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Why White Privilege Is a Bad Term

Does the term “white privilege” actually serve any purpose or actually advance any important cause?

In recent years it has become increasingly popular to speak of white privilege. I don’t deny that a relative advantage, all things being equal, exists for those who are white, however I question the utility of using this terminology.

Privilege is a fundamentally negative term. We don’t speak of the privilege of the healthy in relation to the sick. We don’t speak of the privilege of those who get to eat enough in relation to those who are starving.

There is a simple reason for that. Privilege implies something you don’t deserve. We invoke the term privilege when speaking of nobility. Noblemen had the privilege to wear clothes of certain colors. Others were prevented by law from wearing these colors. The nobility had numerous privileges such as being the only one allowed to operate a mill in the local community. In short privilege for the nobility was about having advantages at the expense of everybody else.

This is what I see as the negative aspect of the usage of the term white privilege. It implies that whites got special privileges nobody ought to have. However being accepted without prejudice, being given a decent education, being considered for a job based on your skills rather than your skin color, should not be a special privilege. It is something everybody should have the right to.

Speaking of privilege detracts from the real goal, which is to raise the less fortunate among us up. The focus ought to be on those of disadvantage and how they can be helped, not on the ones who are already well treated. Focusing on white privilege is about as sensible as a health care system which primarily focuses on those who are healthy, rather than on the sick or injured.

Privilege is a profoundly negative word. Imagine how many conservatives speak of health care as a privilege. Quite the contrary I think it should be a right, just like going to decent school should be a right.

Let’s Focus on Solutions over Labels

It is one of the big success stories IMHO of Scandinavia, which was changing means tested poverty relief and welfare services into universal rights. Poor people did no longer have to be weighed, measured and deemed worthy of obtaining aid from the government. Instead health care, education, unemployment benefits, vacation etc became universal rights applying to both rich and poor. It created a buy-in from every group in society because everybody were beneficiaries.

In countries were free public schools are only for the poor, they end up having poor quality. Those with power and influence are not going to push for high quality public schools when their kids do not go to public schools.

Perhaps the most obvious proof of this effect, is what happened in the American South when desegregation happened. Black schools which got white students, were immediately improved almost over night. Roads were paved and buildings painted. If you want improvement you got to put everybody in the same boat. When people are separated it is easy to ignore the plight and challenges of the other party.

Rather than disparaging each other over skin color, we should search for solutions and common ground. One of the most damaging things I believe is segregation. We have to avoid that people of different ethnicities, skin colors and economic means live completely separate lives.

When we live apart, we don’t learn to understand each other. Whenever you look at statistics over racism in almost any country, a typical finding is that racism is concentrated where there are fewest minorities.

But this is not limited to just ethnic minorities but also different socio-economic groups. When the rich live in a bubble they don’t learn about the concerns of the less fortunate and you are more likely to end up with statements like “Can’t the poor eat cake?” To be fair to Marie Antionette, I don’t think she ever actually said that, but hey it makes a good point.

The damaging effect of homogenous groups of people can be observed in many context. One interesting study was about mentoring troubled kids. The shock from the study was that the kids who were mentored became worse off than the control group which did not get mentored. For decades this was a mystery until the study was thoroughly re-examined. One of the causes of the bad outcomes was that the troubled kids were frequently grouped together, e.g. on summer camp.

It is well known how minor criminals are sent to prison and turn into hardened criminals. We humans are simply influenced by our peers easily.

So we should aim for policies which mix people. Zone cities so people from different socio-economic background are more likely to live together. That is not going to happen if every house in a neighborhood is a multi million dollar home.

School choice ought to be free and not restricted to ones particular neighborhood or economic situation. You can do that if you don’t rely primarily on local funding.

Experiments with resettling people into different and better neighborhoods have shown dramatic effect. Mind you it depends strongly on the age in which you live a place. Children growing up in a better neighborhood benefit a lot. Grownups have little to no benefit.

This is also something most studies of school performance have found. It is the early years which are most crucial. The years before school often matter more than the school years themselves. That means programs to offer quality child care, reduce child poverty etc is crucial. And perhaps more importantly these ought to not be primarily “programs” but rather universal programs which apply to all children. Otherwise it is very hard to get buy in and support.

You might disagree, with my policy suggestions and that is fine. The point is that this is what we ought to discuss: Policies.

Privileges worth talking about

If we are to speak of privilege, I think we should speak of privilege which most closely mirrors the privilege of the nobility of old. Advantages at the expense of others, which we actually want to take away. Many in the affluent class today have an unfair access to politicians through their donor activities. By sheer wealth they get to influence the political system in ways not accessible to the rest of the population.

That is a privilege worth taking away. To not be hungry, be in good health, be treated with respect and get a decent education and participate in democratic elections should not be deemed a privilege.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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