White Privilege Versus White Power

A few years ago, I discovered I had ‘privilege’. It turns out being a white middle-class cis-hetero male comes with all sorts of perks and benefits, which are often denied to other people. Who knew?

Of course, I sort of knew. I just didn’t have a name for it. And the use of the word privilege I think is helpful in understanding and addressing the disparity in those benefits for women, minorities, and other marginalized people. I can see that I have all sorts of privilege, which structure my relationship with people who do not have the same privileges.

I see that some white people disagree, even those inclined to be allies of oppressed people. Sticking with racism as a specific case, it is quite common to see conversations like this (especially online):

White person: I think racism is a real problem but [something awkward]
Person of color: You are wrong because you are speaking from privilege.
White person: What are you talking about? I am not a racist.

Usually there is more energy to these conversations, but the gist is the same. Granted, where the problem of racial justice is concerned, my white privilege is obviously a disadvantage in understanding racism. I can never really get what it means to be a  person of color in this country.

On the other hand, white privilege is a clear advantage when it comes to the experience of being a racist in this country. I may not understand quite what the machine does, but I have a pretty good idea of how it works.

And in the conversations (arguments?) I’ve summarized above, the difference of perspective is the source of disagreement. Unpacking the idea of privilege and understanding those perspectives might help allies be better allies.

As I say, I can readily accept that I have privilege. My experience of that privilege — and racism more generally —  is as a sort of power, in the power-to sense, as well as in the power-over sense. That is, white privilege gives me power to do things that people of color cannot, as well as giving me power over those people. In fact, my experience of racism is so defined by power-to that it is very hard for me to see the power-over side.

Judging mostly by social media, this is where a lot of white people get hung up on the idea of privilege. They misinterpret it as being solely power-over, which they vehemently deny because it is not something they feel or even want. It is uncomfortable.

To recast the conversation, the white person is saying “I want to end racism.” The person of color is saying, “racism is the power that you have as a white person”, and the white person responds, “I do not want that power”. If I understand privilege only as power-over people of color, privilege is then a zero-sum game: I have to give it up to be an ally. If I don’t see myself as having that power, it leaves me powerless to help.

This is not only true for would-be allies. It is very true, I think, for the way indifferent white people hear the word “privilege”. The point of the ‘my family didn’t own slaves’ defense is to deny power-over, and thus deny the power-to end racial oppression. My family didn’t own slaves, but I can still accept that I have power-over people of color, because I have looked carefully at my experience and seen how the power-to that I enjoy is the product of a society organized in ways that give white people power-over people of color.

In general, it is a very common mistake to see power-over as the source of power-to. Instead, it’s more often the other way around: power-to begets power-over. And yes, white peoples’ power-over slaves made this country what it is. But since Emancipation, the main vector of oppression in the U.S. has been the gross disparities in power-to. People intent on sustaining white power structures then use those disparities to assert power-over people of color. Do not doubt: there are some people who want power-over, and will fight to keep it.

Ally-inclined whites can fight back without giving up their power-to. In fact, I think white privilege is crucial to the victory against white power. Peggy McIntosh, in her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, is very clear that not all white privilege is negative. She lists the ways in which being a white person gives her privilege, and the list is mostly a series of choices allowed her by society. Few of those choices hurt people of color, except that they are often denied to people of color.

Ending white privilege is then a matter of giving people of color the power-to make the same choices. I don’t mean power-to make the same choices that white people make, in the sense of modeling their lives on white lives. This is another hang-up for ally-inclined whites because, as McIntosh explains:

“…whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us.'”

Empowering people of color has to mean giving them the same control over their lives as white people enjoy, the same mass of possibility — and especially the power to choose differently from white people. Ally-inclined whites must expand their view of the normal and ideal life to include the sorts of lives that people of color choose to live independent of white power-over. Ending that power-over means working — using power-to — to ensure that people of color really do have those choices available.

In a perfect world, people of color would already have the power-to realize those choices without white people’s help. But in that world, there would also be no power-over. In the society we live in, I doubt people of color can get there on their own. White people have to choose their lives in ways that help people of color choose theirs, to ensure they have power-to.

Accepting white help I think means recognizing that for ally-inclined white people, the experience of racism is primarily an experience of power-to, even as people of color experience it as power-over. This does not mean denying the experience of power-over or power-to, but simply understanding the two sides of this particular coin.

The benefit of reframing the disagreement between people of color and ally-inclined whites is that it becomes easier to see how white privilege can be used to destroy white power. We are then no longer hung up on the experience of racism is, but rather about what choices white people must make to ensure people of color enjoy the same power to choose for themselves.

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