A decolonial critique of the concept of white privilege: why injustice is not a privilege

Sandew Hira
5-1-2017

Introduction

Many progressive people use the concept of “white privilege” to analyze racism. Critique is an essential component of decolonial knowledge production. It is a way of improving our theoretical and activist work. A decolonial critique looks at the concept from the perspective of the colonized.

A decolonial concept of racism

In the theoretical framework of Decolonizing The Mind[1] (DTM) I define racism as “a system of economic, socio-cultural, political and ideological institutions that support and sustain the practice and theory of organizing human beings in superior and inferior individuals and communities through oppression and exploitation based on physical or cultural characteristics and that is rooted in the system of colonialism.”

The following elements stand out in this definition.

First racism is defined as an institutional phenomenon, not as prejudices in the interaction between people. The institutional approach means that even if there is no interaction between black and white people, there can still be racism. For example, in a village with only white people and therefore no interaction between whites and blacks there still can be racism. The media or the educational system in the village can portray black people as inferior and whites as superior, because the ideological institutions function irrespective of the interaction between the individuals.

Second, the institutions are defined in four dimensions: economics, social-cultural organization, political institutions and ideology (knowledge production and dissemination). We analyze racism by looking at how these institutions functions as they organize human beings and their communities in categories of superior and inferior. So it is not just about feelings (prejudice). The feelings are the result of the working of the institutions, not vice versa.

Third, racism is both about practice and theory. The practice is about the actual organization of the lives of human beings in the four interrelated dimensions based on superiority and inferiority. The theory is about the ideological justification of the practice. We can not analyze one dimension – say the social interaction between black and white people and their communities – without taking into account its relationship with the practice in the other dimensions.

Fourth, racism is about organizing human beings (individuals and communities) in categories of inferiority and superiority. There can be a system of prejudices and discrimination that is unconnected with the categories of inferiority and superiority. Anti-Semitism (“hatred for Jews”) is a system that has both elements. In Nazi-Germany Jews were regarded as inferior people, “untermenschen”, and discriminated against on that basis. There was an institutional framework to support and sustain that discrimination and thus can rightly be called racist. In nowadays France young Arabs who express hatred for Jews because of the injustice that Israel is committing in Palestine are not guilty of racism in the DTM definition. There is no categorizing of superiority/inferiority involved. In this case anti-Semitism (“hatred for Jews”) is not an expression of racism, but a certain form of expression of protest against injustice. This expression might be distorted because of the lack of making a distinction between ethnicity (Jews) and the politics of conquest and oppression of Palestine (Zionism). But it still is not an expression that links ethnicity to superiority or inferiority.

Fifth, racism is about oppression and exploitation. The organization of human beings by categories of superiority inferiority was not for fun. It was and is based on the exploitation and oppression of the people and communities that are considered to be inferior by the people and communities that considered themselves as superior.

Sixth, racism is not only about the relationship between individuals and their individual  experiences. It is also about ethnic communities, about social groups whose participants are connected by a common history and common ethnic ties. A community is not primarily based on interest (like class) but on identity. The concept of identity is lost in class analysis and gender studies.

Seventh, racism is rooted in the history of colonialism. We can not understand racism without understanding the history of colonialism.

This theoretical framework of racism is the result of the work of many decolonial thinkers and activists around the world in different phases of the struggle against colonialism and racism. It has guided our struggle in developing strategies to bring down the institutions that support and sustain racism.

So if there is a new concept that aims to help us understand racism, we relate it to this framework.

History of the concept “white privilege”

Du Bois and psychological advantage

W.E.B. du Bois is often credited for introducing the idea of white privilege through the concept of “psychological wage”. But he did not literally use the term “white privilege”.

Here is how he explains the concept: “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and tides of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.

On the other hand, in the same way, the Negro was subject to public insult; was afraid of mobs; was liable to the jibes of children and the unreasoning fears of white women; and was compelled almost continuously to submit to various badges of inferiority. The result of this was that the wages of both classes could be kept low, the whites fearing to be supplanted by Negro labor, the Negroes always being threatened by the substitution of white labor.

Mob violence and lynching were the inevitable result of the attitude of these two classes and for a time were a sort of permissible Roman holiday for the entertainment of vicious whites. One can see for these reasons why labor organizers and labor agitators made such small headway in the South. They were, for the most part, appealing to laborers who would rather have low wages upon which they could eke out an existence than see colored labor with a decent wage.”[2]

Du Bois brings in the concept of psychological advantage to explain why white workers in the same economic position as blacks refuse to side with blacks and instead are instrumental in oppressing blacks.

Marxism and the privileges of white workers

In their seminal pamphlet White Blindspot white Marxists Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen introduced the term “white privilege” in the specific context of a Marxist analysis of the class struggle. Ignatin articulates this as follows: “The greatest ideological barrier to the achievement of proletarian class consciousness, solidarity and political action is now, and has been historically, white chauvinism. White chauvinism is the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites. The U.S. ruling class has made a deal with the mis-leaders of American labor, and through them with the masses of white workers. The terms of the deal, worked out over the three hundred year history of the development of capitalism in our country, are these: you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with a monopoly of the skilled jobs, we will cushion you against the most severe shocks of the economic cycle, provide you with health and education facilities superior to those of the non-white population, grant you the freedom to spend your money and leisure time as you wish without social restrictions, enable you on occasion to promote one of your number out of the ranks of the laboring class, and in general confer on you the material and spiritual privileges befitting your white skin.” [3]

The concept of white privilege enables the Marxists to distinguish between the role of the capitalist – the ultimate perpetrators and beneficiaries of the racist system – and the white workers who are not the ultimate perpetrators but only partial beneficiaries of the racist system through privileges. The white workers are victims of the capitalist system of exploitation.

Allen explains the options for the white workers: “The developing reality of the class struggle will soon bring forward in dramatic contrast everywhere the truth that there are only two paths open to the white workers: with the boss, or with the Negro workers; abandonment of all claim to share in the shaping of our destiny, or repudiation of the white-skin privileges for which we, in our very infancy, pawned our revolutionary soul.(his emphasis).[4]

He concludes: “The ending of white supremacy does not pose the slightest peril to the real interests of the white workers; it definitely poses a peril to their fancied interests, their counterfeit interest, their white-skin privileges.”[5]

Liberalism and white privilege

The decline of Marxism as a narrative of liberation since the last quartr of the 20th century opened up the gate for new theories that proclaim to be critical but without the instrument of class analysis: the critical race theories. The concept of white privilege underwent a transformation.

Peggy McIntosh, a white women, re-introduced the concept of white privilege in the philosophical tradition of liberalism.

“As a white person,” she writes, “I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”[6]

In the tradition of liberalism she takes the individual, not institutions or social groups (class), as a starting point to analyze racism.

She continues: ”I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”[7]

Racism is now articulated not as oppression of people of colour, but as unearned advantages of white people. Moreover, racism is regarded as invisible by whites.

And it comes with innocence of white people who did not realize that they were oppressors: “After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence. My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”[8]

The innocent white person needs a training to see him or herself as a oppressor. You might think that this is a sketch from stand-up comedy, but it is from real life. Then she submits a list of 26 statements that can be used in a training and should reveal white privilege (“unpack the invisible backpack”), for example: “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”[9]

She draws the following conclusions for a strategy against racism: “To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects.[10]

A decolonial critique of the concept of white privilege

Du Bois

Du Bois did not literally used the term “white privilege”. In fact he starts from the premise that white workers in the same economic position as black workers have no substantial material privileges. Their privilege is psychological and public. Du Bois does not conceptualize racism as a system of privilege, but as a system of oppression of which white workers were part. He explains: “White labor saw in every advance of Negroes a threat to their racial prerogatives, so that in many districts Negroes were afraid to build decent homes or dress well, or own carriages, bicycles or automobiles, because of possible retaliation on the part of the whites.”[11]

In DTM we would argue that this is because identity and community is paramount in determining the relationship between white and black workers rather than interest (economic interest, psychological interest).

Marxism and white privilege

My critique of the Marxist concept of white privilege focuses on two points.

  1. Limits of class analysis

The Marxist analysis of white privilege is linked to the class analysis of racism. Class relationships are about interests, basically material interests. Race relations are about community, identity and dignity. The class analysis enabled the white community to make the distinction between the perpetrator of racism (the capitalist) and the collaborator (the proletarian with privileges). A decolonial perspective has another take. If a white worker burns down your house he is not a collaborator, but the perpetrator. If he refuses you a job because of your ethnicity he is a perpetrator, not a collaborator. A collaborator is somebody from your own community that helps the oppressor from the white community in the system of oppression and exploitation.

There are other limits in the Marxist class analysis which I won’t go into. Here I want to draw attention to the concept of white privilege from the perspective of the colonizer and the colonized.

  1. Injustice as a privilege

In DTM we analyse the mechanisms of the colonization of the mind. One mechanism is the use of a certain terminology that hides the reality of racism. For the colonized racism is a system of oppression and injustice. In describing this system we should use a terminology that correctly portrays this system as it is. Describing a system of oppression and injustice for the victims as a privilege for the perpetrator is an insult to the victim. Imagine describing the act of compelling Jews in Nazi-Germany to wear a Jewish star as a privilege of the Nazi’s of not being obliged to wear the star. It would immediately be recognized as an insult to the Jews. Or describing the enslavement of black people in the Americas as a privilege for white people for not begin enslaved. It would be regarded as complete nonsense. Terminology matters. It is a way of covering up the reality of oppression and exploitation by transforming injustice of the victim into a privilege of the perpetrator.

Liberalism and white privilege

The liberal concept of white privilege is more problematic than the Marxist one. My critique revolved on the following points.

  1. Making the visible invisible

McIntosch claims to make the invisible visible by introducing the concept of white privilege. In fact, the reverse is true. She makes the visible invisible.

For the victim of racism the perpetrators are quite visible: a set of institutions that was erected during colonialism that organized human beings along ethnic lines based on the superiority/inferiority. The people that developed these institution where not colourless. They were white people. By introducing a distinction between the system as invisible and the whites as privileged the perpetrator vanished into the unseen. The visible – white people who have established the institutions of racism – becomes invisible because the perpetrator is derived from its colour and has become a beneficiary instead of a perpetrator. This is enforced by bringing the individual to the fore rather than the social group. The individual is the person who is unaware of his or her privileges. The social group has no consciousness and thus has no role to play in the analysis. But a system of racism is not maintained by individuals. When the individual dies, the system still is in place, because it is maintained by a social group. This reality is made invisible by the approach of McIntosh.

  1. Introducing the idea of innocence in racism

McIntosch writes: “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.”[12] A person of color who is denied a job by a white person because of the color of his or her skin might wonder: “Well, at least you got a job. And by the way, who gave you the job? Was it not your relative, maybe not your blood relative, but certainly your social relative?”

A person of color would rephrase it as follows: “You can take a job with any employer because of the color of your skin and you would never refuse the job for that reason.” That is the reality of racism. We have never seen masses of white people resign from their job when they realized that they have white privileges. No training in white privilege ever resulted in mass resignation by white people from their job because it is a privilege to have a job based on the color of your skin.

In the framing of McIntosh white innocence replace white complacency in racism. In the decolonial framing there is no place for innocence in racism. If you realize that you are part of the system, then you should not come up with a theory that puts innocence into racism. You should acknowledge the institutional nature of racism, the injustice for the victims and the role of white people in establishing and sustaining that system.

  1. Evading the question of power

Racism is about power. This is the conclusion that decolonial thinkers and activists have drawn since the dawn of colonialism. The liberal view of white privilege evades the question of power. The list of 26 statements by McIntosh never answers the burning question: why?

Take this one: “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” Why is this so?

McIntosch answer is: “Because I have white privilege.”

A decolonial answer is: “Because you – not some invisible power – are in charge of television or newspaper.”

The liberal view takes the individual as the actor in racism, so McIntosh can easily say: “No I am not in charge of the television or the newspaper. I am just a professor at a university.” Thus she can evade the question of power and the role of white power and claim her innocence.

From a decolonial perspective it is not about the individual. Why should we care about white innocence? Our problem is not white innocence, but white power. So we should focus our analysis and struggle on how to fight white power rather than how to embrace white innocence.

  1. Delinking history

In a decolonial perspective racism is deeply entrenched in the history of colonialism. The theory of white privilege delinks racism from its history. A decolonial activist that goes through the list of the 26 statements of McIntosch will find it shocking that there are no statements like:

“I live on land of native people that was stolen by my ancestors.”

“My wealth of today is also the result of the enslavement of black people by my ancestors.”

What does this mean for me today? The statements of McIntosch evades these issues because they all regard superficial experiences of white people that is not related to the history of racism. So discussions on reparations is pushed from the agenda. Her framing does not allow for such an agenda.

  1. Transforming injustice into a privilege

More than in the Marxist analysis (which acknowledges the injustice of racism caused by the capitalists) the liberal concept of white privilege (with the idea of white innocence and the colourless system that produces ‘white privilege’) transforms injustice in a more fundamental way into privilege.

The concept of white privilege shifts the analysis of racism from the victim to the perpetrator. Why should a victim care about the privilege of the perpetrator? The main problem is injustice and its institutional framework. That should be our focus. So what do we do with a white person who sincerely feels bad about being part of a racist system of injustice and want to acknowledge that?

It is simple. Let us set the agenda straight. Racism is not about white privilege. It is about institutional injustice. If you acknowledge that, that our common agenda is how to identify the institutions, how to bring them down and how to build a new world that acknowledges us first and foremost as human beings irrespective of the color of our skin.

 

[1] This framework is outlined in my forthcoming book: Decolonizing The Mind. Amrit Publishers Summer, The Hague 2017.

[2] Du Bois, W.E.B. (1935): Black Reconstruction. An Essay toward a History of the Part which Black Folk played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Harcourt, Brace and Co. New York, p. 700-701.

[3] Ignatin, N. and Allen, T. (1976): White Blindspot. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-1/whiteblindspot.pdf, p. 26-27.

[4] Idem, p. 30.

[5] Idem, p. 29.

[6] McIntosh, P. (1989): White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. http://code.ucsd.edu/pcosman/Backpack.pdf, p. 1.

[7] Idem.

[8] Idem.

[9] Idem, p. 2.

[10] Idem, p. 5.

[11] Du Bois, W.E.B. (1935): Black Reconstruction. An Essay toward a History of the Part which Black Folk played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Harcourt, Brace and Co. New York, p. 700-701.

[12] McIntosh, P. (1989), p. 3.