By Mike Cronin
On the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I find myself recalling a class on multiculturalism in my MA program. During the class, one of the topics was “white privilege.” The essence of white privilege is that being born white, especially as a male, comes with certain privileges that members of other demographic groups don’t get. The course hinted that white men could and should feel guilty about this privilege, and that they should take unspecified actions to atone for this guilt.
I had very mixed feelings about this. I acknowledge that, as a white American male, compared to most people in the US and the world, I have a relatively benign position in life. I even accept that due to the accident of my birth, I began life with more advantages than most. If life is a game, then I acknowledge that I started on the easiest setting. What I could not, (and still cannot) accept, is that I should feel guilty about it. Guilt implies wrongdoing, and wrongdoing implies a choice between right and wrong. Infants have no understanding of right and wrong, and have not developed the mental faculties to make conscious choices. I cannot be guilty of being a white male, because it is not wrong, and because I had no choice in the matter.
That means I have nothing to atone for. On the other hand, knowing that just about every other demographic may be “playing life” on a more difficult setting than I am requires that I ask: As an adult with the ability to understand right and wrong and to make conscious choices, what should I do, if anything, about “white privilege?” I cannot undo history, nor can I change anyone’s heritage. I could give money to various causes, but that would have mixed results at best.
The answer that I arrived at: Context matters. While, as whole, white males may get the best “starting position” of any group, all groups are made of individuals, and individual circumstances vary. Some white males had it worse than I did, and some had it better. Likewise, while as a group, Asians, blacks, Hispanics, women, or others might not have had as good a starting position as white men, there are individuals in each cohort that started life out in an even better position than I did. In other words, the answer to “white privilege” is not to feel guilty and attempt to atone for something outside of one’s control, but rather to see and interact with every person as an individual, not as a representative of a demographic group (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.). The best thing anyone can do to create a level playing field is not to dole out compensatory advantages to some members of this or that “underprivileged” group, but simply to not hate or act against others because of their differences – to not purposely be bigoted, prejudiced, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, etc. Instead, respect individuals, and be a proponent of individual rights. Since the smallest possible minority is an individual, individual rights ARE minority rights.