Is white privilege real?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, Pit TheatreIdentity politics

White privilege, it seems, is on everybody’s lips. But what is it? Conrad Duncan, writing in the Independent, described it as: ‘The unearned advantages white people receive due to their skin colour, from societies assuming white Western culture is the norm to the freedom of not being viewed with suspicion by the police or government.’ Celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Amy Schumer, as well as Democratic presidential hopefuls like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, have all denounced their own white privilege. In the UK, Munroe Bergdorf, a trans activist and model, was infamously dropped from a L’Oréal campaign for claiming that all white people were racist – causing further controversy when she later stated that ‘you can be homeless and still have white privilege’.

Those who believe in white privilege point to examples where white people have an advantage – like black people being unable to buy plasters that match their skin tones, or not being unable to find shampoo and products suitable to their hair type. Critics argue that these sometimes risk superficiality, but there are more serious issues, too. For example, the incarceration rate of African-American males in the US by far supersedes that of white men. In the UK, black men are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white men.

Anti-racists who use the term ‘white privilege’ argue that white people don’t ever have to experience or even think about racism – putting them in a more privileged position than those who constantly having to think about or deal with racist attitudes. Activists argue that even figures who are otherwise powerful or privileged can be disadvantaged by their skin colour. For example, there were allegations of racism around the fact that Sajid Javid, the UK home secretary, was not invited to a state banquet with Donald Trump.

However, free-speech campaigners have often expressed concern that demands to ‘check your white privilege’ have a chilling effect on debate, with people afraid to express an opinion on certain topics for fear of being dismissed as insensitive or irrelevant. Contemporary anti-racists claim such concerns are overblown, or at worst the result of ‘fragile white egos’ oversensitive to criticism. Nonetheless, both sides would agree that there are plenty of cynical politicians who grandiosely ‘check their privilege’ to virtue signal.

Perhaps the rise of ‘privilege’ as a political category rather than ‘oppression’ signals an interesting shift in identity politics. Rather than focusing on the instances of oppression of various non-white groups, ‘white privilege’ concentrates attention on the universal experience of the alleged oppressors – white people. Critics argue that the focus on white privilege seeks to make white people feel bad, rather than make black people’s lives better. One study even found that talking to people about white privilege ‘did not seem to affect attitudes by increasing sensitivity to the challenges of poor black people; instead, it reduced sympathy for poor white people’.

Is white privilege real? Is a white bricklayer still more privileged than a black CEO? Where does class fit into the discussion about universal white privilege? Do white people simply have to admit that life is harder for non-white people? Or is there a danger that our fascination with ‘white privilege’ is re-racialising society?