Today, the concepts of “white privilege” and “white fragility” are portrayed as facts of modern life. In truth, these are, ontologically speaking, little more than religious-like constructs—phantoms with no sociological reality. But, as practice, they are powerful political weapons.
That is not to say that there is no race prejudice or race discrimination. These are very real phenomena. To which this essay will attest.
Let’s define “privilege” in the standard way: a special right or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. Now consider a white man who doesn’t get pulled over by the cops while going about his business in a law abiding way.
In her influential essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Indivisible Knapsack,” Perry McIntosh famously uses this example: “If a traffic cop pulls me over . . . , I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.” But that is not an example of privilege. Not being singled out because of one’s race is the way things are supposed to go. As a straightforward matter of definition, not being pulled over is not a special right or immunity. It’s a liberty all individuals enjoy under the law.
McIntosh’s essay proceeds in this way. It is built upon a false premise. If there is a law that says only white people can use a certain facility, and that facility is superior to the facility black people are permitted to use, then justice demands opening access to the superior facility to persons regardless of race. Separate is not equal and thus separate facilities violate principle. The United States dismantled apartheid because equality demanded the abolition of segregation laws. If however, after granting access to all regardless of race, a white person tries to block the way for black people, then justice demands disciplining or punishing that individual.
In either case, if an individual is not enjoying a right or an immunity, and there is no legitimate reason to deny him his right, then he is the victim of an injustice. But these are different situations. In the first instance, white people enjoy a privilege: race-exclusive access to a public resource. This is a violation of the principle of equal treatment. In the second instance, white people do not enjoy an exclusive privilege; everybody enjoys the privilege. The white person denying the black person access is not acting on a privilege—he has been granted no such thing—but is engaging in an act of race discrimination. He is in fact illegally violating the black person’s privilege.
In today’s America there are no special rights or immunities based on race. The United States has determined in principle that race-based privilege is illegal (the specter of reparations haunts us, of course). Indeed, to claim there is white privilege is to assert fiction as fact. It is to act as if the previous order is the present order. To be sure, discrimination and bias are wrong, and they still exist, but they are not the result of privilege; they are its violation.
In the absence of any legal structure that privileges white people, the rhetoric of white privilege portrays a just state of affairs—a state of affairs achieved by Americans of all races—as an unjust state of affairs. An ideology transmogrifies the privilege of all law-abiding persons to go about their day unmolested—a universal right articulated in law—as a special right or immunity. In doing so, it deviantizes the status quo, a normality based upon equality, falsely portraying it as a racial privilege that implicates all whites, and then uses this false claim to demand remedies that necessarily construct a special class of persons based on race. The move commits the injustice it condemns.
Instead of focusing on the injustice of discrimination when it does occur, the pretense that apartheid exists in a different form makes the absence of prejudice and bias appear unjust. Clever language shapes this perception. The situation is de facto, we are told, even while admitting it is not de jure; its existence does not depend on what people do (there is no need to identify perpetrators in this standpoint) but rather to point to statistical averages used to construct a myth of group advantage and agency and therefore collective—and even intergenerational—responsibility.
Because this is neither rational nor constitutional (perhaps they are not always the same thing), the strategy resorts to emotionalism to gain popular support. The goal is to make those who are not likely to experience prejudice and bias in their lives (disproportionately white people) feel guilty and ashamed for enjoying the privilege all share as citizens of the United States, paradoxically but especially in light of the suffering of others they had no part in inflicting. Even the deeds of the dead are said to work through the demographics of the living.
As somebody who grew up in a Christian community in Tennessee, I understand the lure. I understand it sociologically, as well. This is powerful stuff. A man signals virtue to others in confessing his sins. Virtue signaling is morally praiseworthy. Man is a moral creature, if not always a rational one. It’s a very old attitude, one strengthened by the appeal of brokenness. After all, how can a man enjoy the ecstasy of salvation unless he is first fallen? Satan sets man back so man can transcend the barriers Satan emplaces and thus demonstrate the unfolding of righteousness. Never mind the circularity. It’s the way religion works. A man admits his privilege—his collective and inherited transgression—because he has finally seen the light and he wants others to hear his upright message. Have you heard the good news? Hallelujah! I was blind but now I see! I was asleep but now I am woke!
Like prayer, it’s a performance that imposes no costs, a soothing ritual that comes with powerful strokes and a sense of belonging. Amen, brother! Let’s make some placards and stand at the back of the crowd to show our continuing inadequacies in the face of authentic suffering. The fallen always fall shot of the glory of the righteous. Maybe later we can punch a Nazi in the nose to prove just how devoted we are (or at least defend the zealot who does). It’s amazing to be a congregant in a community of fellow travelers possessing a received doctrine revealing great and transcendent truths spoken in a ritual vocabulary that only the awakened can truly understand.
More “us” versus “them.” Being part of a religion or a religious-like movement means you get to look down on all the people who don’t get the elusive truth that you specially possess. The infidel. The heretic. The deplorable. They are weak (fragile). That’s why they resist the gospel. They’re not ready because Satan (racism) has hardened their heart. They have first to admit their problem. Only then can they get well. Their denial is proof of their sin. They need convincing. Shaming. Castigating. Call them out. And isolate them.
Such a world especially prizes is the testimonial of the stubborn man who finally came around in Bible study (the diversity and equity seminar). This is the most effective technique in brainwashing: one of your comrades, already broken, passionately tell you that your country really is the Great Satan. And since the church of white privilege is a secular religion, there is no First Amendment to protect you. They can force you as a condition of employment to come to the Jesus meeting, to memorize and chant the dogma (or mouse click boxes on computerized tutorials with contrived scenarios), and then look for signs of faith-feigning. You didn’t you use the ritual words. Rinse. Repeat. We need your eyes and ears. Dissent and risk ostracization, disciplinary action, even excommunication and banishment. If a man isn’t broken, break him. So you can fix him. Make him sick. So you can heal him.
McIntosh’s invisible knapsack is invisible for the same reason Abraham’s God is invisible. And that’s what makes it so powerful as a political movement.