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Communicating White Privilege More Effectively: A Fresh Idea?

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This article has to begin with an acknowledgement. For some years, I was resistant and (sad to say) even hostile towards the concept of white privilege. And by now, it is certainly painful to me, to see many people still repudiating this much-misunderstood idea.

I do have to acknowledge that as a white person, I have to be aware that I cannot 'legislate' how people of color talk about privilege. It is not for me to singlehandedly redefine the terms of discussion. However, I would like to make a suggestion about one way that might make the notion of 'white privilege' less unpalatable to some white people; while also (I hope) not watering down or 'sweetening' a notion that for many people seems like a bitter pill to swallow.

In this spirit, I am going to take an angle that I have not seen anyone else take before: the distinction between 'privilege from' and 'privilege to.' Although I have seen the underlying distinction discussed before, I have not seen anyone discuss white privilege by explicitly appealing to the terms 'privilege from' and privilege to.' However, I would like to do so right now. And if anyone else has indeed used this precise phrasing before, and I am not aware of it, I appreciate very much their contribution.

Privilege is not 'privilege from' but 'privilege to.'

Privilege is not an absence of pain, hurt, cruelty, rejection, hatred, oppression.

Privilege doesn't mean no-one sneers at your disability, mocks your mental health, calls you a slut, beats you black and blue for kissing another man, harasses you for holding hands with another woman.

Privilege doesn't mean you have been granted a smooth path to full acceptance and equality for every facet of your identity.

Privilege doesn't mean you are happier than anyone else, richer than anyone else, or that you have more peace of mind than anyone else.

No. Privilege merely means that in some respects, you often enjoy benefits that others generally don't. And please note the phrasing: 'in some respects,' but not 'all.' And again, it's 'often, 'and not 'sometimes.'

After all, if privilege really meant 'privilege from,' then you wouldn't have a care in the world. Your finances would be very comfortable, no-one would look down on you or talk down to you, or harass you, or judge you, or even commit physical violence against you.

So I can see where the fallacy lies. And I hope everyone reading can as well. When someone says 'how can I have white privilege when I am gay, or disabled, or a woman, or homeless,' or anything else, what that really means is that you don't have 'privilege from.' But it doesn't mean that you don't have 'privilege to.'

A spatial metaphor may be of assistance here. Even if you have white privilege, you don't have privilege 'away from' all the hatred and intolerance and condescension of life. This is because your white privilege doesn't have to 'trump' all the other aspects of your identity. You could be a white woman who is oppressed as a woman, but your gender oppression may not necessarily be racialized. (And even if it were, the racialization may be a question of racial prejudice, rather than structural inequality).

At this point, I have to emphasize this with the utmost sincerity and clarity: I am not suggesting that racial prejudice is less bad than structural gender inequality. Similarly, I am not suggesting that racial prejudice is more reasonable or less reasonable depending on who is perpetrating it, and their relative levels in the social hierarchy, by whatever criteria. Idle speculations about moral equivalence and non-equivalence is not what is at issue here.

On the contrary! I insist that the most empathetic and reasonable way of understanding the distinction between racial prejudice and structural racism is to see it not so much as a moral hierarchy, where A is worse than B, but rather as an analytical distinction that will facilitate a more serious discussion that will can help everyone move towards making racial inequality an increasingly distant and vanishing phenomenon.

So to sum up: if you are a white woman, or a white gay person, or a white transgender person, or a white religious minority, the fact that you have white privilege means that you have 'privilege to,' i.e. 'towards' some opportunities you might not otherwise have. It's not the same as saying you have 'privilege from,' i.e. privilege away from, the hardships and harsh cruelties and ignorance and petty spite of this world.

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Jonathan Ferguson is a socio-economic liberal with strong libertarian leanings in some key issues.

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