Well, all the things you speak to are troubling. But it is what it is. Why is admitting privilege so threatening to people? Threatening to the point, that yes, they become irrational, and yes, you will be attacked for suggesting that white privilege or male privilege or American privilege exists. The only real privilege is power, which most people access through wealth accumulation or manipulation of people, hence the Trump storm we are in.
But owning privilege is threatening because admitting to it involves envisioning a drastically different kind of experience, one in which the privileged person loses some of that privilege. Because the moment you admit to privilege, your identity narrative has to change.
You have to either say, “Yes, I am privilege, by this one lucky thing, so many others are not- oh well screw them. It is what it is.” Lots of rich people born to money, feel this way, actually. But it is not a popular perspective. You can be that way, but most people won’t like you. It’s a trade off that most wealthy people are real comfortable with, however. They only ever interact with one another, and so for the most part their disdain for poorer, is not this loud, public thing that everyone can see or needs to respond to.
Now with white people, most of them can’t feel comfortable saying that, because we have all been fed this American dream narrative, that largely ignores that there is such a thing as white privilege (even though there is and always has been). So if you’re white, and you were to say, “Yes, I’m white and yes that makes me privileged over most black and brown people in America, but so what? It is what is is, screw them” you get labeled as a racist.
No one, except people with absolutely nothing much else to label themselves with, wants that label. The label itself seems to suggest that you have nothing much going for you except whiteness, and if that’s the case, then you’re one of those. You are in a class, a socio-economic set in America, where you need to hold on to that one privilege for dear life, because it’s all you’ve got…a Dylan Roof, for example. He didn’t have much, but he had that white privilege, and he was going to use it to kill a lot of decent black people. It made him feel powerful for once.
Most white people do not want to be associated with anything like that. Not directly anyway. Who would? So, what is the way out of this association? How can you ensure that you don’t have to bear the shame of being associated with anything like this? Argue that it doesn’t exist. That scores you two points, it prevents you from being associated with anything shameful and it prevents you from ever having to acknowledge any privilege. It’s an action that keeps white identity largely in tact. It keeps belief systems about white success in tact, and that belief is this success was earned, it wasn’t based on privilege. So it doesn’t matter how much evidence anyone presents to the contrary, many white people are deeply invested in keeping these beliefs about race as they are, because dismantling them will lead to an attack on the mythology that so much white American identity is based upon.
This is further complicated and compounded by the fact that we now live in a world where white privilege actually is being challenged- not so much by people of color, but the systems that relied upon it, once upon a time. In the 1950s, in America, our economic systems benefited, from keeping White privilege intact. But that has been less and less so, with each passing decade, and now in 2016, the economic systems are ready to disrupt white privilege. So, unlike before, the stakes are different and they are high. Some white people are fighting for their way of life. It truly used to be the case, that being white in America would put you a head of the curve. That’s just not the case anymore. Things have gotten so that whites really do have to compete with people of color, for jobs, education, resources etc.
Even worse, some white people are even co-mingling with people of color. They have them in their families! This really threatens the whole white privilege thing because, people of color are being embraced by white people and their systems. Barack Obama, for example. Even though he wasn’t white, he enjoyed a certain degree of white privilege due to his proximity to whiteness, via his family. He was raised by a white family. Well, in multicultural America, white privilege is definitely being challenged and disrupted, which is why you now have so many white people screaming “multiculturalism doesn’t work!” When really, what they should be saying (because it’s true) is “multiculturalism doesn’t work for me!”
All of these factors, make recognizing white privilege, an unattractive option. And I’ve only come to these realizations recently, from reading articles about and reactions to these discussions on race. I then take my own understanding of people’s perspectives back to people who study such things. This has deepened my understanding of why the discussion of white privilege hits a brick wall, with certain people.
At the root of this discussion, you are challenging someone’s identity construct (which is already being environmentally challenged) and so yes, you will encounter extreme resistance — and attack. And ironically, the only way to move such people from these positions is to agree with them. It makes sense if you think about it. Someone who feels under attack is frightened, how do you deal with a frightened person? You try to soothe them. That’s why so many people are also calling for empathy. Intuitively they recognize attacking these people will only make the problem much worse, so at least hear them out.
The difficulty is, while white people are losing their privilege, black and brown people are also coming up under increased oppression and so the resentment for white privilege, (and those who have it) is growing by leaps and bounds. You can’t get a job? Yeah well, my neighbor’s son was shot down in the street for carrying skittles and wearing a hoodie in your neighborhood. I am really, really, really angry. And you using your White privilege to justify this, makes me even angrier. The racial anger on both sides is damn near at explosive levels. Whites are angry about a real loss of privilege, and many are scape-goating black and brown people, because they know that’s a relatively safe thing to do, in these chaotic times. It’s been done successfully in the past with no real consequences, so let’s do it again, white conventional wisdom holds. What whites are seemingly really resistant to, is recognizing the truth of these turbulent economic times, yes earning a living wage is getting harder and harder, even for white people. And no its not because immigrants are stealing your jobs, and no its not because lazy people on welfare are crushing the system and taxing rich people too hard, it’s because the system now finds white people to be just as expendable as anyone else. Wealthy people run these systems, and as I said at the very beginning, they are very clear on how their wealth privilege works. “Yes I’m rich, screw everyone else, but oh, don’t tell them that. Let’s put all these divide and conquer strategies in place, pit these people against each other; and be entertained.”
And I’m sure they are quite amused by the current state of affairs.
The other option for recognizing your privilege, is to say, “oh yeah I am privileged, by some random set of characteristics; and it’s not fair. Things shouldn’t be this way. Let me work to change things.” Now, that choice is A LOT more challenging. You will be attacked, viciously, by people who want the status quo to remain. But, it’s a smarter choice, I think. At least in this day and age. It is a choice that moves with the reality of the ways in which the world is changing. But there is so much change going down, on so many different fronts: nationally, globally, politically, economically, environmentally, racially, genderly (not really a word, but I didn’t want to say sexually, but that is true as well), it is impossible to know how any of this turns out. We just have to live through it, and be troubled from time to time.