White privilege

White privilege: for people with white privilege, whiteness works like an invisible knapsack full of advantages.

“The unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white” – Peggy McIntosh

The problem with privileges is that they are mostly invisible to those who have them. This is partly due to the fact that many people hear the word privilege and immediately think of silver spoons and private planes. But that is not what it is about. Privilege means that I belong to the “right” (read: dominant) group and therefore –through no merit of my own – have advantages in many situations where others do not.

Whiteness is a privilege that white people cannot see. Peggy McIntosh describes whiteness as an “invisible knapsack,” as a package of unearned assets that white people do not notice but use every day.

Take the privilege of never having to think about the colour of one’s skin, for example: if a white person doesn’t get a job or a flat, they do not have to wonder if it might have had something to do with their skin colour. Or if that is why they were stopped by the police. A white person planning a weekend excursion or holiday does not have to consider which destinations would be safe for them as a white person. It even affects everyday things, like buying a plaster for a wound; a white individual can be fairly certain that the product resembles the skin tone of a person with white privilege. For in this system, whiteness is the norm and the invisible standard, and non-whiteness is a deviation.

The invisible standard

To those who experience racial discrimination, whiteness is not an invisible norm but an ongoing topic. Yet those possessed of white privilege find this normative position difficult to grasp. This comes despite the fact that it is both present and reflected everywhere in this country: in the media, in advertising, in university chairs, in the Bundestag and the boardroom. Though nearly all of these positions are held by people possessed of white privilege, they are oblivious to their own homogeneity.

Therefore, the aim of critical whiteness studies is to unmask white privilege, and also to alert the privileged to the fact that the colour of their skin is not invisible, but on the contrary has just as much impact on their life situation as it does for Black people or People of Colour. With one fundamental difference: whereas some are discriminated against because of their appearance or supposed ethnicity, others experience privilege.

Culture studies scholar Richard Dyer explains the purpose of this making-visible in clear terms:

“As long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people”

Whiteness as social construct

Contrary to popular belief, whiteness is not anchored in biology or genetics, but a social construct that emerged in the 17th century, when the biological concept of race was introduced to the European sciences. It was only then that people began to hierarchize groups of people on the basis of phenotypical (i.e. external) characteristics. The invention of “race” – especially in the heyday of colonialism in the 19th century – was used as a justification for subjugation, exploitation, and enslavement.

National Socialists would take this European Enlightenment-era mode of thought and action to the extreme in the 20th century.

20th and 21st century developments in genetics, anthropology, and biology have shown the scientific classification of people based on racial characteristics to be untenable. Studies have shown, for example, that individuals within a group defined as a “race” are often more genetically unlike than two individuals of different “races”.

‍Race – a floating signifer?

There are no “human races” in any purely scientific sense. So why does racism still exist? One of the clearest answers to this question appears in Stuart Hall’s much-cited lecture Race, the Floating Signifier:

“Differences exist in the world. But what matter are the systems of thought and language we use to make sense of those differences.”

Hall explains that there are distinctions in the world. However, the significance of these differences is not determined by their biology or DNA, but by the way in which we choose to read and interpret them. In other words, the differences we deem relevant, how we judge their relevance and in what way, is not a matter of biology/genetics, but of our culture, our society, and our history.

Our white history and culture have conditioned us to make some things visible and others invisible. Consequently, liberal whites in particular are often unable to see how their own patterns of thought and action serve to reinforce white privilege. Tupoka Ogette writes:

“We grew up in a world that has had racism deep in its bones for over three hundred years. So deep that there is no space in which it does not appear. And just by living in that world, you became part of the system. Through the way you learned to talk and think about yourself and others: through children’s books you were read, through the digital media you consumed from a young age, your schoolbooks… everything. In short, you have been racially socialized. Like many, many generations before you for over three hundred years.”

White fragility: Or why white people don’t like to talk about white privilege

An article by Robin DiAngelo, the sociologist offers a vivid descriptions of how difficult it is to discuss white privilege with white-privileged people in workshops or seminars. Because:

1. White people are unaccustomed to being categorized on the basis of skin colour, but are rather used to be being perceived as individuals without a defining trait. Discussions about white privilege alert them to the fact that they are not simply “people”, but white people. This means they are not exempt from social designation on the basis of ethnic traits. And this designation gives them special status.

2. The word “privilege” feels wrong to many white people who are economically disadvantaged, for example. Because of this, it is important that discussions about white privilege also take intersectionality into account: white privilege does not mean that you cannot be structurally disadvantaged in other social categories or that your life is free of difficulties. It only means that the colour of your skin is not the cause of your problems.

DiAngelo describes the emotionally charged, defensive reactions people with white privilege show in debates about racism or discussions of their privilege as an expression of “white fragility”. According to DiAngelo, whites are “fragile” because they never experience the stress of racism in the United States (or Germany, for that matter).

When “forced” to confront their own racist ways of thinking and acting in a conversation or seminar, they show white fragility: these reactions are usually expressed by individuals blocking out the content, becoming very emotional (often angry or defensive), relativising experiences of racism by Black people or People of Colour or attempting to leave the situation as quickly as possible, as they perceive it to be unpleasant or unbearable.

These reactions cause those affected by racism to stop sharing their experiences for fear of being attacked for doing so.

Moreover, the emotional reaction leads to a shift in focus: the discussion no longer revolves around the experiences of people affected by racism, but about the feelings of those not affected. As Richard Dyer writes:

“White people need to learn to see themselves as white, to see their particularity. […] There is a political need to do this, but there are also problematic political feelings attendant on it, which need to be briefly signaled in order to be guarded against. Writing about whiteness gives white people the go-ahead to write and talk about what in any case we have always talked about: ourselves.”

For debates around white privilege to bring about change, it is important not to individualize racism, but rather to understand it as a social structure that affects people differently.

*White is a problematic term, as it essentializes whiteness. That said, I use it in some places in this blog article to refer to people possessed of white privilege and its specific effects.

**This blog article italicizes the word white by way of illustrating the constructed nature of the term. It is written in lower case because unlike designations such as Black and People of Colour, it is not a politically empowering self-designation, but the specific designation of a privileged positioning. I take Lann Hornscheidt’s lead in this respect.

Anne Graefer, “Die (Un)Sichtbare Norm: Was Ist Eigentlich White Privilege?” GenderIQ, July 22, 2020. https://www.genderiq.de/blog/was-ist-eigentlich-white-privilege.

Anne Graeffer, Founder of GenderIQ I Diversity & Inclusion

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