White Privilege: A Term That Obfuscates

When his ship first came to Australia,
Cook wrote, the natives
continued fishing, without looking up.
Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be comprehended.

—Jane Hirshfield

White Privilege. It’s one of the more recent terms to lay claim to the collective psyche. And while the intention behind it may be admirable, I wonder about its direction and impact. I’m not convinced for instance that the awareness that the term white privilege aims to foster, which is ultimately in the pursuit of a more equitable and caring world, is either thorough or comprehensive enough to genuinely facilitate fruitful dialogue and action. The sheer scope and complexity surrounding the subject of privilege combined with the often manic drive to arrive at quick answers and solutions can’t help but lead to crucial considerations being left out.

Memes like “If you don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege” or “If you don’t think white privilege exists, congratulations! You are enjoying the benefits of it” are in wide circulation. What do these memes accomplish? I have yet to see sayings like these spark in depth inquiry into how privilege has come to acquire its present day status. One might start with etymology for instance. Privilege derives from latin privus meaning “individual, one’s own, private” and legus meaning “law”. From there, one might begin to wonder from whence came the notion that it would be better to take leave from the village or community to strike out on one’s own? Would doing so be a strategy to ensure survival? Would it be a vote against traditional values? Who would suffer? Who would gain? My intention right now is not to fixate on answers but rather to shed light on the fact that questions that acknowledge the various threads of complexity are necessary to any meaningfully grounded discourse on a given subject. They also keep the conversation in motion and reduce the tendency to reach conclusions prematurely and fixate on a position where polarization is easily generated.

Synonyms for the word ‘privileged’ are as follows: honoured, powerful, advantaged, entitled, indulged, ruling, special, authorized, entitled, excused, and more. Everything we’re encouraged to be or eventually become right? The primary antonym of ‘privileged’ is ‘underprivileged’. Synonyms of ‘underprivileged’ are: poor, depressed, deprived, destitute, disadvantaged, handicapped, impoverished, needy, unfortunate, and more. Everything we try avoid right? The antonyms of ‘underprivileged’ are: prosperous, wealthy, rich, privileged. The word ‘overprivileged’ is not the antonym of ‘underprivileged’ even though the words exists. I can’t help but wonder: what word might accurately describe a class or culture of people who are content with simply having enough? Who are deeply capable of appreciating what they have without needing to have more and cushion themselves from the inevitable hardships of life .. a class of people who can trust in the goodwill of their kin and fellow comrades to share a genuine interest in each other’s well being and in actively maintaining the well being of all of life? What word would describe this class of people? Perhaps .. indigenous?

photo by Zeyn Afuang

photo by Zeyn Afuang

Following this line of inquiry, we might wonder about the level of affluence promoted and endorsed by ‘privileged’ standards of living. When speaking of privilege in terms of access to resources and opportunity, there is typically an implicit suggestion that we are striving for the day when those who possess less might eventually have what the "have-mores" have or at least be able to go after it with the reasonable possibility of acquiring it. We must bear in mind however that no matter what creed or colour the privilege happens to be, privilege as we have come to know it has mainly been made possible by virtue of societal values founded on exploitation, social inequality and consumerism. Might we consider then that privilege, at least as it is referenced in so many charged conversations, actually goes against what it means to be human, relational, caring, generous, discerning and cooperative? And yet ironically privilege is lauded as the golden treasure that ideally everyone should enjoy a fair piece of. 

photo by Hermes Rivera

photo by Hermes Rivera

A question I keep returning to: what objective do white folks have in speaking about white privilege? It’s not my intention to stimulate defensiveness by asking this question but rather to invite critical engagement. It’s clear to me that there is a wish to eliminate racial injustices and mistreatment of fellow humans, which I fully support, but I’m not convinced that gathering online crowds to mobilize forces against the pestilence that is ‘white privilege’ will achieve much other than the provocation and breeding of divisiveness, polarity, defensiveness and white guilt.

Is the purpose of white privilege education to pave the way for increasing numbers of people to be granted “equal opportunity” to exploit and consume? Is it to help people suit up and learn the 'bureaucratic speak' that paves the way to high paying jobs in the consumer driven matrix? Is that it? If so, we are in serious trouble. We’re in serious trouble notwithstanding but with the precious little time that we have left to restore any semblance of sanity, discernment and long range vision around the choices we make that might grant future generations with the possibility of living their lives on a planet that is healthy enough to support and feed life, would we and eventually they not be better served if we wondered about how the privilege that many enjoy might be seen for what it is: “an unexamined ‘entitled’ approach to life wherein mechanisms for ease, convenience and comfort are so well established and practiced that the fact that they are underwritten by stealing from the earth and from future generations so that certain people can live in a bubble of comfort while others are denied the opportunity to exploit similarly if they so desire never shows up in red ink in the ledger of responsible living.”

Perhaps "ENTITLEMENT SYNDROME" comes closer to the truth. 

How does a white privilege conversation address systemic issues of racism, poverty, social justice and the enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots when so much of what the so called privileged have come to acquire and its manner of being acquired is questionable? Are we perhaps overlooking or even avoiding the more relevant conversation? If we are in fact speaking in terms of access to resources and we recognize that our current demand on wildlife resources robs the earth and our children .. do we really need currently sanctioned “exploitation opportunities” to be more widely and abundantly spread? Are we blind to how this would only expedite our race towards human and creature extinction?

Either you have what you deserve and are entitled to .. or you don't have what you deserve and are entitled to. The disparity between those who have and those who don't stands out as being the central issue. I'm suggesting that the emphasis shift from who is or isn't on the receiving end of the goods and opportunities that are a direct result of a malignant progress driven take on life to how we continue to actively and often unwittingly support a malignant progress driven take on life

Might we also wonder about colonialism? Might we wonder about what would have been occurring inside the minds of people sailing the ships from the European continent to the Americas? What they thought when they discovered upon their arrival that the land was already long occupied by indigenous peoples? And what motivated them to impose their imported way of life on those people? Where does such a sense of entitlement and superiority come from? And has that sense of entitlement sailed on or has it found a place to hide in the unassailable edifice of rights and personal truths? Might it be that entitlement and the destruction it brings is so normalized that we don’t recognize it?

photo by Adam Marcucci

photo by Adam Marcucci

Some might argue that I’m missing the point entirely and that the white privilege conversation does not underscore access to material goods and resources as its main feature. Fair enough. Is the argument then regarding the reprehensible fact that there are more non-white folks in American prisons than whites? Is the argument that a black man running down the street is much more likely to arouse suspicious from police than a white man running down the street? I wouldn’t disagree with these troubling facts but since when is it a privilege to run down the street and not arouse suspicion? I would suggest that it is neither a matter of privilege nor of rights but rather a human code of conduct to consider people innocent until proven guilty. This doesn’t mean everyone adheres to this maxim but I think we can agree that it’s what most aspire to in an ideal world. And so, if we are in fact speaking about human conduct and attitudes when we speak about ‘white privilege’, can we not call it ‘right conduct towards those we perceive to be different from us’ or ‘right conduct towards minorities’ rather than calling it ‘white privilege’? Is the term ‘white privilege’ actually faithful to what is being pointed to and needs addressing? Are we not conflating influences that need to be addressed separately? Is it not a term that obfuscates?

And whether we’re speaking of material wealth or human conduct, are white people the only folks who are grossly steeped in consumer lifestyles and the only folks who hold negative attitudes towards people from different racial backgrounds? While I recognize that I am better positioned than some, I am also aware that there are a good many non-white folk who possess more than I do. Former President Obama definitely fares better than I do in many respects. I don’t resent him for it. I’m glad for him and his family. The mean salary of NBA players, of which over 70% are black, is over 6 million. Let us not forget the many white people living in poverty concerned about how to adequately feed their children? Citing these inconsistencies is not intended to negate that there are very real racial injustices. There are. The point I’m making is, how does it serve to be assigned the ‘white privilege’ label when there are so many variables? In the corner of the world where I live, there is no doubt that I am a member of the majority in the context of skin colour. I have also lived in a part of the world however where I belonged to a minority. During that period there were times when I was regarded with suspicion. While unpleasant, at no time did I consider myself to be a victim of ‘Muslim or coloured privilege’ by virtue of being a minority.

I am not in any way suggesting that ‘white privilege’ conversations shouldn’t happen or that they don’t hold intrinsic merit. I am however pleading for those conversations to underscore the deep running historical and ancestral heritage that we have been heirs to and only ignore at our own peril. I am pleading for us to place the care and survival of life and the rightful centre of our conversations instead of personal beliefs and feelings. I am suggesting that we bring a meticulous attentiveness to our language and thinking so that we are prudent about any assertions we make, that we avoid generalizations and be alert to how easy it is to breed call-out culture and become mired in polarization. I am suggesting that we wonder about what has happened to us and be disturbed by what we find. We have much to learn for instance about how human migrations have affected us psychically and culturally to this day. And we might want to begin our conversations by first setting an honorific place at the head of the table for the precious living planet upon which all human life depends. We need to consider that ‘privilege’, as it is understood within a ‘resources’ context, is primarily underwritten by exploitive activities such as mining, oil extraction, deforestation, the travel industry, modern technology, etc.

The ‘privilege’ that has become the lexicon of the day is something we would do well to question. Author Daniel Quinn in his book Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, speaks of two kinds of people: ‘Takers’ and ‘Leavers’. “The premise of the Taker story is ‘the world belongs to man’. … The premise of the Leaver story is ‘man belongs to the world’.”  Takers exploit and are generally interested in creating advantages for themselves. Leavers take only what they need and recognize themselves to be custodians of the earth. Takers rarely consider the impact of their way of living. Leavers consider it their responsibility to live in a manner that promotes and protects the health of the land. Takers are human-centric while Leavers are life-centric. Discussing the inequality and oppression amongst Takers themselves doesn’t address the deeper problem of being a Taker. Takers are still Takers. Can we learn to become Leavers instead of Takers? A step in that direction would require humility and hard work.

We’ve veered so far from reciprocal living with the earth that those of us living today in the dominant culture have no lived memory of such reciprocity. To get some sense of it, we would be well served to respectfully, and from a distance, observe the few tribal indigenous peoples on the planet and their locally and ancestrally informed ways of living, unchanged for thousands of years. And soon .. since many of them are sadly and tragically disappearing into the jaws of dominant culture as it spreads across the globe to capitalize on as many natural resources as possible in order to ensure its survival. “And every time the Takers stamp out a Leaver culture, a wisdom ultimately tested since the birth of mankind disappears from the world beyond recall.” (Quinn) The consequences of being cut off from natural ways of living are so far reaching that to speak of them, as Quinn does in his book, is likely to come across as simplistic and/or incomprehensible to the average well adjusted consumer. Nevertheless, we would be wise to reconsider the cultural narrative that we have subscribed to for thousands of years. Our survival depends on it.

Similar to what Quinn writes, Dereck Rasmussen writes in his article Qallunology 101The Inuit word for Euro-Americans is Qallunaat. Over the last century, Inuit have observed the strange and peculiar behaviour of these visitors, and it was only a matter of time before someone like Nunavik CBC commentator Zebedee Nungak coined the term “Qallunology,” shorthand for “the study of white folks.” That said, Inuit see behaviour rather than skin colour as the main indicator of Qallunaat status. Rasmussen goes on to say: A Qallunologist would note that her subjects like to take an abundance, make it scarce, and charge people money to get access to it.

The understanding then is that “white” is not a skin colour but that rather it is a “way”.

photo by 2Photo Pots

photo by 2Photo Pots

I’m not sure how any conversation about privilege, no matter the assigned colour and unless it is significantly broadened and deepened, will bring people into sober reflection with respect to how the modern lifestyle that epitomizes western culture and that so many aspire to, is both dangerous and malignant. Too many white privilege conversations do little more than incite polarized debate while tragically keeping the focus of conversation on human beings and their self-absorbed interests, which is where the malignancy stealthily thrives. I don’t see it changing much for the children coming into our world now. If anything, it ensures that the comfort bubbles that people inhabit will only become increasingly multi-coloured, multi-cultural, and disconnected from real life, until the day when .. POP!!

Being incredibly well versed in the language of rights and privileges when the bubble bursts will be of little value. Food, air, water, shelter .. these will be harder and harder to come by as reverence for life takes on new meaning. And those who find themselves living in the abominable wake will wonder how the generation of adults and elders before them so grossly mismanaged their priorities with so little apparent care for what was at stake.

"That's what's been happening here for the past ten thousand years: You've been doing what you damn well please with the world. And of course you mean to go right on doing what you damn well please with it, because the whole damn thing belongs to you.” —Daniel Quinn



For readers wishing to explore the subject of race, privilege and culture, the following resources provide rich food for thought and are a meaningful way to engage in conversations that deepen the understanding of the plight we are ALL in. 

  1. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn Bantam Books (1992). Ishmael is a half ton silverback gorilla. He is a student of ecology, life, freedom, and the human condition. He is also a teacher. He teaches that which all humans need to learn -- must learn -- if our species, and the rest of life on Earth as we know it, is to survive. The book won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991
  2. Bayo Akomolafe asks, What if our response to the crisis is part of the crisis?” Bayo Akomolafe is globally recognized for his poetic, unconventional, counterintuitive take on global crisis, civic action and social change. He is the Coordinating Curator for The Emergence Network, and host of the online course, “We will dance with Mountains.” (video link below)
  3. NFB Documentary: Qallanaat! Why White People Are Funny
    A collaboration between filmmaker Mark Sandiford and Inuit writer and satirist Zebedee Nungak, Qallunaat! brings the documentary form to an unexpected place in which oppression, history, and comedy collide. (video link below)
  4. Qallunology 101 and other related articles written by Derek Rasmussen: “Qallunaaq” isn’t necessarily an insult; but it isn’t necessarily a compliment either. Qallunaat seems to refer to people who think and act a certain way; we seem to get labelled this way as more of a behavioural classification rather than a biological, racial, or geographical classification.
  5. Writer filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s award winning documentary 13TH is a powerful and disturbing film about “the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States”. (Available on Netflix)
  6. Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World by David Maybury-Lewis (Viking 1992) is the companion book to the PBS 10 episode series by the same title. Episode 4: An Ecology of mind is included in the links below. The entire series is available online at Kanopy.com though the viewer must be a member of a university or library that is a Kanopy affiliate. 
  7. The Work of UK Photographer Jimmy Nelson who published Before They Pass Away, a book of photographs of various tribal indigenous peoples from around the world. Excerpt from his website: His experiences on these journeys have made a lasting impression on him. There is a great humility in how he has seen wealth defined by the cultures he has met. Where Jimmy is from, they are learnt to strive for material possessions. He feels that centuries of that conception have brought the world to the brink of ecological and political disaster. Many of the peoples he has visited have a different conception of value, with lives so symbiotically and sustainably connected to their surroundings, virtually merging the two together. They provide ongoing lessons for us all. (Ted Talk video included below.)
  8. Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel is a powerful visual testament to the various ways people live around the world. 30 families from different countries are photographed with all their possessions outside their home. The Canadian Media Awareness Network has a lesson program available for teachers and other interested people to support learning and conversations on the subject. It's titled: 
  9. "Polly Higgins is a pioneer; since stepping down from her legal practice as a court advocate, she  devotes her time to one client – the Earth." She is the author of the award-winning book: Eradicating Ecocide: Exposing the Corporate and Political Practices Destroying the Planet and Proposing the Laws Needed to Eradicate Ecocide (2010). See her TED talk below: Ecocide, the 5th Crime Against Peace
  10. "Erika Larsen’s work uses photography, video and writing to learn intimately about cultures that maintain strong connections with nature." She has given a National Geographic talk after spending years with unprecedented access into the lives, work, and culture of Scandinavia's fascinating Sami people. (video below)
  11. The One Percent. "This 80-minute documentary focuses on the growing "wealth gap" in America, as seen through the eyes of filmmaker Jamie Johnson, a 27-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. Johnson sets his sights on exploring the political, moral and emotional rationale that enables a tiny percentage of Americans - the one percent - to control nearly half the wealth of the entire United States. The film Includes interviews with Nicole Buffett, Bill Gates Sr., Adnan Khashoggi, Milton Friedman, Robert Reich, Ralph Nader and other luminaries." (video below)