Diversity: Is the Conversation about White Privilege Enhancing Race Relations?

By Dr. Raj Beckie (Associate Professor)

After being a part of, as a facilitator and attendee of diversity workshops, interviewing and listening to primarily white people, reading blogs, and reading current national press about diversity I am beginning to believe the topic about white privilege is divisive and if there is a hope to enhance race relations it has got to change. Also, many whites I have spoken with feel that to be labelled privileged is dehumanizing. At the same time, many believe it devalues their hard work, sacrifice, and personal responsibility. The blanket white privilege minimizes their struggles. Added to the equation is when whites do “get” white privilege many feel, upon reflection, smacked by feelings of superiority (They are the ones who get it) and paternalism (We who get it have to help the oppressed because they can’t help themselves).

Here is my perspective, I believe in today’s climate the conversation about white privilege adds little value to the advancement of race relations, mutual respect, and income equality. Yes, I am sure some have a felt need for some change after reflecting on the concept of white privilege. Unfortunately, many times this seems coupled with a heavy dose of guilt and feelings of superiority and paternalism. 

The reality is most of the white people I have come in contact with completely reject the notion that some unseen hand is lifting them up, making life easy, and giving them unearned benefits. These benefits could be better grades, jobs, higher income, better bank rate loans, not being stopped by a police, etc. 

Most of the white people I have had some conversation with feel that to succeed in life one has to follow a pretty simple formula of working hard and offering no excuses. This means staying in school, respecting your teachers, getting good grades, acquiring skills, honing talents that are needed in the workforce, building your networks, leveraging your networks, getting a job, putting in killer hours, building relationships, understanding the politics of the organization, fitting into the culture of the organization, playing the corporate game, being involved in one’s community, keeping one’s yard clean, being involved in the life of one’s kids, etc. 

I haven’t spoken with any white person who gets up saying, “Yep, I am white and I am privileged. As a result, this unseen hand will lift me up and life will be easy.” The conversation is more like, “Today, I have to hit the ground running, bust my chops, put in a long day, hit those numbers, work for the man, look for a new job, etc. As a result, the notion that white privilege helps them in some way to succeed is ridiculous. It is a nonstarter.   

I do recognize that racism does exist and people will experience various forms of discrimination, bias, racism, etc. However, I do believe that the vast majority of barriers to success were removed primarily in the 1960s. Today, it is my job to leverage the opportunities that are available. 

As it relates to privilege, all of us who live in the US or developed world are in many ways privileged. From a personal perspective, I do have many perceived privileges. For example, I am a bit over 6 feet, medium built, right handed, heterosexual, male, have a full head of hair (albeit grey), live in the US, do not identify with any federal recognized disability, etc. These are seen as privileges by many. 

Another privilege that has been assigned to me is my brown pigmentation. There are enough studies that support the notion the darker pigmentation is seen as less desirable. This is applicable even within one’s own racial group. For example, in India, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Africa, etc. tens of millions of dollars (US dollars) are spent each year on skin lightening products. Many see this as internalized racism and self-hate.

I believe most white people put white privilege in the same category as me being a bit over 6 feet, right handed, male, not bald, etc. In some ways I do benefit from these privileges. However, I don’t credit any of these categories for the things I have achieved. Nor do I feel guilty for any of them.

Similarly, most white people I believe are aware of racism and have various levels of concern, but they don’t credit their success to white privilege. They also don’t want to feel guilty for being successful. They believe their success came from hard work and the application of the formula.

The final outcome will depend on being at the right place at the right time and the strength of the variables in the formula. If we are going to improve relations we need to have a conversation that does not begin and end with white privilege, guilt, etc. Instead we need to focus on barriers and behaviors.