rhetoric primarily serves as a self-affirmation for their social and moral stance and presents it with evangelical fervor and in a patronizing manner. We have another team who sees any effort to address inequality and ameliorate suffering as an affront to their character, discrimination against them, and a breakdown in the moral order. From what I can surmise, the Elizabethtown students were not particularly patronizing in their message, but evangelical, as is their want. That, in conjunction with the already value-laden term “white privilege” was guaranteed to elicit the response it has from the other team. Any social scientist or culture watcher worth his salt would expect a response to the Etown students like the following: “(Insert any personal story of hard work and struggle here)….. and you have the audacity to tell me that my success is due to privilege. Now you expect me to give up what I have worked for and just give it others….”. That story was heard many times in response to the Etown students campaign and other similar situations.

Bracketing for the moment, the emotions and feelings that the term “white privilege” invokes, it is a concept that has a basis in reality. It doesn’t imply that those who have achieved do not deserve it. It doesn’t imply that their success was primarily a consequence of an unfair advantage. It does imply that we live in a complicated world, a world in which success is dependent on a variety of factors that interact in complex ways. Hard work and sacrifice are often, perhaps usually, in the mix. However, hard work and sacrifice are undertaken within life frames that vary in the degree that they result in success. These life frames are not equally distributed across the population. It is certainly true that there are differences with respect to a black-white or Hispanic-white dimension. It is also true that there are differences between those born into relative wealth when compared to those born into poverty or limited means. It is even more mal-distributed for those who are born of color and into limited means. One would be hard pressed to argue for the moral appropriateness that one’s fate in life should be dependent on one’s circumstance at birth. So white privilege is a real thing as is class of origin privilege. It is not necessarily accusatory.

White privilege is sometimes a consequence of directed, intentional acts that either discriminate against others and, as a  consequence afford privilege.  That is real, but is not typical of the pervasive and subtle ways that one group is placed at a disadvantage and, consequently, the other is afforded privilege.  We are pluralistic, pluralistic culturally, pluralistic stylistically, pluralistic linguistically, pluralistic associatively.  For the most part, Americans share the same culture.  But on the edges of that common culture are differences that differentiate one group from the others.  One would be hard pressed to deny people having access to their sub-group shared cultural elements.  After all, these are the substance of what ties people together; it is the mechanism of creating community.  Many of these things may seem trivial and unimportant.  They are things like linguistic expressions, colloquialisms, styles of dress, preferences in art and music, sports, and other elements of lifestyle.  They are quite obvious and can be found in racial and ethnic groups, economic class groups, regional and local community groups, religious groups, and many more.  Make no mistake, we hold these social conventions and preferences dear.  We are morally committed to them and view those that exhibit other styles as somewhat less capable or moral, or a little odd.  That is part of being human and part of belonging to a community.  It is also true that white European cultural preferences have come to define our public, work, and recreational institutions.  It is just a matter of history.  Those within these institutions are comfortable with those styles, even those that don’t fully embrace them will prefer them acting as an agent of these institutions. This is a big part of white privilege.  Those who visually, expressively, or behaviorally do not exhibit dominant traits in these institutions are at a disadvantage.  It may sound a little soft, but it is a big deal.  It can show up in acts ranging from  a preference in employment to suspicion concerning a crime.  We often forget about economic class.  This is true of class as much as it is ethnicity.  It reaches a zenith of disadvantage for those born of color and have limited economic means.

There are more practical matters that result in white privilege and class privilege and, most importantly, the combination of white and class privilege.  There is a significant body of research that reveals that networks for advancement, access to financial credit, access to social credit, access to mentorship, and access to rational expectations for success are disproportionately skewed to the advantage of whites of reasonable economic means.

There also is the fact that since the settlement of the colonies and until recently, blacks were legally deprived and institutionally deprived.  Most of that has been changed in law, but that does not imply that the effects of this history have also departed.  A good portion of slavery and subsequent discrimination have been transferred to a disadvantage in class.  A good portion of prejudice and hate have been transferred to other cultural evaluations, that now have their harshness removed, but still have vestigial elements of their origin.  These most often go unrecognized as discriminatory, even by their holders.

All of this adds up to some groups getting first pick at the salad bar and others getting wilted lettuce.  Most of this emerges subtly and the mechanisms go unrecognized by us.  Instead, as is our predisposition, we look for villains and devils.  The villainy may vary in intensity, but villainy nonetheless.  Quite frankly, this is how we usually approach moral and political issues and even issues of cultural style. In the case we are concerned with here, we have two teams that are on entrenched sides with narratives that they seek to reinforce.

With regard to the situation at hand, if the message were presented in the manner described above, it would be less accusatory, less villain-laden, and would have a higher probability of contributing to its goal:  having the other side listen and consider.  It is a hard ask, but the probability would be increased.  The reformers need to remove the movement rhetoric and language.  They are meant to build internal cohesion and commitment and not to persuade.  The reformers also need to be aware of how much of their action seeks self-affirmation rather than an attempt to persuade. There is a discussion to be had if the world view of those with whom the discussion is intended is considered.

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