John Amaechi, former NBA basketball star, now a psychologist, recently produced a shot video for BBC Bitesize on ‘white privilege’ which has caught a lot of attention. I was asked on Twitter where I disagreed with it which led to a long thread. I am reposting that thread here, cleaned up and turned into paragraphs; I will write a proper essay on this soon, but in the meantime this will have to do.
Before starting, can I say that John Amaechi’s argument is both cogent and illuminating. The abuse he has received in some of the responses is unwarranted. However, I also disagree with him.
The real question to ask here is why should we talk of ‘white privilege’ rather than of ‘racism’? Or, from my perspective, why is it better to talk of, and challenge, racism rather than white privilege? Here’s why.
Racism refers to the fact that certain groups are discriminated against or face bigotry. John Amaechi’s view of white privilege as ‘the absence of inconvenience, the absence of impediments’, and the claim that for white people ‘your skin colour has not been the cause of your hardship or suffering’, shows in its negative framing the difficulties in defining white privilege. It’s also not how many (perhaps most) people who use the concept define it – for instance, Robin DiAngello in White Fragility, the bestselling book about white privilege at the moment, defines it in terms of a positive advantage that all white people possess and that those who deny it are merely expressing their own ‘white fragility’, which is ‘born of superiority and entitlement’.
Despite what Amaechi suggests, most people (rightly) view privilege as denoting something extra you possess, not just something negative you don’t have. For egalitarians, privilege is something you want to remove or reduce. So, the question is: what is the privilege possessed by someone poor and white that should be removed or reduced? Nothing. What you really want is to remove the discriminatory treatment accorded to many minority groups, not reduce the privilege of someone who doesn’t possess any. Again, that’s why it’s better to frame the issue as one of racism rather than of white privilege. It is not a ‘privilege’ to live without having to face unequal treatment or being subject to bigotry. Those are basic rights that all should possess. Framing the absence of oppression or discrimination or bigotry as a ‘privilege’ is to turn justice on its head.
What the argument about white privilege also does is to establish a division between all white people and all non-white people. But such a division makes little sense in thinking of the reality of racism, or in working out ways of challenging it. Take education in the UK. The question of who does poorly and who does well cannot be seen in terms of ‘white privilege’. Most non-white groups, for instance, disproportionately get into universities compared to whites. Or take school exclusions. Black pupils are disproportionately excluded from school. But look more closely and you see that it’s those of Caribbean descent who face the problem. Pupils of black African descent are less likely to be excluded than their white peers, as are most ‘Asian’ groups. None of this is to say that there is no racism in the education system, but rather it cannot be viewed simply in terms of ‘white privilege’.
Or take the question policing and incarceration in America. African Americans are disproportionately both incarcerated and killed by police. But more than half of those killed by US police are white. Some analyses suggest that the best predictor of police killings is not race but income levels – the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be killed. Other studies have shown that the startlingly high prison numbers in America are better explained by class than by race and that ‘mass incarceration is primarily about the systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race’. African Americans, disproportionately working class and poor, are also likely to be disproportionately imprisoned and killed.
Now, you might argue that the reason certain groups of white people are disadvantaged is not necessarily because of their skin colour. That is true. But, viewing the issue in terms of white privilege, and creating a division between white people and non-whites is unhelpful in understanding the cause of these problems. It obscures the complex relationship between race and class that is so important here. It also helps racialise such issues in troublesome ways. Issues such as these also cut against the claim of white privilege as ‘the absence of inconvenience, the absence of impediments’. Being white may not be the cause of one’s problems, but neither does possessing a white skin necessarily provide any kind of immunity.
Unlike Amaechi, many, perhaps most, people who talk of ‘white privilege’ use it to mean, as Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton puts it, that ‘White people, you are the problem’. They use it to insist that white people have to acknowledge their ‘guilt and complicity’. The problem with such arguments is in reframing racism as ‘white privilege’ they turn structural, social issues into personal, psychological ones.
Finally, framing the problem of racism as one of ‘white privilege’ also makes it much more difficult to build the kinds of alliances necessary to challenge racism. As the American historians Adam Rothman and Barbara J Fields write, ‘those seeking genuine democracy must… convince white Americans that what is good for black people is also good for them… Attacking “white privilege” will never build such a coalition… The rhetoric of white privilege mocks the problem, while alienating people who might be persuaded.’
The issue is not whether racism is a problem and should be combatted. It is and it should be. The issue is whether reframing racism as ‘white privilege’ is helpful in combating racism. In my view it is not.