Do we really need another term for White Privilege?

Kiran Katira, Ph.D., program operations director, Community Engagement Center, Institute for the Study of Race and Social Justice, University of New Mexico in her presentation at the WK Kellogg First Food Forum 2016

First, I must acknowledge that it has been a hot minute since I've written on here. For a number of reasons, not entirely related to my longstanding obligations on the boards of two nonprofits, as a doctoral student, as a mother, as an advocate for my son who has autism, as research assistant. I had a sort of existential slump. Going through the motions, feeling ill at ease and very unmotivated. This resulted in some sub-par project results. I was not in a good place.

Anyway, as I forge ahead with no clear promises to regularly posting this blog but with promises of exhaustive updates when I finally straggle back, let's talk about White Privilege.

I had an exchange on Facebook (as we often do, don't we? Don't even play.) It was, ironically, while I was in sessions at the WK Kellogg First Food Forum focusing on achieving health equity.

To me, immersed in rooms chock full of established and emerging leaders in the field of First Food, breastfeeding advocates I have grown to know and love through the fabric of social media, among philanthropic professionals who center racial equity as a key factor to creating a better world, there was no question about the use of the term "white privilege." It was a fact of life acknowledged by the entire room because, of course, the attendees work with issues related to racial equity and health equity on a daily basis. The epidemiological, population-level statistics are clear.

But to those who are not surrounded by the evidence and the data, this term can apparently be incendiary and can incite a tremendous amount of resistance. An individual requested that I stop using the term "white privilege" because she was compelled to tune everything out associated with that term. I was gobsmacked. What other word could I use? Didn't she realize that this was discussed in every single sessions I had attended at the Kellogg Forum? I had some colleagues join into the melee, but at the end of it, no real progress was made. Those on either side of an issue that is fraught
with contention were merely more entrenched in their initial positions.

Going Deeper: Opposition to the use of the term "White Privilege"


What could be done? I lamented internally that no progress can be made, and succumbed momentarily to the defeatism that likes to linger on the outskirts of my emotional landscape and prey on opportune moments. But, as I have taught myself to do, I sat with my discomfort and buckled down to research these areas that cause discomfort in me.

What is the problem with the term? This Facebook friend of mine is not the first to question it's utility. Daniel Cubias blogged on this issue in 2015 and suggested a different term: "White advantage." I think the essence of the term remains the same in his breakdown of the obstacle, and if people can be more open to the use of a term that still retains the essential quality of what is being described, I'm down with that.

I also discovered that there are people out there who unironically use the term "race deniers." This is an entire platform. Prior to this I can honestly say, I had no idea that this even existed. Call me naive. But the further I went down the rabbit hole, the more grateful I was that I had been pushed to examine this further. You can't rightly establish a counter-message until you know what you are up against.

Unfortunately for my Facebook friend, most of the evidence I uncovered related to those
who oppose use of the term "White Privilege" suggests that opponents are largely white, and they often stand for the idea that there are genetic differences in the races that establish a ground for supremacy among the "subspecies" of homo sapiens.  Basically, the lion's share of those opposed to the term are either uninformed about the historical contexts and socioeconomic realities that we live in today, or they are outright, overtly racist pundits and thinkers.

Why is this problematic?


There is evidence to suggest that white people often react to evidence of white privilege by claiming their own hardships - the automatic knee-jerk reaction of othering that happens when we find ourselves affiliated with a group that doesn't jive with our personal values is a natural coping mechanism that people use to compensate for living in cognitive dissonance. We see, hear, smell, taste, feel the inequities and injustices, but rationalize (in sometimes bizarre, nonsensical ways) why this is how it is, why we have no part in it and oppose it on principal, and ignore our own complicit reinforcement of the very system that we intellectually oppose. This is survival within the dominant culture. This is how inequity and inequality persist.

Allan G. Johnson has an eloquent description of this process in his essay "Where White Privilege Came From":

"Most of the choices we make are unconscious, it being in the nature of paths of least resistance to appear to us as the logical, normal thing to do without our having to think about it. This means, of course, that we can participate in systems in ways we’re not aware of and help produce consequences without knowing it and be involved in other people’s lives, both historically and in the present, without any intention to do so."

Simran Noor, Vice President of the Center for Social Inclusion, also mentioned this in her speech at the Kellogg First Food Forum. None of us present today are responsible for how the system was established, but who but us can be charged to change this? And how can we fall back on the status quo as a reasonable path forward?

So what now?


Another great essay on the topic of The Racism of Good, White People is also a telling read. I would recommend to anyone willing to sit with discomfort and keep it warm and acknowledged. Sit with the discomfort until it composts into some really useful perspective and a deeper ability to empathize, connect, and make change.

I was introduced to the documentary three-part series Race: The Power of an Illusion, produced by California Newsreel, in my first training as a participant of the Center for Social Inclusion's National First Foods Racial Equity Cohort. This series is available for rent on, and can be purchased as well. Although it's now nearly 15 years old, the series powerfully contextualizes the concepts of structural racism and systematic oppression based on appearance that is sometimes heartbreaking and often terrifying. PBS built a companion website with activities related to the content of the film that can be useful to apply concepts.

Tim Wise, an anti-racist activist, also put together a perspective on white privilege from a white person called "White Like Me: Race, Racism & White Privilege in America" and there is an accompanying study guide for those who are interested in delving deeper and using interactive thought experiments and tools to internalize the necessary shift in thinking that must accompany the work we are all charged with in achieving a society that can truly be considered racially equitable and accessible to all communities and citizens.

And I leave you with a delightful photo of the women that I am privileged to work with for the next two years with the facilitation of the CSI. Stay tuned for more blog posts. At some point. I promise. As I said to my kiddos before I left for a 5 day work trip, Mommy will always come back for you. ;)

These women are change-makers!


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