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A Deep Dive into the Academic Humanities: White Privilege

As I mentioned in my first article, ‘social justice warriors’ are reported on by the media in a way that makes them seem a lot more numerous than they actually are. This is not the case in certain academic publishing spheres, some of which appear to consist exclusively of these types of people. In my most recent article, I asserted that academic publishing in the humanities has become divorced from reality, in that articles that are nothing more than postmodernist nonsense are frequently published in reputable journals. I illustrated this by giving a few examples of articles accepted by reputable journals that were either blatant hoaxes by authors trying to discredit the field or genuine articles that are completely ridiculous. The problem is that these articles are used as teaching instruments in university and are the foundation of the modern social justice movement. This didn’t convince at least one reader, who wrote:

“This article is garbage, with extreme cherry picking of its data and no concept of the different tiers of journals that actually matter versus those that are small products of irrelevant academic cliques, or market-driven bundles by publishers. As if the bad faith of the article weren’t self-evident, the “real” peer review it links to is just a series of standard tropes of the reactionary right.”

This was the most popular criticism – the failure to establish that the bad articles are actually important and/or influential. Fair enough, the examples given could have been “small products of irrelevant academic cliques”. Irrelevant in academia means few citations, no media coverage, and no real-world impact. In this series, I’ll be looking at the seminal papers for different social justice concepts and the papers that cite them. These papers are heavily referenced, are being taught in mainstream undergraduate university courses, and the concepts they introduced are now often discussed outside of academia.

A popular social justice concept is that of white privilege, which is defined in all sorts of roundabout ways in academic literature, but is generally taken to include societal privileges granted to white people in western countries, such as not being viewed as suspicious by the police. The concept has taken off to the point where Ryerson is hosting The White Privilege Conference this summer, as is Brock University. However, its academic foundations are shaky, to say the least.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.” (1988). [cited by 3660]

The most important paper on the concept of white privilege was published in 1988 by Peggy McIntosh. The original paper consisted of a list of 46 examples, which has been expanded in the various forms it has been published in. The link provided is to the 1990 version, published in Independent School. As written by The Huffington Post, “The classic work Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh now holds a place in the modern liberal canon”. The paper is actually just a list of things that Peggy McIntosh made up (no citations, no statistics) that illustrate white privilege. McIntosh’s definition of white privilege is vague from the start:

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

Below are some selected examples from the paper. Some are good, some are terrible, and some make no sense at all.

  1. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  2. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
  4. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  5. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  6. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.

These are all perfectly reasonable examples of white privilege, especially in the US in 1988. From here, it’s downhill.

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

The first entry implies that being in the company of one’s own race is preferable to being in the company of other races. Not only is this racist, the statement is not even true. Nothing prevents non-white people from associating with other people of their own race. Number 24 is also racist. It implies that if the “person in charge” is a different race, it’s a problem.

  1. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

This is completely dependent on money, not race.

  1. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  2. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.

Keeping in mind that this is an example of white privilege, McIntosh is saying that a group of visible minorities featuring one white person don’t have a choice whether or not to listen to the white person. Likewise, a group of visible minorities with one white person has to listen to the white person. This doesn’t even make sense.

  1. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.

A good argument against affirmative action. James Damore wrote the same thing in his infamous memo at Google.

  1. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
  2. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  3. I can remain oblivious to the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

These are all question marks. For 16, it’s not clear at all what penalty a non-white American would face for not knowing about other cultures of the world. In 17, McIntosh seems to think that people of color chew with their mouths full. Number 19 is way too vague. What counts as a “powerful male group”? Does she mean powerful groups that happen to be mostly male? If we’re talking about a racial issue, why bother specifying male? Who speaks in public to powerful male groups?

This paper isn’t a convincing argument, and it’s certainly not academic. It’s just one person’s argument, and it’s not even a good one. That being said, there isn’t much more to criticize, as McIntosh doesn’t make any extremely outlandish claims. The reason McIntosh has so many citations is likely that this is just the first paper about white privilege that caught on. Because McIntosh’s paper is now part of the social justice canon, her arguments are taken as completely solid when they are cited. This gives newer papers licence to make ridiculous claims. Consider the following paper published in Educational Researcher in 2006.

Blanchett, Wanda J. “Disproportionate representation of African American students in special education: Acknowledging the role of white privilege and racism.” Educational Researcher 35, no. 6 (2006): 24-28. [cited by 491]

The paper argues that a higher proportion of black students are enrolled in special education, and also face worse outcomes from special education than white students because of racism and white privilege. The premise is established as follows:

“They are 2.41 times more likely than White students to be identified as having mental retardation, 1.13 times more likely to be labeled as learning disabled, and 1.68 times as likely to be found to have an emotional or behavioral disorder”

From here, there’s a weak argument about how the misdiagnosis rate is probably higher because the assessments for these categories are made by unqualified school personnel. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, because one would expect better outcomes for black over white special needs children if they weren’t special needs in the first place.

“However, regardless of whether they are placed in the low-incidence and supposedly less subjective categories or in the high-incidence categories, African American students still experience fewer positive outcomes than their White peers”

The rest of the paper talks about how the black special education students face worse outcomes after being diagnosed as special needs. The paper gives the real reason right away: American schools are funded by local property taxes. Mostly black neighbourhoods are poorer on average, so their schools are worse. The beef here is with the way the education system is funded, not racism. The paper sets up the argument that the situation is a product of racism in the following way:

“Whites whose children attend high-quality public schools feel entitled to the education that their children receive, often at the expense of poor African American and other students of color.…The truth of the matter is, as McIntosh (1990) says, that “Whites are carefully taught not to recognize White privilege” (p. 1); and they often do not see themselves as racist because they may also have been, as McIntosh says she was, “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of a group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on [Whites] from birth” (p. 4).”

People who pay a lot of property tax feel entitled to a good school, and that certainly doesn’t apply only to white people. A reasonable argument is that some of that money should go to schools in poorer areas because the gap in school quality is unacceptably large. The second part of this quote is where things go off the rails. This is where the paper shifts from arguing about underfunded schools to arguing that the whole thing is some kind of white conspiracy. The quote from McIntosh is an extremely important argument in the paper. It is used as if white people being “taught not to recognize white privilege” is an irrefutable fact, when in reality there is no evidence to suggest that any of it is true beyond McIntosh saying so. This is hearsay, and it’s not allowed in court for good reason. Near the end, the paper throws a Hail Mary:

“Despite theory and research (e.g., Apple, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1999) asserting that the mainstream curriculum (“the official curriculum”) and pedagogical practices in use in American schools are inappropriate for use with African American learners and are purposefully employed to maintain White supremacy, these curricula and practices are still being used.”

Even though it sounds like it was written by the left-wing Alex Jones, this paper has been cited 491 times. Keeping in mind that this is academia and not tumblr, the claims made are absolutely ridiculous. It’s also completely racist to suggest that black students are incompatible with the current American curriculum. The argument would be much better if Blanchett was to give an example of part of the curriculum or a pedagogical practice that purposely maintains white supremacy, but of course she doesn’t. Time to check the sources on this one:

Apple, Michael W. Official knowledge. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000. [cited by 356]

This is a textbook (Blanchett conveniently gives no page numbers in the citation), the link only includes chapter 9. However, there’s still plenty here to criticize. He starts by setting up his arguments with a quote from John Fiske:

“Knowledge is never neutral, it never exists in an empiricist, objective relationship to the real. Knowledge is power, and the circulation of knowledge is part of the social distribution of power.”

Anyone recognize the postmodernist take here? Knowledge never exists in an objective relationship to the real. Even giving Apple the benefit of the doubt by considering this statement exclusively inside the humanities (because it’s impossible to apply this line of reasoning to physics, for example), it’s hard to see what type of knowledge he’s referring to. If two people have two different recollections of an event, then either one or both of them are wrong. Here’s what Apple has to say about the American school curriculum:

“Curricula aren’t imposed in countries like the United States. Rather, they are the products of often intense conflicts, negotiations, and attempts at rebuilding hegemonic control by actually incorporating the knowledge and perspectives of the less powerful under the umbrella of the discourse of dominant groups.”

Apple thinks that the content of the American school curriculum is an attempt at rebuilding hegemonic control, rather than equipping students with the tools to navigate life in America. He goes on to argue that by “mentioning” the underprivileged under the umbrella of the dominant group, it invalidates their perspectives. The whole book is terrible, but once again, it’s just Apple writing these things and quoting others who have made the same arguments (i.e. no data, no examples).

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?.” International journal of qualitative studies in education 11, no. 1 (1998): 7-24. [cited by 2636]

This paper is a big deal (note the number of citations). The entire thing is worth a read because it is so insane. The section about critical race theory (CRT) contains massive red flags:

“The use of voice or “naming your reality” is a way that CRT links form and substance in scholarship. CRT scholars use parables, chronicles, stories, counterstories, poetry, fiction, and revisionist histories to illustrate the false necessity and irony of much of current civil rights doctrine.”

Believe it or not, this is an argument in support of CRT. It’s explicitly postmodernist. Ladson-Billings might as well have written that critical race theory has zero standard of proof, and that’s what makes it great. This paper was cited by Blanchett as evidence for the American curriculum being “inappropriate for use with African American learners” and “purposefully employed to maintain white supremacy,” so here’s the argument (which is actually quoted from a different paper):

“Master scripting silences multiple voices and perspectives, primarily legitimizing dominant, white, upper-class, male voicings as the “standard” knowledge students need to know. All other accounts and perspectives are omitted from the master script unless they can be disempowered through misrepresentation.”

In other words, the dominant narrative (postmodernists think narrative is everything) is that of the white male, which of course disenfranchises everyone else. If this was true, one would also expect to see women performing poorly in school as well, when they actually outperform men in every subject. Furthermore, the only parts of the curriculum to which this argument could possibly apply are history, English, and other electives in the humanities. The argument is so bad that it’s shocking it was even accepted into an academic journal, let alone cited more than 2500 times.

Literature in the humanities on white privilege typically follows the same pattern. Introduce the concept by quoting McIntosh, then use it to explain racial disparities as being purely a product of racism. Nothing is ever measured, and anything that doesn’t add up is just evidence of McIntosh’s claim that white people are “taught not to recognize” white privilege. It resembles the blogosphere more than it resembles other academic disciplines.

There are two major issues with the literature on this subject, beyond the sensationalism and nonexistent burden of proof. The first is that none of these articles even try to measure the magnitude of the benefits of white privilege in relation to any other type of privilege (e.g. money). If white privilege is such an important factor, there should be some sense of the magnitude of the privilege it grants. To do this, one would want to quote a study that measures life outcomes of children where every variable is controlled for except race (or at least as many variables as possible). Providing trivial examples of white privilege such as “I can purchase travel size bottles of my hair care products at most grocery or drug stores,” gives a skeptical person the impression that the magnitude of privilege is small enough to dismiss.

The second and more important issue with the literature is that nobody ever suggests a solution to the problem. The conclusions from all of the papers mentioned so far could easily be swapped around and nobody would notice the difference. McIntosh says:

“What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.”

In other words, no proposed solutions. Blanchett has a more reasonable conclusion, but it’s really just suggesting more studies:

“Additional research is needed to clearly document the ways in which White privilege and racism create and maintain disproportionality at all levels…additional research is needed to develop research, policy, and practice interventions that are designed to address issues of inadequate allocation of educational resources, employment of inappropriate and culturally unresponsive curricula, and inadequate teacher preparation, and to examine their impact on the problem of disproportionality over time and in a variety of settings.”

Ladson-Billings (the CRT paper), concludes with some vague words about some kind of revolution:

“We may have to defend a radical approach to democracy that seriously undermines the privilege of those who have so skillfully carved that privilege into the foundation of the nation.”

That is not specific at all. In fact, it’s actually very hard to find an article on what anyone is supposed to do about the issue of white privilege. This article in The Guardian says

“…when a black woman is being attacked for opposing structural racism, that means standing shoulder to shoulder with Munroe Bergdorf.”

This is the same Munroe Bergdorf who was fired by L’Oreal a week after that article was written, over a Facebook rant that started with “Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people”. Perhaps that wasn’t the best example of someone to stand shoulder to shoulder with, but this does seem to be the sole suggestion. That is, become an anti-racist activist. The inevitable conclusion is that if anyone who isn’t an activist is racist. Seems a bit extreme, to say the least.

None of this is to say that white privilege does not exist, as it makes perfectly good sense as a concept. Keeping all other variables the same, life is easier if you are white in the US or Canada, just as being a member of the majority is easier everywhere in the world where different groups live together. It’s completely acceptable that one might expect that the majority acknowledge that this privilege exists and act in a way that they are not actively contributing to the effect. It’s a completely different thing to shame people based on skin colour or to jam the concept into things that have nothing to do with race. Ultimately, accusing someone of being privileged is the same as saying “your life is easier than mine”. That’s a dangerous assumption to make on ethnicity alone, and it’s explicitly against the ideas of multiculturalism and individualism.

And of course, the academic literature on the subject is a joke. If four examples aren’t enough, just type “white privilege” into google scholar and read the highly cited papers. They are postmodernist (nonsensical) at best, racist at worst, and not at all academic.

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