Privilege and “Guilt” (UPDATED)

Over the past couple of days, I have participated in several heated discussions on Facebook regarding white privilege, largely inspired by these two articles:

Some people are politely skeptical of the idea, while other are very actively hostile towards it. All I’m really trying to say is that as a white person, there’s a lot I don’t know, and we should all try listening now and then. Maybe I’m still stuck in Stage 3 as described in nance’s article, or maybe not. I’m just going to reprint some of my comments from Facebook below without any further editing, in case I need to bring them up again.


No one is saying that people with privilege should feel guilty. In fact, the only people who routinely mention “guilt” are the privileged people insisting that they refuse to feel guilty about the circumstances of their lives, which makes me think they doth protest too much.

You are focusing on your intent, which might not be in any way malicious–but that doesn’t mean that well-meaning people with privilege can’t cause harm. (In fact, the well-meaning can often cause great deals of harm.) You have to look at it from the point of view of a person being harmed. Would you care if the person actively harming you was being malicious or not? Probably not–I know I’d want the harm to stop first, and maybe then we could all chat about it.


I think that a lot of white people (not all, so all special snowflakes chill out) have come to define the word “racism” in a very narrow sense, i.e. if you’re not burning crosses on someone’s lawn or segregating water fountains, you’re not a “racist.” By that definition, it is pretty hurtful to be called a racist. I’ve also heard people claim that *any* act of prejudice by a member of one race towards one or more members of another race is “racism,” and that is such a broad definition as to be meaningless (if we are all racists, then none of us are racists.)

For a long time, I did not accept the third definition of racism, which is “prejudice + power.” I thought it was just a cleverly-conceived way of limiting racism to prejudice against non-white people blah blah blah. But here’s the thing: not all prejudice is created equal. To be blunt, if a person of color disparages me because of my race, it may hurt my feelings, and it might have some bigger impact on my life, but that’s about as far as it is likely to go. There is simply no vast history of racism in that direction, nor is our society built to a large extent on racism pointing in the other direction. Put even more bluntly, if a person of color is mean to me, there is a very good chance that the rest of society will have my back, but the opposite is not true. To put it as bluntly as I can think of, “reverse racism” can’t hurt me in any way that even remotely compares to how racism has hurt and continues to hurt people of color. And it doesn’t matter if we meant to hurt anyone, if we actively participated in racism or simply reap the benefits decades later. It only matters if we don’t at least try to make it better, or not make it worse. The first step is accepting the reality of privilege with a little dignity, and not acting like it’s some sort of imposition–because it’s not. It is literally the *least* we, as white people, can do.


Finally (I’m done with Facebook reprints now), here’s a quote from Marilyn Frye that offers a good analogy (h/t Ruby):

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

The whole essay is here.

For another interesting analysis of competing definitions of “racism,” see this post.

UPDATE (03/25/2014): In the comments, noncers pointed out that having privilege does not imply that any individual person has a good or easy life. I wrote a post about this topic back in January, I think also after a Facebook argument: “Your Life Can Still Suck Even If You Have Privilege.”


2 thoughts on “Privilege and “Guilt” (UPDATED)

  1. I’m particularly drawn to your third Facebook quote because that was a common argument I heard from white folks who read the series — that white people are the recipients of racism in the SAME way as people of color and it made me wish I had touched on that a little.

    Also would have liked to address the other common argument I heard regarding the white person with a hard life. Just because you have a rough life doesn’t mean you aren’t privileged. It just means you have a rough life.

    Anyhow, fun to read some of your thoughts! And I enjoyed the Frye excerpt – hadn’t read it before. Thanks!

    • That’s a really good point about how privilege =/= a universally easy life, and I think that’s one of the most common misconceptions about this issue. I wrote a post about that very issue a few months ago. I’ll update this post to include a link.

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