Mark Naison: Speaks out about "white privilege"

Historians in the News

[Mark Naison is Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University.]


While I am all for pointing out the many contexts in which being "white" confers enormous advantages, not only historically, but in American society today, I am extremely wary of the concept of "white privilege,"especially the way it is used on college campuses in racial sensitivity sensitivity sessions and diversity training

First of all, the people using the term, whatever their racial background, need to turn the lens of privilige inward before they apply it outward. Without exception, the people on university campuses using this language, whether as scholars or workshop leaders, or even as students, are, in terms of education, living standards, and economic opportunities, far more priviliged than the millions of working class and poor
whites whose lives they purport to describe by using this sweeping term.

It is one thing to talk about white privilege to white students at elite universities where the bulk of these students from upper middle class families and are privileged economically as well as racially relatively to their Black and Latino peers, it is another thing to talk that way to white working class Americans in their homes, and bars and places of recreation.

Try taking your "white privilege" workshop to a truck stop, a bus depot, an emergency room at a local hospital, a beauty parlor, a credit union or an unemployment center

The people there would not only laugh in your face, they would take one look at you and ask what right YOU have to talk to THEM about privilege!

Now don't get me wrong, I think you can and should talk to white working class people about racism, whether it is in their union meetings, their living rooms, their bars or any where else they congregate! If they harass,abuse or discriminate against people of color, they need to be taken to task for that and challenged to do better. Not only should you tell them why that is wrong, you should try to make sure that they are penalized for their actions.

But to tell people who have known hardship and struggle almost every day of their lives ( yes, some white people have known hardship!) that they are privileged makes no sense. Worse yet, it stinks of hypocrisy

Did you ever hear a black union leader talk about "white privilege" when demanding that his union fight racism? A black minister leading protests aginst police brutality? A Latino leader of immigrant rights marches? A Iraq war veteran trying to mobilize people for decent health care? An organizer fighting to perserve affordable housing?

The only people who use the term "white privilege" term are professors and sensitivity consultants and they do so behind the safety of university gates.

In the real world, the term is not only useless, it is counterproductive. It divides people being pushed down the economic ladder prevents them from organizing together on the basis of their common suffering.

Let's fight racism and build solidarity, not glibly disseminate categories which violate most working class Americans understanding of their own lived experience.

Mark Naison
Fordham University

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