Privilege and anti-racist solidarity

November 5, 2013

SocialistWorker.org readers continue a debate prompted by an article titled "Is there a white skin privilege?"

How should whites confront racism?

BILL MULLEN'S recent article "Is there a white skin privilege?" is useful in exposing the weaknesses of privilege as a central concept in analyzing racism in the U.S. However, this article raised some criticisms and questions that I wanted to share.

First, while I agree in general with Bill's criticism of the concept of "privilege" as a useful analytical tool, I'm not sure that referencing "privilege theory" as a complete or unified body of thought is particularly helpful.

"Privilege" is a concept used by a broad and diverse section of activists and scholars. Pooling this whole group together under one theoretical umbrella seems to be more obfuscating than clarifying. Virtually nobody I can think of would call themselves an adherent of "privilege theory" or "theorist of privilege," or say that they read "privilege theorists."

Secondly, while I think that it's politically correct to criticize the rubric of privilege as a way of analyzing the historical development of racism (or strategizing against it), we need to draw a distinction between using the concept of privilege to develop a strategy or analysis, and using it to acknowledge everyday experiences of racial inequality.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the analysis of white skin privilege and how to organize the anti-racist struggle in a series of contributions. The article that sparked the discussion is:

Bill Mullen
Is there a white skin privilege?

Further contributions include:

Haley Swenson and John Green
What we get from privilege theory?

Aaron Petcoff and David Camfield
Privilege and anti-racist solidarity

Alan Maass, Alan Peck and Alex Schmaus
Examining the idea of privilege

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Making sense of society in order to change it

Jeffrey B. Perry, Bill Mullen and David Camfield
Roots of the white skin privilege analysis

Héctor Agredano Rivera and Ethan Young
The contribution of the concept of privilege

Jesse Phillippe
A dialectical approach to privilege theory

Dennis K.
What privilege theory doesn't provide

Gary Lapon
Racism, capitalism and contradictions

Sofia Arias
Contributing to a constructive debate

Tad Tietze
What privilege theory doesn't explain

For instance, it's more or less universally acknowledged that, as a group, white people face virtually no degree of police harassment or brutality in comparison to the outright terror faced by Black and Latino people every day. Call this what you will, but from the point of view of many people of color, a "right" granted to exclusively to whites and systematically denied to Blacks and Latinos takes on the appearance of a privilege.

Furthermore, the process of thinking through what it means to be a white anti-racist can be complicated. I remember growing up in in the suburbs of Detroit and being outraged at the racial inequality and oppression I saw around me. I felt a knee-jerk sensation of guilt and complicity.

Guilt, of course, is not only useless, but incapacitating. Part of the responsibility of anti-racist activists is to work with people and offer them something positive to turn that guilt into. Doing this successfully, I think, means recognizing that for many white people, conceptualizing one's lived experience through the lens of privilege doesn't necessarily preclude a desire to organize and fight collectively against structural racism. Often, the case is quite the opposite.

The concept of privilege seems to be especially useful for some activists in an era in which the structure of racism is characterized by a nominally "colorblind" and "post-racial" ideology. "Colorblindness," of course, is an ideological tool used by the ruling class to make racial inequality invisible--to displace responsibility for racial inequality onto individuals and normalize the white experience. For many, therefore, the act of "acknowledging" one's privilege (or "calling it out") can be seen as a simple form of personally rejecting the ideology of colorblind racism.

Readers’ Views

SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

The concept of privilege is a limited tool for understanding either the day-to-day or historical complexities of race and racism in the U.S. However, with the above considerations, I think it makes far more sense to ask, "How can white people fight racism?" rather than asking "Is there a white skin privilege?"
Aaron Petkov, Detroit

M.B. also contributed to this Reader's View

Dodging an important question

THE FIGHT against racism is crucial for everyone who wants radical social change. That's why Bill Mullen's article "Is there a white skin privilege?" is disappointing.

Its call for multiracial working-class struggle against racism is correct. Unfortunately, the article doesn't discuss the vital role that independent organizations of people of color have in fighting racism and helping to make multiracial struggle possible.

The article also avoids analyzing the significant barriers to building multiracial struggles. These are problems that some other socialists Mullen mentions (David Roediger, Theodore Allen and Noel Ignatiev) have seriously, if imperfectly, grappled with, and that many other anti-racists at least recognize.

The article evades the advantages that white people in the U.S. today--who are obviously divided by class and various forms of oppression--experience as a consequence of living in a society shaped by racial oppression. There are many of them, from better access to better jobs to much less brutal treatment by police and the courts. Marxist analysis should help white people to see these things, not avoid them.

Because of this evasion, the article doesn't pose questions socialists should ask, such as:

-- How do these advantages (privilege) affect how white working-class people act and think?
-- What does this do to the working class as a whole?
-- How should socialists and other radicals respond?

In "Marxism, feminism and women's liberation,", an article published at SocialistWorker.org early this year, Sharon Smith noted the danger of "an adaptation in the direction of reductionism" when dealing with the struggle for women's liberation, one associated with "the claim that working class men do not benefit from women's oppression at all." Reductionism, she argued, usually dodges "the harder question: How do we confront sexism inside the working class?"

While racism and sexism aren't the same, denying that white working-class people experience any privilege from racism is similar to denying that working-class men benefit in any way from gender oppression. It can also lead to a similar dodge. Socialists committed to the struggle against racism can and must do better.
David Camfield, Winnipeg, Canada

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives