Michael Smerconish did a feature on White Privilege today on CNN. It was excellent and reminded me of this piece I’d written on White Privilege about 4 years ago. Check it out if you like this sort of thing.
A White, Male Psychologist Reflects on White Privilege
I’m a white male writing about white privilege. This irony makes the task all the more challenging.
Gyda Swaney asked if I would write this piece. This brings me mixed feelings. I am honored. I met Gyda in 1981 and I like and respect her as a person and as a Native American leader in Montana. But the fact that she thinks I might have something useful to say to psychologists about white privilege is humbling. Rarely have I been asked to write about something I know so well and understand so little.
The challenge begins with the definition. White privilege is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see McIntosh, 1988 or 2001 for more on this).
As a white, male, psychologist, and university professor, I’m pretty much a white privilege poster boy. Consequently, white privilege, by definition, is generally invisible to me . . . although I do occasionally glimpse it from the corner of my eye or notice its shadow if I sneak up on it when it’s not looking. In fact I think I just saw it – as evidenced by my certainty that I can write a sentence as silly as this last one and get it published in the Montana Psych Association Newsletter.
Like most things invisible (think UFOs, Harry Potter with his invisibility cloak on, ghosts) white privilege is problematic and controversial. This is because white privilege is not always invisible; it’s selectively invisible. It’s obvious to many (e.g., oppressed minorities), but beyond the awareness of those who are busily experiencing the luxury of their unearned assets.
Common Responses to White Privilege
This brings up what may be the most fascinating and disturbing component of white privilege: When the idea of white privilege is brought to the attention of those to whom it’s invisible, it typically evokes a response of defensiveness combined with anger, hostility, outrage, and occasionally guilt. And as we know from our work in psychology, dealing with people who are feeling angry, hostile, outraged, and guilty is very difficult.
There’s something about white privilege that has the potential to make everyone angry.
Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.
Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.
Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.
There are no easy ways to make white privilege quickly materialize and become visible. The resistance and pain associated with being told: “You’ve got unearned assets” is natural, partly because most people hold the perception that they’ve worked very hard to get what they deserve. Here’s a short list of ideas:
- Teaching and learning about Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start. One of the items from her knapsack is:
“I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of my race.”
- Damn. That’s a nice privilege.
- Teaching and learning about white privilege can be dangerous and so courage is another important factor in dealing with white privilege. Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung (2009) titled their commentary in the American Psychologist, “Teaching White Privilege to White Students Can Mean Saying Good-bye to Positive Student Evaluations.” When I recently posted about white privilege on my blog, I received one response that was so rabidly irrational it was frightening. Speaking out against the status quo always risks blowback.
- A big part of the solution is to stop clinging to ideas about white superiority and instead, openly embrace and value the lessons we learn from other cultures. We should actively seek out other cultural perspectives. That isn’t about making the other culture better than ours . . . it just places it on the same, equal cultural footing where it belongs.
- It’s also important to work on calming our anxiety over displacement from the top of the economic and power pyramid. We all get displaced someday; denying reality is dysfunctional. Actively sharing power along with values of egalitarian personal and community relationships is functional. This is part of the very important personal and communal work we need to do.
In closing, I’m painfully aware that I write this short column from a position of unearned privilege in a cabin on former Crow country on the beautiful Stillwater River; thank you Gyda Swaney, for handing me this challenge and opportunity.
John Sommers-Flanagan (Ph.D., 1986, University of Montana) is a clinical psychologist and counselor educator at the University of Montana. His blogsite, featuring material on counseling, psychotherapy, and parenting is at: johnsommersflanagan.com.