In last Friday’s edition of the Wheel, David Giffin presented a lengthy critique of the concept of “white privilege.”
At least, I think he did. Maybe. It was unclear to me whether Giffin was attacking the validity of the white privilege critique, or simply the way the concept is deployed in modern political discourse. He was probably doing a little of both.
Giffin defines white privilege as the “notion that white individuals in society benefit from certain social or economic norms in a way that people of minority groups do not.” He laments how accusations of white privilege have been used to unfairly attack and exclude certain groups from commenting on political and social affairs, simply because they come from a place of supposed privilege.
Does white privilege exist? Of course it does. Obviously there are exceptions and anomalies, but on the whole, structural racism and sexism continue to plague our society today.
Giffin acknowledges this, stating that “society does still suffer from certain forms of racism and sexism that need to be addressed.” Granted, Giffin and I would likely disagree over how pervasive these forms of discrimination are. But at the end of the day, we both seem to agree that institutional racism and sexism do in fact exist to some extent in modern society.
So what exactly is my problem with Giffin’s article? Everything else.
For one thing, Giffin’s Facebook anecdote is a classic case of the straw person fallacy, where the writer constructs a one-dimensional caricature of the viewpoint he intends to contest, and then demolishes that caricature with relative ease, given the selective way that the opposition is presented. From the get-go, we readers have an image in our heads of an ignorant, sarcastic commenter who unnecessarily attacks David for his supposed “privilege.” Any oppositional arguments in support of the white privilege critique are tainted by this image. Meanwhile, Giffin is able to support the basic tenants of the white privilege critique, that racism and sexism do exist, while distinguishing himself from the Facebook political crusaders who seem incapable of doing anything but slinging unfounded ad hominems at their opponents.
The problem with this formulation is that it does not give an adequate voice to those who would disagree with Giffin’s claims. Any attempt to criticize white privilege is immediately pigeonholed into this caricature. Throughout the rest of the article, “check your privilege” is presented forever and always as an ad hominem attack, rather than as what it could and should be–a constructive prescription to (yes) check our privilege.
Because we do need to check our privilege, especially when it comes to formulating our political views. Politics is the one place where we absolutely must check our privilege, because our political ideas don’t just affect us or people like us. When we participate in the political process, we present ideas about how we think the whole of society should be structured. When I advocate for a particular policy or support a particular political viewpoint, I must consider how it will affect all members of society–not just other white males.
This is where the concept of privilege becomes important. Whether I like it or not, the privileges I have enjoyed as a white male have subtly but surely shaped the way I view the world. I unconsciously view obstacles that I have had to personally face as more legitimate than those I have been spared from having to deal with.
I have never had to deal with racial discrimination. I have never experienced personal discomfort or disadvantage due to gendered cultural norms. My privilege has taught me to prioritize issues that affect me personally. As a result, I sometimes forget about the issues that don’t affect me personally, especially those that I am spared of having to confront simply thanks to the fact that I am male and white. White male privilege does indeed exist. And it does indeed need to be checked.
Do I disagree with the substance of Giffin’s argument? Not necessarily. Of course it is wrong to exclude someone’s viewpoint simply because they come from a place of supposed privilege. Of course it is wrong to generalize an entire political party as racist simply because its members tend to be predominantly white and male. Who wouldn’t agree with that?
Do I disagree with the manner in which Giffin structured his argument? Most definitely, because I believe he glosses over the very real issue that is white male privilege.
But Giffin’s last point rings true to me. Without rational, level dialogue, there is no way that we as a society can hope to progress. Discussions of white male privilege can and must be a part of that rational and constructive dialogue.
Ryan Gorman is a College sophomore from Plano, Tx.
Photo courtesy of Elias Schewel, Flickr