This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Privilege, like cocaine, is a white drug. It’s important not to be caught in possession of it. If you’re caught using it, you may be ordered to check your privilege, and recognise that your views are nothing more than a defence of your position in the racial hierarchy in which you secretly believe.
The purest form is white privilege, which is the refined product of systemic racism. According to the American feminist Peggy McIntosh, white people carry racial privilege in an invisible knapsack. McIntosh is white. So is Robin DiAngelo, who coined the term white fragility in 2011 and has made a fortune as a race awareness consultant for corporations wishing to insure themselves against discrimination suits from disgruntled employees.
Whiteness, DiAngelo claims, endows “psychological advantages that translate into material terms”. In November 2020, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Diversity, Equity, and Educational Achievement paid DiAngelo $12,750 for a two-hour lecture at its annual Diversity Forum. Dozens of non-white speakers at the Forum received no compensation at all. The only other paid speaker was the black female author Austin Channing Brown. She received $7,500. Noting this kind of disparity is what DiAngelo would call seeing the racial water.
Privilege comes from the Latin privilegium (privus, private + lex, law), a bill or law giving advantage to a private individual. In Roman Catholic canon law, the Pauline privilege permits divorce between a couple who were not baptised by the time of their marriage. The Petrine privilege (aka the privilege of the faith) allows for the dissolution of a marriage in which one partner has been baptised and wishes to remarry within the church.
The precedent for this is in Ezra 10:1-5, in which Ezra persuades the men of Judea to put aside their “foreign women”. This is not to be confused with Jewish privilege as it is now understood on the American left. According to the New Republic, Jews are “ultimately a European byproduct” and “white people with a little flair — a belief system draped over the same racial material”.
The far right disagree. When Emily Bazelon of the New York Times confessed to having enjoyed white privilege and said that Donald Trump’s presidency made it “less tenable than ever for white people to write our whiteness out of the story of race in America or define ourselves only in terms of what we are not”, thousands of Twitter trolls asserted that as Bazelon is Jewish, she could not be white and was in fact the racial enemy of white people.
Perhaps this is what the black historian Nell Irvin Painter, the author of The History of White People, meant when she called white identity a “toggle between nothingness and awfulness”. Painter’s husband is white.
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