I don’t much like the term “white privilege.” Mainly the term strikes me as an interpersonal framework that gets substituted on when talking about structural oppression. It also carries an assumption of being necessarily a positive or beneficial thing to the one who has in, an assumption that I think hinders people from actually understanding what folks in anti-racism are trying to talk about when they talk about how white supremacy works on white individuals. I’ve written at length about this before (on a now defunct personal blog), but I wanted to sketch out some more thoughts on the subject.

Clearly one needs to be able to talk about how white supremacy affects individuals. At the same time, I think we can do this without sacrificing the ability of the language we use to also be scaled up into talking about how white supremacy functions on a structural level. I sometimes rely on inheritance to do this work for a number of reasons:

  1. You can inherit a multiplicity of things. One could inherit a broke-down jalopy or a Porsche. One might inherit the home of a hoarder and all the shit within or a 5 story mansion with an amazing art collection. Just because one is inheriting something doesn’t mean one’s relationship to the inherited thing is necessarily a positive one. One might be resentful, extremely grateful, burdened, or completely consumed by something one inherits. This multiplicity in the ways one relates to the things one inherits is useful for challenging the notion that when we talk about how white supremacy affects white individuals it is necessarily in a way that is beneficial to white people as “privilege” often seems to connote for most people. I frequently say that “white supremacy makes white people stupid,” and I mean this because it does. One need only look at the recent (and roundly lambasted) review in the Economist of Edward Baptist’s new book on slavery, the recurring books every decade that “prove” whites have higher IQ’s than black people (Also, the most recent version of this is quite fittingly named A Troublesome Inheritance, though perhaps the author and I would disagree why this is so troubling), and does anybody remember the “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” post that came out on Forbes’ website in 2011 where a white man revealed his complete ignorance about what life as a poor black child might actually be like while also revealing how white supremacist fantasies about black childhood are enduring? White people—and fairly educated white people at that—continue reproducing ideas that are simply stupid to maintain given the information we have from the intellectual work and testimonies of black people. White people stupidly continue projects to “prove” that the effects of white supremacy on black people are black people’s fault and that white people are, in fact, our saviors. Only people educated to trust in themselves as experts on black people’s lives while distrusting black people as intelligent enough to produce histories worth learning could continue on this course of stupidity even as their arguments are repeatedly revealed to be stupid.
  2. Inheritance suggests an accumulation or reception of some sort. It is an accumulation or reception of something one did not acquire but is gifted regardless which, in turn, adds to the collection of things one possesses. While inheritance has a certain economic lilt to it, I don’t think it’s too difficult to recognize how inheritance is utilized as a concept in fields like biology, for instance, and extend that into a social understanding of inheritance. Some people inherit social traits like bullying from an older sibling, for instance. And what is networking but the inheritance of certain possibly beneficial relationships due to one’s relation with another? Inheritance, to me, seems more primed for thinking about networks and relations that enable certain kinds of accumulation or gifts to be exchanged.
  3. This individual accumulation can be scaled up to think about how inheritance has functioned structurally within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. For most middle class white people, one’s inheritance is probably not enough to catapult one into the 1%, though it may be enough for a down payment on a modest home, or to send you to college debt free. Even for those whose inheritance is not exorbitant, it is useful to think about how inheritance has functioned as one of the main ways of maintaining wealth and power in a white supremacist society. There is the ability to continue accumulation of wealth from a previous generation where even for middle class black folks, the accumulation of financial capital seems to be something each generation has to do on its own. Poor white people are, of course, not privy to the perpetual accumulation of wealth that middle class and wealthy white people are, yet we must ask, what is it about the promise of whiteness, the obligation that whiteness as capital produces, that continues to undercut attempts at coalition between those who are economically oppressed? That is, might we also think about whiteness as a social accumulation that pays off in a psychic way? I think this is something James Baldwin tries to get at. What are the psychic and spiritual conditions of a white supremacist society such that it is necessary to create the “nigger”? Inheritance, in my view, gets at the idea of their being some kind of a pay off without necessarily prescribing that pay off as something we should aspire to receive. It seems fairly neutral morally in a way that allows some flexibility for thinking creatively about what we might want to do with these inheritances and how we might want to refuse them, or pawn them off, or sell them, or give them away, etc.

I’m sure there are more reasons I could name for why I think this is a useful way of talking about how white individuals are affected by white supremacy but I’ll stop here. Also, I am not trying to stop people from using the word “privilege” as much as I am trying to stop people from using the word “privilege” all the time. There are contexts where it seems like the most apt description. My point here, though, is that we need to have several tools in our intellectual toolboxes. If we can only talk about something in one way, it really inhibits our ability to respond to situations that aren’t as clear about how white supremacy is working on individual white people.

So what do you all think? Is inheritance as useful a way of talking about white supremacy’s effects on white people as privilege? What are some problems you all see in talking about white supremacy’s effect on white individuals in this way?

8 thoughts

  1. I really appreciate this language, Amaryah. I think it cuts through the often vague and statistically-based notions of “privilege” and allows for diversity within different groups. As you noted, white privilege for, say, a descendant of Sam Walton is quite different than white privilege for someone who grew up in a mobile home.

    On the other hand, I wonder if “inheritance” has its own problems, specifically dealing with the ability for one to “shed inheritance” or “give away inheritance.” Due the economic nature of the language, I could see metaphors like this come into play, and, obviously, such metaphors would be quite dangerous.

    But, perhaps, this is a strength of the terminology–so one can get into a discussion about what inheritance is, and what parts of your inheritance–such as biological–you can’t give away.

    Anyway, just some quick thoughts. Thanks for the excellent post!

  2. I think think this is an excellent way to think about how our common history has affected us. I especially like the inheritance may or may not be sought, but it still IS. It seems that it is language that can be use together with privilege in that an inheritance can grant privilege as well, though it may grant (or remove) more.

    What also strikes me is that Eastern Christian theology does not typically speak of an “original” sin but “ancestral” sin. It is meant to encompass the ideas that we are born into a world in which sin is something we learn from our ancestors, something we inherit. White supremacy is the particular inheritance of some of us, and like all distributions of ‘wealth’ it affects both the possessors and non-possessors.

  3. People talk about a “cultural inheritance” as well–usually in a positive way vis-a-vis the songs, stories, art, way of seeing the world, etc. that people born into a particular culture receive. Even if as a poor white person you didn’t inherit as much in the economic sense, you will most likely inherit some shared cultural capital that will connect you advantageously to other whites.

    Also, I think inheritance in the biological sense you mention near the beginning can also function re: others’ visual perception of one’s skin color. Certain inherited traits communicate certain messages to animals of the same species and some of those traits give the individual animals born with them a leg up in terms of thriving & survival. In a kind of social Darwinism, the biological phenomenon of white or lighter skin color is perceived as socially advantageous in a racist society regardless of one’s economic status (although some of those “advantages” may be revoked or minimized upon perception of the non-biological, e.g. class).

  4. It is a useful tool but in popular usage I think it runs into a similar problem as privilege: inheritances are usually a good thing. Especially in Christian culture, an inheritance is a bonus to the possessor. I like the receivedness you point out and the structural connotations, but to me it’s not much different. It doesn’t communicate an innate danger or moral failing -necessitating your first point to draw out that possibility.
    I wonder if your description of the “obligation of whiteness” might be a term used to create reflection upon the demands of whiteness and its effects; a phrase more morally neutral. You could be born in to “white obligation” .“White obligation” tells you to think this way, requires you to act in a certain way, etc. It might not have to fight preexisting associations. That phrase struck me.

  5. Great minds are thinking alike it seems. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Drew Hart but he wrote a similar post on his Christian Century blog questioning the usefulness of “white privilege” as well: http://drewgihart.com/2014/09/09/beyond-white-privilege-full-text-is-at-taking-jesus-seriously/

    I can appreciate the need for concepts beyond privilege, which has strong positive associations and which, in theological spheres, can be associated with blessing or grace: receiving a gift that one does not deserve but for which one is nevertheless thankful. I guess I wonder if “inheritance” might not run into the same issues because of similar theological frameworks. (For example: Ephesians 1:11-12 — In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.)

    I agree it is important to refresh our language and continue digging deep into our intellectual toolbox. I continue to struggle for a verbiage that connotes the problem with white privilege. One of the things I talked about recently was that the difference between white privilege and and a blessing is that a blessing is something that God gives freely to all while white privileges are an accumulation benefits afforded to some due to an idolatrous perspective white (or male, wealthy, etc) people. Idolatry may only have traction in some religious circles, but I wonder if that isn’t the kind of word that is needed in Christian circles to get to the heart of the problem.

  6. I’m going to use “racial inheritance” or something like that this semester in certain contexts and see how it goes. I have also thought understanding whiteness as a (structurally) self-imposed limitation or disability is useful instead of the more palatable WP. There’s the risk a white martyr industrial complex though, “oh look how senseless (blind, deaf, etc.) we are, let’s consume shit to make up for this loss” which can ultimately lead to voyuerism and/or appropriation. It can also easily put whiteness into the role of “oppressed” but maybe there are proper contexts for it, maybe not. Thanks.

  7. Hi Amaryah,

    I am surprised that there wasn’t as much interaction with this post. I want to know, if we shift the discussion of White Supremacy to that of inheritance, how will that change the way we talk about negative tropes and stereotypes deployed against Black people and other POC when it comes to justifying oppression?

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