Understanding white privilege versus white supremacy​

By Yenny Delgado

Last year, I attended a conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, a major educational institution founded by members of the Presbyterian Church. The conference focused on the audit of the Seminary’s history, founding, and legacy with regard to the enslavement of Africans (for a review of the report, click here). During the proceedings, a female professor from the seminary stood up and introduced herself; informing the audience that she cared about this audit. Additionally, she added that she was born in a middle-class family and also that she is a woman with white privilege in the society, saying “it is coming in a box, something I did not ask for.”

To be honest, we have all heard it. When a person of European descent in the United States in an extremely “woke” or educated audience stands up and shares from the bottom of their heart that they have been “privileged” in the current society. What do you think? What are the motivations behind this introduction?

  • Is it an admission of guilt for their ancestor’s past wrongs?
  • An expression of pride done with the purpose of disarming an audience?
  • Is it the first step for individuals in the transformation from a racist to anti-racist working to make a more just world for everyone?
  • Or, is it just coded language to show that the person is not a white supremacist?

I am sure many individuals use the term as part of the first step towards greater enlightenment regarding the many negative social and political effects individuals of European descent have wrought through the ideology of white supremacy. However, the indications of liberalism fail to recognize that this privilege by default comes at a particularly high price for people of color historically and to this day.

This introduction at the Seminary and others of this nature force us to further consider the construct of white normativity and the line that separate ideas of white privilege and white supremacy, more fully. As defined by the dictionary privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. Moreover, the origins of the word come from middle English “private” combined with the idea of law, thus the idea and term are tantamount to “private law.”

Thus, to better understand this privilege or private law it requires the society to do a better job of unpacking the history and see what ideologies built the foundations for these privileges to existing. In the United States from the Constitution of 1787 until The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the framework of laws and institutions were established expressly to benefit white people. The completeness of laws expressly designed to benefit white people (in the mid-20thCentury) are laid out clearly by the historian Ira Katznelson in his book When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America which walks through all the numerous benefits individuals of European descent was given.

Through the application of favorable laws that were fully grounded in an ideology of white supremacy individuals of European descent controlled all aspects of the society and commerce through mistreating individuals that were not white. Over the course of time the de-facto laws whether enslavement or segregation have been demolished through the courageous actions of committed people focused on freedom and equality from Frederick Douglas to Martin Luther King Jr.

However, as these laws that directly benefit only European-descents have subsided, the accumulated benefits from the dehumanization have maintained as well as the metamorphoses of overtly white supremacist ideologies to more covert and palatable forms of the same ideas today. When we consider the term “white privilege” what we are essentially seeing is a different form of white supremacy, as it is based on the laboring and suffering of others to gain a better standing in society.

From interacting in wide groups of organizations and throughout the country it has become clear to me over time that white privilege is really on a continuum and a result of a white supremacist ideology.

The same privileges that provide certain groups greater opportunities are based in the same ideologies that suggest that individuals of European descent are inherently superior to all other groups. From these ideologies, certain individuals have greatly benefitted and received favorable laws, court decision, and accumulated wealth. These types of privileges/ benefits are not good for the well-being of our pluralistic and diverse society and it is far from equitable.

So, before you consider using the term “white privilege” as part of your introduction you need to reconsider what you really believe and through actions show your true values:

  • Educate yourself, learn about the history of the country during genocide, enslavement, segregation, mass incarceration, deportation and other moments of our shared history, you will realize what your means “privilege” in terms of a pain to your neighbor.
  • Work to help build a society in which all human beings regardless of their skin color have equal opportunities.
  • Recognize your ancestors’ actions enslaving people and taking advantage of blood labor to create financial capital and wealth.
  • Take actions to be part of the process to rebuild and address these injustices. Promote in your own circle true history of the country and start a reconciliation process.

To that end, someone invocating white privilege is supporting and believing the ideology of white supremacy.

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