Thursday, August 12, 2010

White Privilege is Not the Same as Racism

Today at Centre we are using Beverley Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" in a discussion of white privilege. This is a useful book, especially for this point.

Tatum offers a definition of racism based on social structures: a system of advantage based on race. She contrasts this with a definition of racism based on individual prejudices.

Tatum then goes on to say that only whites can be racist. While people of every group may have individual prejudices about different races, only white people in this country reap a systematic advantage from their race.

I think there is one thing right, and two things wrong with Tatum's definition of racism.

What is right is that the structural advantage - the privilege - that some people receive because of their race is a real fact about society, which empowers some people and limits others regardless of their individual qualities. The main kind of racial privilege in our society is white privilege. That makes it an important topic for sociology to teach, and for a college to constantly think about.

The first thing that is wrong with Tatum's definition of racism, though, is that it is simply not true that white people are the only group to enjoy a structural advantage in America based on race. American society is complex, and racial judgments figure in to all kinds of group opportunities, including the entire complex of affirmative action. White privilege is the main racial privilege in American society today, but it is not the only one.

The second thing that is wrong with Tatum's definition of racism is that a structural advantage is not an "ism." A structural advantage is a fact, an objective privilege. Racism would be an ideology justifying that fact. To take a closely related distinction that I have worked on a great deal, diversity is a fact; pluralism is an ideology justifying that fact.

White privilege is a real structural fact. The greatest privilege of the privileged is not realizing that they (we) are privileged; the advantage is just a fact. The point of exercises like the one we are doing at Centre College today is to make everyone aware of the fact of white privilege so that we can justly evaluate, in this case, potential students at the college. But acknowledging the fact of structural advantage does not entail justifying it, does not require us to say that whites deserve our privilege.


Victoria Crowell said...

I actually got into a very heated debate about this at Centre with another professor, who did not share your objectivity, at least at the time. (I later got an apology.)

It sounds like you handled the tricky topic of white privilege just how it should have been: detached, with fact, and as free from attachment to -isms in its analysis as it can be.

sookie said...