Peggy McIntosh’s widely acknowledged definition of white privilege emphasizes the benefit that privilege bestows upon the individual holder. She explains that white privilege can be likened to “an invisible package of unearned assets.” The holder of this package remains oblivious to its presence, yet can reliably depend on its contents.
McIntosh continues: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”The significance of white privilege, on a personal level, does not go far enough to explain why privilege persists. The systemic nature of white privilege beyond the individual also must be examined. The Latin root of the word privilege, “privilegium,” means a law affecting an individual.
Thus, the core meaning of privilege encompasses both the individual beneficiary and the systemic nature of the benefit. While privilege serves the individual holder, it is the systemic nature of privilege, McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack” multiplied throughout the group of white people, that supplies its societal force. Characteristics of the privileged group define the societal norm.From “flesh-colored” bandages or crayons and “nude” hosiery that depict fair skin to standardized testing,16 individual members of society are judged against characteristics held by the privileged.
Furthermore, privileged group members can rely on this privilege to avoid objecting to oppression or subordination. Those with privilege can afford to look away from mistreatment that does not affect them personally. The conflation of privilege with the societal norm and this option to ignore oppression contribute to the invisibility of that privilege both to its holder and to society.A body of scholarship has explored the privileging dynamic.
Yet white privilege persists. Given this information and understanding about privilege, why does it remain so easy for white people to move through the world and not be aware of the presence and operation of their privilege? The transparency phenomenon that Flagg identified certainly contributes to the persistence of white privilege. After all, if whites do not see whiteness, they cannot see the privileges associated with it. But other dynamics join with transparency to create a reinforcing structure for the perpetuation of white privilege.
MATERIAL CONDITIONS AND SOCIO-CULTURAL FACTORS
REINFORCE WHITE PRIVILEGE
Both material and socio-cultural factors combine to entrench white privilege. Material forces rooted in the physical world, such as the distribution of societal goods and resources, the division of labor, and immigration policies, create a world that privileges whiteness. Socio-cultural factors, including discursive practices, patterns of behavior, and the thinking patterns that language creates, further strengthen white privilege, contributing to its endurance.Commentators have expressed concern about the focus in recent scholarship on identity politics at the expense of analysis of those material conditions.
Yet those material conditions and socio-cultural patterns of behavior work in tandem to reinforce white privilege.Material forces that privilege whiteness permeate society, but remain largely unknown and invisible. A detailed exposition of these material forces requires book-length treatment, but a few examples illustrate the scope and power of these material conditions. Scholars have documented the construction of white suburbs, explaining that federal policy excluded African Americans from the opportunity to buy housing even as these policies subsidized white buyers.
The building of the interstate highway system had a “dramatic and lasting impact on the late twentieth-century urban United States.” While the highway project assisted suburban growth, it also decimated inner-city housing. According to Raymond Mohl, “[P]ostwar policymakers and highway builders used Interstate construction to destroy low-income and especially black neighborhoods in an effort to reshape the racial landscapes of the U.S.
city.” Educational policies in the United States, from segregation in education28 to exclusion from the legal profession, have constructed and reinforced white privilege. The repercussions of these policies continue today, manifested by the increase of white wealth and well-being.Socio-cultural factors, such as societal practices and thinking patterns, including language itself, operate in conjunction with material forces to reinforce white privilege, enabling whites to self-perpetuate as a dominant racialized identity, albeit a transparent one.
This article focuses on four of these socio-cultural factors: (1) the contemporary cultural push to colorblindness; (2) the sleight of mind that typifies the relation between an individual and groups in American culture; (3) a comfort zone in whiteness, which includes whiteness as the fabric of daily life for whites and white participation in the construction of race from a white-privileged viewpoint; and (4) the tendency for holders of white privilege to “take back the center” in discourse, turning attention away from potentially uncomfortable conversations about race toward an emphasis on white concerns and issues. These dynamics support the persistence of privilege.
THE CONTEMPORARY PUSH TO COLORBLINDNESS
Michael Omi recounts a conversation between Oakland, California, mayor Jerry Brown and two newspaper columnists about race. The reporters question Brown, asking whether his proposed redevelopment plan would predominantly benefit whites.
Brown responds that race is “silly” because people have 99 percent the same DNA. Brown, who is white, acknowledges “a tradition and a history of racism and disadvantage and oppression,” but he asks, “when do you move on?”Omi recounts this story as emblematic of a new racial “common sense,” based on the premise that race is unimportant as a social category, because it lacks any biological basis. This racial “common sense” further assumes that the time has come to move beyond race and to emphasize colorblindness. Brown typifies the politician trying to be on the cutting edge of contemporary thought by tapping into an attitude that has intellectual currency.
He is striving to demonstrate that he is “in vogue.” Unfortunately, behind the style points lies a serious wrongheadedness. Critiquing this colorblind view as failing to see racial inequality as structured, Omi urges particular attention to the use of terms like “race” and “racism.” The idea of colorblindness pushes any discussion toward a narrow view of discrimination, privilege, and subordination.
It promotes an attitude that since society should not notice race, “we don’t have a problem” anymore.
COMFORT ZONE IN WHITENESS
Charles Lawrence described the existence of this comfort zone in whiteness from the position of an outsider, viewing it in a dream he had. In the dream two white colleagues are discussing his teaching future. Even though he is present, he is not visible to them; they speak as though he were not there.
The two white colleagues create a community, sharing a comfort level in their interaction that is evident to him, even though they seem to be unaware of it as they converse.Martha Mahoney illustrates the manner in which this phenomenon operates from a white perspective in the context of residential segregation:
[W]hen you wake up in the morning and go to the kitchen for coffee, you do not feel as if you hold partial interests or particular sticks in a bundle of rights in the structure you inhabit, nor does it feel as if land-use regulation shaped your structure, street, and community. This is home, where you roll out of bed, smell the coffee, reach for clothing, and inhabit the “reality” of the house. The physicality of home and community.
. . tends to make our lived experience appear natural.
The white person’s lived experience, the fabric of daily life, emphasizes—and minute to minute recreates—the whiteness of the world.
This whiteness is just normal—“the way things are.” But as Mahoney explains, “the way things are . . .
tends to make prevailing patterns of race, ethnicity, power, and the distribution of privilege appear as features of the natural world.” The maintenance of whiteness, the re-creation of that community, remains unseen.Mahoney’s illustration of the white person waking up and smelling the coffee serves as an important reminder of the role we each play in constructing race from the world around us. Amy Kastely further elaborates on white participation in racial construction, using the example of Toni Morrison’s story Recitatif.
As Kastely explains:
Recitatif draws attention to ways that race functions for informative purposes in contemporary written texts, as readers give significance to racial identification in matters of character, situation, and narrative movement and as they unconsciously or uncritically locate themselves in relation to race consciousness in the text.
In Recitatif, Morrison never identifies the characters’ races. Where racial ambiguity exists, the human mind makes its own assumptions, based on cues, categories, and stereotypes. The fabric of daily life for most whites, coupled with colorblindness and a focus on the individual, tilts white participation in the construction of race toward utilizing cues, categories, and stereotypes that maintain the privileged comfort zone.
PRIVILEGE AND LAW
Audiences at presentations and lectures about privilege frequently ask, “What does privilege have to do with law?” The fact that any analysis of privilege has been omitted historically from legal reasoning does not mean it could not be a useful lens, perhaps more useful than discrimination, for viewing fact patterns. The socio-cultural factors, discursive practices, patterns of behavior, and thinking patterns created by language have resulted in an absence of an awareness of privilege in legal arguments. Courts’ failure to recognize the privileging dynamic and to include it in legal analysis further perpetuates that privilege.Court decisions have recognized privilege without naming it as such.
For example, in Sweatt v. Painter,60 one of the legal building blocks that led to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers who worked with him tackled inequality and segregation in legal education. Heman Marion Sweatt, who was African American, applied for admission to the University of Texas Law School.
The school denied his application because it admitted only white students. The Court acknowledged the potential argument that no denial of equal protection had occurred because, just as Texas excluded African-American students from the University of Texas, it excluded white students from the School of Law of the Texas State University for Negroes, a black law school created in response to the litigation. In Sweatt, the Court stepped out of the traditional legal liberalism, “equal treatment” paradigm.The Court rejected the argument that excluding whites from an all black school paralleled excluding blacks from a white school.
Rather the Court said that argument “overlook[ed] realities.” In Sweatt, the Court identified tangible and intangible factors that were important to a quality education, factors that related to privilege. Although the Court did not use the term privilege, it recognized its existence in the form of tangible factors, like faculty, courses, and library, and intangible factors such as faculty reputation, administration experience, alumni influence, school tradition, and prestige. That recognition of privilege has been largely absent in post-Brown jurisprudence.
The absence of a privilege analysis in law can result in the perpetuation of injustice, as occurred in the case based on the following facts. In March 1995, Denise Arguello and her family, including her father Alberto Govea, stopped to purchase gas at a Conoco gas station in Fort Worth, Texas.68 After her husband pumped the gas, Ms. Arguello and her father entered the station’s convenience store to pay for the gas and to purchase beer.
They waited in line while Cindy Smith, a clerk, helped other customers. Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith summarizes the testimony about what happened next:
Arguello testified that Smith was rude to her when she reached the counter and that her demeanor was less friendly than it had been with the customers she had previously served. After Arguello presented her credit card as payment, Smith requested identification.
Arguello testified that Smith singled her out by demanding that she provide identification; Smith contends that she requested identification because Arguello was attempting to buy beer.Arguello, an Oklahoma resident, presented Smith with her valid Oklahoma driver’s license. Smith initially refused to accept it, claiming she could not take an out- of-state license, but she eventually accepted it and completed the transaction. During Arguello’s purchase, Govea became increasingly frustrated with the manner in which Smith was treating his daughter.
Consequently, he left the beer he had intended to purchase on the counter and walked out of the store.After Smith completed Arguello’s sale, the tension between them escalated into a confrontation. Arguello testified that Smith began shouting obscenities at her and making racially derogatory remarks. [According to the trial court memorandum opinion Arguello alleged that “Smith referred to her as a ‘f* * *ing [sic] Iranian Mexican bitch.
’”69] Arguello began to leave with her purchase, but realized that she had the wrong copy of the credit card slip and approached the counter again. After another argument, Arguello and Smith exchanged copies. As Arguello walked away the second time, Smith shoved a six-pack of beer off the counter and onto the floor.Plaintiffs testified that after Arguello left the store, Smith began screaming racist remarks over the intercom.
At the same time, Smith laughed at Arguello and her family and made several crude gestures. Govea and other family members telephoned Conoco from a payphone outside the store to lodge a complaint. During that telephone conversation, the Conoco official indicated that he wanted to know the name of the clerk in question. When Govea attempted to re-enter the store to determine Smith’s name, Smith locked him out while laughing and making crude gestures.
Catharine Wells explains that judging is “an inherently situated activity.” According to Wells, a judge “cannot escape the effects of his or her own particular situation” in performing the task of judging. Wells relates Justice Benjamin Cardozo’s illuminating delineation of the situated nature of judging:
There is in each of us a stream of tendency . .
. which gives coherence and direction to thought and action. Judges cannot escape that current any more than other mortals. All their lives, forces which they do not recognize and cannot name, have been tugging at them—inherited instincts, traditional beliefs, acquired convictions .
. . . In this mental background every problem finds its settings.
We may try to see things as objectively as we please. None the less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own.
Wells argues that if judging is situated, judges must pay attention to their situation.91 But it is not only judges, but all of us with white privilege, whether we are decision makers, part of decision-making bodies, or comfortable individuals, who need to pay more attention.
Paying attention means becoming more self-conscious about the ways “personal history, character, and outlook” impact the decisions and interactions with which we engage the world. Reaching that self-consciousness is more difficult from within the white comfort zone that emphasizes colorblindness and individualism. Combating the persistence of privilege requires self-consciousness about these socio-cultural patterns and the material conditions that maintain the white privilege reality. Self-consciousness can be the first step toward action.