What’s Wrong with White Privilege?

You’ve probably heard about it by now. In my adopted home state of Wisconsin, a school district has effectively banned teachers and students from talking about white privilege. Why? With all the hot-button issues that could roil a school district—prayer, sex, school shootings, bullying—why is this issue so heated?

Here’s what we know: A week or so ago, Oconomowoc residents erupted in anger over a student-initiated program. The students had hoped to teach their fellows about the concept of white privilege. Due to parent anger, the principal is out and schools are officially banned from teaching white privilege except in classes dedicated to teaching white privilege.privilege test

The students had asked their fellows to complete a privilege survey created by the National Civil Rights Museum. Students were asked if they felt comfortable going into stores, if they thought people in power would look like them, if they had been taught to fear walking alone at night, if their schools had good resources, and other pointed questions.

The goal, as the survey explained, was to help students notice the ways they have experienced privilege. As the survey put it,

In the United States, there has been a history where people have been privileged to exercise all of their rights while others have not. So what happens to people who do not have privileges because of their race, creed, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability or veteran status?

So far, so good. For the record, I applaud these students and their supporters for trying to help themselves understand the ways American society really works.privilege test 1

Not everyone does. In Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, this exercise proved extremely provocative. Parents absolutely refused to have their kids talk about these questions in school. They ousted the high-school principal and banned further talk of white privilege.

This robust anger leads us to our question for the day: Why do some people feel so angry about these questions? Why do they feel a need to ban them from their children?

I have a hunch and I’ll be curious to hear what SAGLRROILYBYGTH think.

The school board president explained it best, IMHO. As he told the local newspaper,

white privilege is a lightning rod for some parents. . . . We have poor people in Oconomowoc who are saying they’re not privileged … and people that say, ‘Don, we worked our butts off to have what we have’

Some parents in Oconomowoc apparently feel that teaching white kids that they are privileged is like teaching them that they are to blame for society’s faults. It is refusing to notice the hard work and sacrifice that their families have made. It is nothing less than a slap in the face to every penny-pinching Grandma, every two-job-working Dad, every after-school-job having kid.

As I see it, the topic of white privilege is so ferociously controversial because it strikes at the heart of our culture-war sore spot over victimhood. In the minds of many parents—in Oconomowoc at least—telling white kids they enjoy privilege is the same as telling them their struggles aren’t real; their sacrifices aren’t meaningful; their victories are vampiric.

Leave a comment


  1. Some people see life as a zero-sum game. If life gets better for somebody else, then it will get worse for me.

    Other folk look at life in terms of “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

    Looking at history, it seems to me that the “rising tide” idea is a better fit. I’m not sure why some folk fail to see that. But then I’m not the history professor.

  2. Agellius

     /  March 20, 2018

    Yeah, I find the concept really annoying in light of my family background. My dad’s parents moved from rural Kentucky to Gary, IN for a “better” life working as a waitress and a brickyard laborer. His dad died when he was little. He was raised by an abusive stepfather. He grew up to be an alcoholic and eventually committed suicide. After my parents divorced I was raised by my black stepfather. His natural son now makes more than twice as much money as I do. He deserves it, he has worked hard and made good decisions in life, and holds a position of responsibility.

    But if the privilege theory were true, would you not expect that between a black man and a white man from the same family, the white man would have the better outcome?

    The difference may be that we had different mothers, and his mother did a better job than mine did. Or the difference may be our respective individual temperaments. In any event our supposedly incorrigibly racist society did not keep his parental or temperamental advantages from leading him to greater success than his white step-sibling.

    If you say that a higher proportion of whites than blacks are born into economically advantageous situations, that’s fair enough. But to say that therefore whites per se are advantaged over blacks merely by virtue of being white, is fallacious.

    • I do not doubt that I have benefited from white privilege. But it isn’t anything that I should feel guilty about.

      By our nature, we attempt to make the most of opportunities that come our way. And there isn’t anything wrong with that (unless we use wrongful methods). I take “white privilege” to imply that we white folk, on the average, find more opportunities coming our way. But that’s not a guarantee of success. Some people have more opportunities than others, and sometimes it is just good luck or fortunate timing. And some folk have all sorts of bad luck, and any white privilege they might have is too little to counter that bad luck.

  3. Ellie Simons

     /  March 20, 2018

    New reader to your blog, but this is just something I was talking about with my husband the other night.

    I’m sure people have all sorts of unsavory reasons for not wanting white privilege taught in schools. However, as somebody who 20 years ago, while studying pedagogy in grad school, was completely on board with the idea, I’ve come to see the whole concept of “white privilege” as pretty much a road to nowhere. The problem is that it seems to see acknowledging privilege as somehow a transformative act in and of itself. However, it’s not. You acknowledge your own privilege all day and you’ll just be navel-gazing. We have not figured out what exactly people should do with their privilege other than that they just need to be made aware of it.

    It’s like taking the concept of noblesse oblige and removing the “oblige.” It’s like John the Baptist saying, “If you have two coats, acknowledge that you have two coats.” That is not only a worse concept than the original, it’s probably worse than just not even thinking about your own privilege at all. I think we can find better ways to encourage people to use the advantages they have to the advantage of society.

  4. Daniel Mandell

     /  March 21, 2018

    I think a less absolute term like “benefit(s)” would be more precise, encounter less hostility, and perhaps encourage more conversation about the problem. “Privilege” implies absolute and total superiority, like the children of the ultra rich who automatically have access to the best of everything. Wouldn’t it be more precise to talk about the benefits of being white — or of being rich, living in a city, etc?

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