This week was supposed to be all about parliamentary etiquette. But you’re in luck because I had an exchange on Facebook the other day which I’m going to write about instead. It started when I posted an essay someone shared on the timeline of a friend. I recommend reading the article. It’s concise and talks about another, I’m guessing longer, piece on “white privilege” which I have not yet read. If you want to, here’s the link. If not, it basically does a pretty good job of parsing out the term white privilege into many of its perhaps lesser considered facets. In essence, the author makes the (I believe valid) point that white privilege exists in many aspects across all sectors of our society. It’s not just an economic term that deals with relative wealth.
That’s not to say relative wealth is not a huge part of white privilege, but it’s messier than that; there are no clearly drawn lines. For example, one type of white privilege the author noted was the fact that most white people in America get to choose whether or not to live and associate with other folks who look like them. That’s not as true for most blacks. Another way whites are privileged is how they are treated by banks, law enforcement, and the education system.
So that’s the basic set-up.
After I posted this link on my friend’s timeline, one of his FB friends ripped into it.
My friend’s friend attacked the entire idea of white privilege, rather than the nuanced critique of it found in the article. Given that he showed no evidence of having read the article, I chose not to engage in a FB “debate.” But I gathered from his comments that he’s a military recruiter who regularly interacts with very poor, very desperate white people. Given his day to day experiences, it’s not surprising that he views the term white privilege as just another wedge being used to keep the working class divided. And he’s right. Race identity has a long tradition of obfuscating class distinction, especially in the U.S.
Examples: Poor Southern whites mostly sided with their exploiters to die by the tens of thousands in defense of American slavery. Similarly, impoverished African Americans have been used as strike breakers against racist, if not whites-only, unions since the end of the Civil War. And the use of ethnicity to divide the working class isn’t limited to black vs white. But that’s a whole other discussion.
So yeah, my friend’s friend has a point about white privilege being a touchy trope. But that shouldn’t put it outside the realm of discussability. And the concept should not be summarily rejected as a tool for viewing and discussing our culture. Especially not by working class people who are trying to at least slow down the cannibal capitalists who so adroitly manipulate white privilege to their advantage.
Read the article and decide for yourself. But I think white privilege is a complex bundle of ideas, beliefs, and assumptions. It’s more than a purely economic concept. And it does a disservice to working people to oversimplify it like my friend’s friend. To reduce it to its economic factors is to cede the argument before it’s even begun.
Human existence is about more than consuming and excreting. We are innovative and creative beings with needs and curiosities far beyond feeding and sheltering ourselves. Workers are more than bio-mechanical units of production. I get that our current iteration of Western Civilization is a realm where the fight for economic justice has forced its way to the top of our priority list. But that doesn’t make other, non-economic, factors unimportant. On the contrary. When working class thinkers and agitators bow to the pressures of expediency and disregard the non-economic, but still fundamental, realities of human life, we tacitly agree to their irrelevance. We grant the victory to the cannibal capitalists who have always maintained that the vast majority of humans are merely semi-disposable units of production. And that degrades the promise of all humanity.