I certainly wouldn't suggest that there is no advantage to being white.
Of course there is.
But, the mythical part of the "white privilege" idea is the notion that anyone of us can be defined by one parameter. In fact, the myth is already beginning to fall apart by the weight it is trying to support.
John Dorhauer, president of the United Church of Christ, used to speak of "white privilege" at great length. Then suddenly he announced that the term failed to account for the fact that women don’t enjoy the same privileges as men (in point of fact, in many cases they enjoy greater privileges --- but he would never be one to acknowledge that), so he began to speak of "white male privilege."
But why stop there?
Those who identify themselves as LGBTQ do not enjoy the same privileges as heterosexuals people so perhaps we should speak of "white male heterosexual privilege."
There is, of course, almost no end to this adding on of adjectives.
We could have "white, male, heterosexual, wealthy privilege," because no one would not want to suggest that poor whites are in the same boat with rich whites.
Education certainly gives one privilege, so we could have "white, male, heterosexual, wealthy, educated privilege." And how about "white, male, heterosexual, wealthy, educated, physically attractive privilege"?
Society tends to give great advantage to the physically attractive.
Connections are often important in getting ahead in this world (if that is one’s goal).
So now we have "white, male, heterosexual, wealthy, educated, physically attractive, connected privilege."
There is no end in sight.
I believe that privilege exists on a continuum.
Imagine a scale from zero to 10.
A person who is tall will move to the right of the midpoint.
A person who is short will move to the left.
An overweight person will move farther to the left.
If the person is physically attractive they move well to the right and if they are ugly, well to the left. If they are white that will move them to the right.
If they are a person of color (except maybe for Asians --- and it would be terribly politically incorrect to ask why that is) that will move them to the left.
If they are intelligent they will move to the right. If they are of less than average intelligence they will move to the left. If they are glib they move to the right. If they are shy or get easily tongue tied they move to the left.
Give them athletic talent and they move to the right. Make them klutzy and they move to the left. Give them good health and they move to the right. Give them poor health and they move to the left. Give them at least one loving parent and they move to the right.
Give them two and they move even farther to the right (it has been argued that this is the single greatest form of privilege). Give them self-drive and they move to the right.
Give them whatever the opposite of self-drive is and they move to the left. Give them high self-esteem and they move to the right. Give them low self-esteem and they move to the left.
We could go on like this for quite-a-while. The point is that where a person ends up on the "privilege continuum" is the combination of many factors.
It would be hard to convince most people that a white kid in a coal mining town in West Virginia, seeing little future but to follow in his father’s footsteps, has more privilege than Barack Obama’s daughters, or Oprah Winfrey, or Denzel Washington, or Tiger Woods. Nor do I have more privilege than the above named. Go back to that "white, male, heterosexual, wealthy, educated, physically attractive, connected privilege." If you replace the word white with black, or Hispanic, or Asian, you still have a person of privilege.
To write, as someone once wrote to me, "white males like you and me are privileged over white women and people of color" is a generalization that tries to do too much. It ignores huge swaths of the human experience. We cannot encapsulate a person's entire life by one parameter. You may remember Robin Williams trying to teach that lesson to Matt Damon in the film "Good Will Hunting."
It was true then. It is true now.
Phil Kershner is a United Church of Christ pastor in Marine, Illinois. Prior to going into pastoral ministry he was a high school math and history teacher for 17 years. He has a master's degree in history from Loyola University in Chicago and a master's degree in divinity from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He is married to Sandee Kershner and they have two daughters, Ashlyn and Lauren. In late 2018 he published Why The United States is A Morally Good Country: A View From the Center. Read Phil Kershner's Reports — More Here.
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