Featured Philosopher: Naomi Zack


Naomi Zack received her PhD in Philosophy from Columbia University, has taught at the University at Albany, and is now Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. Zack’s newest book is Applicative Justice: An Empirical Pragmatic Approach to Correcting Racial Injustice (2016). Her recent books are: White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of US Police Racial Profiling and Homicide (April 2015); The Ethics and Mores of Race: Equality after the History of Philosophy (2011, 2015). Forthcoming is Zack’s edited 51-essay anthology, the Oxford Handbook of Race and Philosophy. Zack has discussed white privilege discourse in popular media:

PhilosophyTalk.org, “White Privilege and Racial Justice,” Feb. 14, 2016.

Interview about critique of white privilege discourse on PRI, “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” Oct. 17, 2015.

Interview by George Yancy, “What ‘White Privilege’ Really Means,”  NY Times, Opinionator, Stone, November 5, 2014.

Uses and Abuses of the Discourse of White Privilege

Naomi Zack

White privilege in real life is something real that exists. White privilege discourse is thought, talk, and writing about white privilege––it is not the thing itself.

Our present idea of white privilege was introduced by Peggy McIntosh in 1989: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”[1] The idea lives on in exhortations to Check your privilege! on college campuses[2] and through broader public and social media.[3] But the discourse of white privilege is problematic from two angles—it goes too far in blaming all whites for all forms of racism and it does not go far enough in directly addressing injustice against nonwhites. Both perspectives are worth consideration but the second is more important because it involves violations of fundamental human rights.

Whites cannot call or email or log onto a Bureau of White Privilege to check their white accounts, draw on their white assets, withdraw white funds, or use white credits to make purchases. But whites are generally better off than nonwhites––in health, wealth, freedom, education, longevity, and a host of other human goods. That is, although overt oppression expressed by an official ideology of white supremacy is largely past in our post-civil rights era of formal equality, racist historical effects persist. White (European and American) “privileges” endure. White privilege is a network of dispositions in society whereby individuals behave differently, that is, better to whites than nonwhites, solely because whites are white. Attitudes, beliefs, and emotions are the internal psychic component of white privilege and they include freedom from worrying about or suffering from racism.

However, not all whites, all of the time, enjoy privileges compared to nonwhites or are responsible for the comparative disadvantages of nonwhites. And even though some whites may be complicit with the racism of others, their expressed non-racist views and cultural contributions should not be dismissed solely on the grounds of their race. That is, to shut down speech just because it is uttered by a white person would be unfair and when racial ad hominem is robustly denounced on behalf of people of color, the fallacy should be recognized in an even-handed way. (We continue to be shocked by Kant’s, “This fellow was quite black. . .a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”) Still, “Check your privilege!” or white privilege discourse has more serious pitfalls than such insults to white people. The discourse seems to be incapable of addressing injustice against people of color.

In progressive, left-liberal society, it is virtuous not to exaggerate one’s disadvantage or ignore unfair or unearned advantage. The motivation for white privilege discourse is that the person being asked or told to check her privilege will be ashamed after recognizing that she has unfair or unearned advantages solely due to being white––and that insight will serve social justice. It’s as though the discourse of foodies about their abundant culinary choices and self-indulgent practices could correct the problems of world hunger!

White privilege discourse is largely about the facts of white racial advantage and what white people think and feel about that. Building awareness of racial imbalances is progressive. But as a leading response to contemporary injustice, white privilege discourse may miss the importance of racial injustice and degenerate into just another display of the advantages that white people have of not being required to respond to racial injustice against their racial group. After all, and for the most part, whites are treated justly, in wealthy, democratic, capitalistic societies.

Awareness by whites of their privilege, in an ongoing discourse that whites conduct, is neither cognitively nor rhetorically adequate for addressing injustice. If black people can be killed or executed by police officers, without trial or even the appearance of criminal action, while white people are left alone, this is not wholly or solely a matter of white privilege. Yes, white people are better off, but to confine resistance to the injustice done to nonwhites to discourse about how whites are privileged in being left alone (i.e., to only talk about white privilege), minimizes or trivializes the injustice against nonwhites. This injustice could only be wholly or solely a matter of white privilege if we lived in and accepted the norms of a maximally repressive totalitarian society where it was customary for government officials to execute anyone without trial or even the appearance of criminal action. Against that background, we could say that those who were not treated that way were privileged. They would be privileged in enjoying that perk of exceptional leniency. But we do not live in such a system or accept a normative totalitarian description of the system we do live in. We live in a system where everyone, regardless of race is supposed to have the same basic rights. That nonwhites are not recognized as having these rights is not a privilege of whites, but a violation of the rights of nonwhites.

Nevertheless, human rights have only an ideal status. Philosophically they are only posits and morally those who are outraged by the injustice of rights violation have little power. But, the basis for outrage concerning the recent high profile cases of summary execution of unarmed young black men by police officers is a legal issue, a matter of positive law in U.S. jurisdictions. US citizens are constitutionally protected by certain rights that most, especially whites, still correctly assume are in force for them: the right to privacy from unjustified government search and seizure (where death is a form of seizure); the right to due process; the right to equal protection by government officials.

The Fourth Amendment states that “the people” have a right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . but upon probable cause.” The Fourteenth Amendment reads in part that that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Police racial profiling followed by summary execution violates both amendments. However, these constitutional rights have been steadily eroded by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent decades. In Graham v. Connor in 1989, the Justices ruled that claims that police have used excessive force must be analyzed under an “objective reasonableness” standard referring to officer behavior, rather than rules of due process or probable cause. In Plumhoff et al. v. Richard (2012), the Court ruled that Fourth Amendment rights must be balanced against the “qualified immunity” of officers. These rulings and similar ones come to bear in cases like the shooting of Michael Brown, where all an officer need do to avoid indictment or conviction for manslaughter or murder is claim that he believed his life was in danger.

To protect the rights of minorities against police––really everyone’s rights, but the recent killings of unarmed young men concern minorities––it will likely be necessary to revisit at least Graham and Plumhoff. The civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s were led by impassioned and brilliant lawyers, constantly bringing cases before the courts. These days, the legal cases that get the most attention are those aimed at dismantling affirmative action. Yes, whites are privileged, but no amount of exhortation to “check” their privilege or confessional discourse in response, will correct the legal injustice of police homicide based on racial profiling.

Police racial profiling and its attendant violence is not the only form of rights violation that corresponds to nonwhite race in the United States and is neglected by white privilege discourse. Unequal educational resources in materials and teacher skills have persisted after Brown v. Board of Education called for integrated education “with all deliberate speed” in 1954. But K-12 schools are funded by local property taxes that are directly related to real estate values. It’s been widely publicized since the 1970s that the differences in tax-based educational resources per child are as much as 1000 percent between mainly white neighborhoods and mainly black and brown neighborhoods, as residential racial segregation has persisted due to differences in wealth and income, along with social preferences regarding the race of neighbors. All modern democracies uphold public education as a fundamental right at this time, but that right cannot be fully implemented in the United States given the disparities in opportunities for children that result from ongoing residential segregation. No amount of positive descriptions of the privileges of white middle class school children mitigates the deprivations of poor nonwhite children who do not have comparable learning opportunities. Needed is egalitarian educational reform to enlarge those opportunities. No amount or intensity of discourse about the privilege of white children a few blocks away could fill in for what poor nonwhite children lack. And again, if equal adequate education is a right, a structure in which nonwhite children are deprived of that right is a problem of injustice in and of itself. And that problem is not addressed by talking about the fact that white children enjoy the right! (That there are structural inequalities that perpetuate rights violations of nonwhites underscores the importance of resistance that attends to rights instead of privileges.)

[1] http://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

[2] http://siskiyou.sou.edu/2016/02/10/did-you-check-your-privilege/; http://www.thestranger.com/blogs/slog/2015/06/01/22316372/nine-photos-from-saturdays-privilege-party-at-the-university-of-washington

[3]http://www.bustle.com/articles/133774-5-ways-to-check-your-white-privilege; http://www.ttbook.org/book/check-your-privilege

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