There is a lot of talk these days about white privilege. I don't believe I have discussed this topic before.
1. White privilege is presumably a type of privilege. What is a privilege? This is the logically prior question. To know what white privilege is we must first know what privilege is. Let's consider some definitions.
D1. A privilege is a special entitlement or immunity granted to a particular person or group of persons by the government or some other corporate entity such as a university or a church on a conditional basis.
Driving on public roads is a privilege by this definition. It is not a right one has just in virtue of being a human being or a citizen. It is a privilege the state grants on condition that one satisfy and continue to satisfy certain requirements pertaining to age, eyesight, driving skill, etc. Being a privilege, the license to drive can be revoked. By contrast, the right to life and the right to free speech are neither conditional nor granted by the government. They can't be revoked. Please don't confuse a constitutionally protected right such as the right to free speech with a right granted by the government.
Faculty members have various privileges, a franking privilege, a library privilege, along with such perquisites as an office, a carrel, secretarial help, access to an an exclusive dining facility, etc. Immunities are also privileges, e.g., the immunity to prosecution granted to a miscreant who agrees to inform on his cohorts.
Now if (D1) captures what we mean by 'privilege,' then it it is hard to see how there could be white privilege. Are there certain special entitlements and immunities that all and only whites have in virtue of being white, entitlements and immunities granted on a conditional basis by the government and revocable by said government? No. But there is black privilege by (D1). It is called affirmative action.
So if we adopt (D1) we get the curious result that there is no white privilege, but there is black privilege! Those who speak of white privilege as of something real and something to be aware of and opposed must therefore have a different definition of privilege in mind, perhaps the following:
D2. A privilege is any unearned benefit or advantage that only some people have in virtue of their identity. It needn't be granted by any corporate entity, nor need it be conditional. Aspects of identity that can afford privilege in this sense include race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, wealth, ability, or citizenship status.
People who speak of white privilege probably have something like (D2) in mind. The idea is that there are certain unearned advantages that accrue to whites just in virtue of their race, advantages that do not accrue to members of other races.
One question arises right here. What justifies the broadening of the term 'privilege' to cover any unearned benefit? If the term is used strictly, there is no white privilege. To speak of white privlege one has to engage in a semantic stretch. What justifies this stretch? Is it a legitimate stretch or a example of linguistic distortion? And what is the agenda behind it?
One thing to note about (D2) is that it leads to a proliferation of privileges. There will be as many privileges as there are unearned benefits possessed by some but not all. For example, there will be the 'privilege' of being right-handed since this is a minor advantage -- better to be right-handed than either left-handed or ambisinistrous -- and it is unearned and not possessed by everyone. And the same goes for being ambidexterous. I lack the 'privilege' of ambidexterity, being right-handed only, and so I am disadvantaged relative to the ambidexterous. But I am not as disadvantaged relative to the ambidexterous as the ambisinistrous. They are the worst off when it comes to handedness. Should they receive something like reparations for nature's niggardliness?
Now clearly all of us enjoy all sorts of unearned benefits. Tall men, of whatever race, have an unearned advantage over short men, as long as they are not too tall. In the USA at least it is better to be 6'1" rather than 4'11". (D2) therefore implies that there is a tallness privilege in some cultures. Is this a problem? Does justice demand that heights be equalized? And who will appoint and equalize the Procrustean equalizers? Or are the equalizers exempt from equalization? If so, this would be an immunity, hence a 'privilege,' a leftist privilege.
Blacks born in the post-war USA have an unearned advantage over both whites and blacks born in some other parts of the world. Blacks born into two-parent homes in the USA have an unearned advantage over blacks born into single-parent homes in the USA. Blacks born without birth defects have an unearned advantage over blacks born with birth defects. Many blacks born without birth defects have an unearned advantage over some whites born with birth defects. And so on.
If there is an advantage to being white, is this an advantage enjoyed by all whites? And if it is not shared by all whites, why should this advantage be called white privilege? Do 'poor white trash' share in white privilege? Wouldn't it be better to be born into a solid, middle-class two-parent black or Hispanic family than to be born into a 'poor white trash' family? Do rednecks and Southerners generally share in white privilege? It didn't seem to help Paula Deen very much.
What is the relation between white privilege and majority privilege? I grant that, ceteris paribus, it is better to be white than black in the USA at the present time. But how much of this advantage is due to whites' being a majority? When Hispanics become a majority in California, say, will there be talk of Hispanic privilege? Should Hispanics then start feeling guilty about their unearned advantage?
Here is an important question. Am I not entitled to my unearned benefits despite the fact that I have done nothing to earn them? My being tall is not my own doing, and I don't do much of anything besides staying alive to keep myself tall. I don't work at it in the way I work at improving my mind and work at maintaining my physical and fiscal fitness.
Suppose you are a black male born in the post-war USA into a middle-class, two-parent, loving home. You have all sorts of unearned benefits. Do you feel guilty because you have unearned benefits that a lot of 'poor white trash' lack? Should you feel guilty? Change the example slightly: you were born in London and have the unearned benefit of a British accent. You come to the States and are hired by CNN or FOX News, beating out white competitors, in large part because of that beautiful and charming accent. Do you 'check' your privilege or feel guilty about it? Does it bother you that a Southern accent is a definite disadvantage?
So those are some questions that come to mind when I think about white privilege. I'll end with a bit of analysis of an interesting quotation (from second article below):
Those of us who are white and male in the U.S. were born with significantly more chips to play the poker game of life than were people of color or women. Although our white, male status is a biological reality, the unearned benefits that our race and gender identity provides us are a social construction, that is—they are special perks granted by a white patriarchal society.
The second sentence is gibberish. Males are on average taller than females. Being tall is an unearned benefit, but surely it is no social construction. The very notion of social construction is dubious by itself. What does the phrase mean? Care to define it? It smacks of the fallacy of hypostatization. There is this entity called 'society' that constructs things? I am not saying the phrase 'social construction' cannot be given a coherent meaning; I'm just saying that I would like to know what that meaning is. Define it or drop it.
Perk? Isn't that what the coffee does -- or used to do back in the day? The word our 'professor' wants is 'perquisite.' As I suggested above, perquisites are privileges. So what the 'professor' is doing is conflating privileges with unearned benefits. That conflation needs to be either justified or dropped. We are told that these 'perks' are granted by a white patriarchal society? Smells like the fallacy of hypostatization again. Where can I find the group of people who collectvely decide to grant these special 'perks' to white people?
I could go on, but this is enough 'shovelling' for one day.