According to the true believers who need to replace the concept of original sin, White Privilege is akin to having been born rich with an inside pass to anything that’s desirable. Supposedly doors are always open for you in employment, banks are willing to lend you money, your neighborhoods magically improve, police give you benefit of the doubt.
Whenever an idealist tries to reconcile the beliefs of a dogmatic equalist religion with the reality of achievement gaps and the like they can fall back on the original sin of white people to answer the questions that can never be answered. ‘Check your privilege’ and ‘Jesus died for your sins’ are fundamentally the same statement in my book.
White privilege is, however, just a poor answer to the real question behind the theology. Why do White People get to win all the time?
This is about winning in the way Donald Trump would define winning, what Charlie Sheen meant in his tiger blood rants. To conquer a nation, to spread your culture, your language the ideal for your institutions is to win. To have members from your tribe behind most of the world’s inventions and consequential moments in history is to win. To have the faces of people who look like you associated with birth of the modern world is to win.
If you’re a cis-gendered white male the consequential history of the world involved people who look like you as a large proportion of those actors. The men who created the intellectual framework for the modern world, the explorers who planted their flags across the planet and even on the moon. The men who managed the great military enterprises, who enacted great evil and then stopped it. The woman held up as icons of beauty look come from the same stock that produced your mother or your sister. Most of your kind were scut labor and cannon fodder but it doesn’t change the fact that you can feel kinship to a tribe that always had a key role.
This isn’t about who got an unfair advantage (see Guns, Germs and Steel) or who secretly influenced these events, because they’re irrelevant. This is about who’s myths were spread through the world and who’s faces are associated with the agency to change the world.
To make a specific comparison…
After the revolution, America lost the Royal Navy’s protection from piracy and the slave trade. John Adams was content to pay the ‘Barbary Nations’ tribute for protection of the young nation’s commerce on the high seas, but the Barbary Nations kept increasing their required bribe. Thomas Jefferson, who’d met the ambassador from Tripoli had no such reservations. When he was elected President of the young nation, he sent the navy across the Atlantic Ocean to bombard Tripoli. Tensions were high through the war of 1812. When the hostilities ceased, America turned its’ attention to Algeria and keeping the Mediterranean free for American commerce. President Madison delivered the following words to establish his nation’s future policy to the Barbary States: “It is a settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute. The United States, while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none.” In 1815 the United States navy turned the corsair fleet in Tripoli to splinters, got compensation (really a ransom) from Algeria and the release of captured American Slaves. In short, a White America won a transatlantic piracy and slave war by terrifying the former foe into submission through strength.
The slave trade on the western coast of Africa was started by who wanted cheap, malaria resistant labor for the sugar cane fields. It went along roughly from the 1400s to the 1800s when Europeans, feeling bad about enslaving Africans ended the slave trade. The British passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The Africans who were the primary victims of the conflict, played a minor role in it. No African nation had the ability to build ships, let alone man them or send them across an Ocean. They had no ability to form and equip military forces who could defend their shores. They couldn’t form any political alliances to slow the slave trade which was essentially ended when white people, feeling shame about the barbaric nature of the trade ended it. The Royal Navy freed thousands of slaves after the imposition of the Slavery Abolition Act because they owned the most powerful navy on the planet and nobody else could do anything about it. Moral imperatives mean nothing if you don’t have the strength to back them up. Compared to America’s conclusive handling of Barbary Coast piracy, Africans remained pawns and objects of struggles determined by other people. The heroic narrative in this bottle was hogged, primarily, by European peoples.
The point isn’t about the merits of either group or the evils of slavery or to deny the minor acts of heroism within this grand saga. The point is that the main villains and heroes involved with the saga in Africa, the ones in the history books, weren’t Africans. To say that the history books are biased may be true, but the winners in the narrative get to write the history books.
This was true of the colonial and post-colonial periods which saw both great exploitation and humanitarian projects at the same time. The King of Belgium used mercenaries to turn the Congo into his personal rubber plantation because he could, and he was only compelled to give it up because of international pressure from other European nations. Again, Africans native to the Congo played a passive role in this mass drama in grand historical narrative. Other people conquered them and then a new a group came to ‘liberate’ them, or enslave them in passive aggressive ways.
This is just an example though. If you need to reassure me that there were great African heroes in this struggle that were ignored by history, you may be right, but it doesn’t matter. There were heroes in the Congo who had their own epic struggles against the coastal slavers or the rapacious colonialists but that doesn’t change the grand narrative. A powerful people exploited Africa because they could and they stopped because public opinion had turned against them. Africans got freedom without the sweet victory of defeating their foes. In short, they didn’t win.
Think of the history of Africans and Blacks in America… What historic narratives are they part of where they’re the protagonists of the story? The narratives were another group depended upon them against an evil or a disaster. Think of the narratives that you learned about in elementary school. Which of those stories present anything other than a group of victims struggling to show dignity? Which of those stories are equivalent to the narrative about the founding of the nation, the Apollo Program, the American military machine in WWII, the conquest of the Western Frontier. Don’t look into who was robbed or how complex it was, think at the basic level of who was winning and who wasn’t. To be invited to the party isn’t winning.
The civil rights movement is probably the closest example and even that was a campaign to guilt enough white people to side against others. They conquered no nation to remake in their own image, the only real leadership that was given was related to racial matters in divisive partisan politics. As a victory, it was pyrrhic one.
I think this is the real blind spot with White people talking about white privilege. They might trot out a story about a figure like Jackie Robinson being a hero, but where’s the heroic narrative in that tale? Everyone knew that blacks could play baseball in the 1940s, Robinson’s job was to play and act dignified against bile thrown his way. That’s not the story of a man vanquishing a foe, that’s the tale of a man invited to party, where some of the guests didn’t want him there and remaining a polite party guest despite it.
White people like that story because they are, again, the main protagonists of the story inviting an outsider into their club and proving their own insight and it suggests that, deep down, Jackie Robinson wanted to be like them. Compared to Robinson, Jack Johnson really broke ‘the color barrier’ by living an unapologetically epic life on his own terms during the early 1900s in America, but his story isn’t part of the zeitgeist that I absorbed in a relatively liberal public school system.
Hearing cries of white guilt probably does nothing to fill that void. Offering to give up privilege and invite outsiders to the party only reminds them who has the real power in the transaction and exactly where you stand in the pecking order. I don’t, for a second, believe that any of this is intentional. If the history of the world involves people that you can identify with on more than idealistic grounds, you’re probably ignorant of the fact that not everyone has this tapestry to imagine themselves a part of.
I think this is where the outrages over ‘cultural appropriation’ come from. On logical grounds, the idea that white people are ‘stealing’ rap music or taking a culture to market it make no sense, but it think about it from the perspective of who’s winning.
More than any other export industry that I can think of, hip-hop was black top to bottom. The moguls were black, the start talent was black, the genius producers were black, the venue owners were black. The branding geniuses and apparel marketers were largely black. The media outlets that grew to cover rap were heavily black. Most other industries were founded by others and accepted blacks into their ranks. That’s not a narrative about winning, that’s a narrative about finally getting invited the happy hour that always wanted to be part of. The rap industry, for the most part, was founded and owned by blacks in America. It spread a style and culture that came from their neighborhoods, that wasn’t. The fear is of no longer dominating a sphere of influence in a world were white people are perceived to dominate everything. Logically it’s an inane lament, but emotionally it makes perfect sense.
Before he started sermonizing in polemics about reparations, Ta-nehisi Coates was an interesting journalist who wrote an article about Bill Cosby’s personal quest for black Americans to adopt upstanding middle-class behavioral norms. I won’t get into debates about hypocrisy or privilege that surrounded it other than to state that I think he truly meant it. Coates highlighted a quote that stuck with me ever since where Cosby told a friend ‘I’m tired of losing to White People’. Cosby wanted a black achievement that everyone else would envy: a black owned company that was the envy of the industry, a black neighborhood that everyone else wanted to move into. Being considered good enough to join institutions founded by whites so that white people can brag to each other about it doesn’t count as winning.
The lament from ‘marginalized’ groups isn’t about not getting invited to the party but about wanting to be the main actors in the heroic narratives that shape the world. They’re on the outside wondering ‘when do we get to win?’ ‘When do get to be on the inside with everyone else looking at us with envy?’
White Privilege isn’t about illusory advantages passed down from a society forged by your ancestors but about never having asked that question.