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A brief history of white privilege

Here's how white privilege went from an obscure theory to a cultural meme. 


Zaron Burnett III


Posted on Sep 17, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 2:04 pm CDT

All human life is bound by paradox. All of our creations bear this stamp. The Internet is no different. It offers us vast new opportunities to encounter harassment, abuse, and trauma, and equally, it’s a vital battle ground for social justice and cultural progress. One of the most lively conversations happening courtesy of the Internet is the wide discussion about white privilege.

Consider a service like Twitter, which functions like a performance-enhancing drug. Our social media provides a sudden muscular advantage to spread messages normally pushed to the margins. As you’ve most likely seen on Tumblr, or read on a post on Facebook, the poet Audre Lorde once cautioned us, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The good news is that the Internet has no master. Even as Twitter has been leveraged to topple a corrupt regime, to shine a spotlight on the shameful behavior of a celebrity, to bring awareness to an emerging crisis, it can be the perfect tool to destroy something as entrenched as a centuries-old institution like white privilege. And it’s about time.

After decades of oft-ignored debate, a growing awareness of systemic American racism has spread across social media and online comments sections to the point that terms like white privilege have become nearly universal on the Internet. In fact, the critique of white privilege has strengthened to the point it’s jumped offline and entered our pop cultural conversation with the vengeance of ignored history. In ways few would have ever expected when white privilege met the Internet, it’s thrived as an galvanizing new form of criticism. If you’re white, it’s likely you’ve been told online that you need to check your privilege.

In his acclaimed essay on reparations for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates weighed the heart of American racism, and called it by its true name, white privilege. Benefiting from this new, high profile legitimacy, and thanks to the cogent analysis of Coates, the concept of white privilege has caught the attention of cultural dinosaurs like Fox’s Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, who, of course, reflexively deny its existence. Yet, tellingly, they obviously feel a very dire need to reassure their viewers that white privilege doesn’t actually exist. In a curious twist, Bill O’Reilly’s campaign to dismiss white privilege as a myth has effectively done the opposite and given it more and spawned a vigorous new debate online about white privilege. It’s still true: There’s no such thing as bad press, not even for white privilege.

In August, O’Reilly made the fatal miscalculation of spawning weeks of online discussion after he debated fellow Fox News talking head, Megyn Kelly. Using an impressive machine gun efficiency, she returned fire and assaulted O’Reilly’s position with a barrage of statistics that enumerated and demonstrated ways black Americans suffer from a system predicated on white supremacy, a surprising turn from Megyn Kelly. His response: To compare the struggles of black Americans with the experiences of Asian Americans, pointing out that recent immigrants are not “in a troubled situation.” After their debate, the next day, Bill O’Reilly clarified his thinking:

Talking Points does not, does not believe in white privilege. However, there is no question that African-Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do. […] One caveat, the Asian-American experience historically has not been nearly as tough as the African-American experience. Slavery is unique and it has harmed black Americans to a degree that is still being felt today.

It almost reads like a concession speech, but since he’s Bill O’Reilly, he couldn’t resist adding further clarification:

The race hustlers blame white privilege, an unfair society, a terrible country…Until personal responsibility and a cultural change takes place, millions of African-Americans will struggle, and their anger, some of it justified, will seethe.

His antics have continued over the weeks since his initial tantrum and show no signs of stopping. Despite O’Reilly’s calls for personal responsibility, white privilege is our social responsibility because no one person created it, and no one person can defeat it. It is a persistent reality. It’s historical and remains a pernicious problem, one that eviscerates any hope of ethnic equality in America.

I’m sure this may surprise some, but I don’t blame white people for American racism. I singularly blame white privilege. It’s the idea—not the people—that affects everything. You can forgive a person, but how do you forgive a racist ideology? White privilege is why Black Americans seethe with anger and struggle for justice and curse our unfair society. It’s why Ferguson erupted as a sudden flashpoint and nexus of Black protest. It’s why foreign nationals peer at our news and from the outside they see white privilege as a clear and present danger in American society; meanwhile, we still debate its existence internally.

Thanks to all of the recent high profile examples of police brutality around the nation, it’s increasingly difficult to agree with people like Bill O’Reilly. Our long hot summer of American racism has focused the nation’s attention on the underlying ideology that motivates police violence. In photographs from Ferguson, the visual parallels were a painful mirror of events that took place fifty years ago. The echoes and the lack of advancement of American culture were equally undeniable.

It was during the Civil Rights era when two writers and public intellectuals, Ted Allen and Noel Ignatiev, considered the fathers of white privilege theory, published a pamphlet, White Blindspot, that demanded the abolition of whiteness. They focused their gaze on American racism, not from the usual angle that examines how it damages the lives of people of color, but rather in terms of how it benefits white people. This was a radical shift. Decades later, when a Harvard professor openly advocated for the extinction of whiteness, their once radical idea was suddenly, marginally newsworthy, and it entered the cultural conversation.

Today, savvy news organizations are well aware of the current shift in public opinion as it’s expressed online. This is why outlets like Salon, Huffington Post, and DailyKos reflect that change in worldview and regularly publish articles analyzing the effects of systemic racism. Even Buzzfeed created a viral listicle confronting white privilege.

Naturally, in response to all this increased attention it receives both offline and online, conservative personalities still like to declare they will never apologize for their white privilege. Right-wing sites, like NationalReviewOnline, tend to cheer that sort of throwback braggadocio, but mostly, they’re satisfied with lampooning the concept of “white privilege.” They agree with Bill O’Reilly that it’s a ridiculous fallacy and treat it as such. This is a mistake on their part.

Once there’s a critical mass of awareness, once there’s a consensus opinion online about human decency, it quickly shapes the cultural conversation offline as well. Our online exchanges hasten popular opinion into a vibrant critical mass, far faster than someone like Bill O’Reilly seems to understand. At the moment, he and those like him are on the losing side of history. If Twitter can help topple a government, just as easily, it can also help erase a centuries-long tradition, like white privilege. As the debate over systemic American racism illustrates, the Internet is our digital hammer. It can be used to repair the master’s house, or just as easily it will destroy it.

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 17, 2014, 12:00 pm CDT