Valid social theories and constructs often go through a period of rebranding and adjustment, coming out the other side misunderstood and used in a form antithetical to their original intent — or they become a punch line. Attempts to deflect attention away from valid constructs are insidious and intentional. As relevant as any example is white privilege — a concept that properly understood illuminates social realities — but when distorted, further entrenches discriminatory attitudes. Those most uncomfortable with the implications have not only turned it into a sarcastic punch line — they use it as a cudgel to attack anyone illuminating a foundational aspect of American life.
The following myths have arisen during the reframing of white privilege:
The myth that privilege means privileged. A recurrent mechanism for disregarding white privilege is to provide an example of a white person who grew up destitute. They weren’t “privileged”, thus white privilege is a myth. Social mobility consists of a myriad of forces: gender, economic status, race, and other variables that impact social opportunity. Depending on the society, different variables can play a larger part in what forces are most relevant. The claim isn’t that being white in a culture dictated by white ideals and influence is a free ticket to the top. What is being cited are the distinct, unearned advantages of being white in American culture, as there are numerous impediments we never have to confront or even consider.
The myth that white privilege is a mechanism to elicit guilt. This myth is insidious because it allows a wholesale rejection based on little more than “How dare they make me feel guilty for something I was born into.” Understanding our social environment doesn’t demand guilt — but it does demand removing the scales from our eyes and willingness to consider the multiple forces that make up our social fabric. The only justifiable guilt is that which follows a period of willful blindness — or an intentional disregard for the way oppression reverberates through history and impacts our current culture.
The Oprah/Obama myth. (If they became successful, it’s evidence white privilege is a myth.) A society cannot be measured by whether a few make it in spite of oppression. It may indicate progress — but progress TOWARD equality should not be confused with arrival AT equality. This particular myth is especially damaging because “in spite of” becomes redefined as “because of” — and society is praised for its structural flaws.
The myth that white privilege is a mechanism to ignore personal responsibility. Individual choices take place in a specific context and it is this environment that’s the focus of white privilege. The allegation that focusing on environmental factors is a mechanism to avoid responsibility is a seductive one. Who can deny the value of good personal choices? While personal responsibility is part of the equation, it should never be used used as a bullhorn to distract from structural inequality.
If criticizing a minority group under the cover of personal choice demanded currency — currency earned through authentic attempts to understand the historical and legal forces that impact present culture: most voices would be silenced.
The meritocracy myth. If there is an idea close to being canonized as American gospel — it’s the one that success is directly proportional to effort and talent. Those are important variables — but they are not the only ones. This myth is deeply ingrained because rejecting it means losing our identities — or understanding our success was purchased, in part, beyond the confines of our effort. Nothing chips at ego like the recognition others may have outworked us, yet are being constrained and further victimized by our self-serving cultural narratives.
Imagine ten runners at a starting line and two are burdened with thirty pound weights. If one of those two occasionally wins a race, is it proof the race was fair? Of course not, but it’s the precise narrative hoisted on us by loud, shrill voices selling rhetorical shadows.
If they chose more lightweight socks, maybe the wealth gap wouldn’t be so pronounced.
Perhaps if they didn’t choose such heavy shirts, the prison population wouldn’t be disproportionately non-white.
If they pulled harder when tying their shoelaces, their neighborhoods wouldn’t be as affected by poverty.
We strain. We grasp. Desperate to deflect the focus — casually ignoring the thirty pound weights forged in the fires of legally sanctioned discrimination and cultural attitudes.
We must have a smoother running style. How else can you explain our frequent victories?
We must have worked harder in training; they did seem more winded then us at the finish line.
Privilege is undeniably easy to ignore. It’s invisible and the ones that benefit are least inclined to acknowledge its existence. Instead we protect our identities or seek out minority voices that offer cover for our willful blindness. While we have no responsibility to feel guilt, we do have a responsibility to seek awareness and offer our voice — understanding that our willful silence is the adhesive that keeps the weights attached.