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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?