This post is about whether white people should feel ashamed of white privilege. To help us explore this question, I am going to describe three different scenarios to you. I would ask you to use your imagination to put yourself fully into each of them.
Scenario #1: The Kentucky-Tennessee 10K Race.
Imagine that you are a runner and that you live in Kentucky. You have entered a 10K race in which all participants are from either Kentucky or Tennessee. Imagine that this race is sponsored by a famous shoe company, and all the race contestants are required to wear sneakers from this company.
You have been training for months before this race, and you are in the best shape of your life. And you know you are going to do well in the race, and you do indeed do well! You win the race! Of course, you are ecstatic.
All pictures in this post, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Unsplash.
But Why Did You Win?
Your excitement over the win diminishes, however, when you find out a few months later that all of the shoes that went to contestants in TN had a significant design flaw. The flaw, while generally undetectable, threw off anyone wearing the shoes and slowed down their running time significantly. And indeed, as you discover, all the runners with the best race times are from Kentucky.
You question whether your race victory was due to your hard work or more due to the shoe advantage you and all Kentuckians had.
Scenario #2: The AquaVir Water Club.
Imagine that in the last decade, the place where you live has developed a problem with contaminated drinking water. The water is so contaminated, in fact, that anyone who drinks regular tap water—even filtered tap water or natural ground water–gets sick.
To solve the problem, various water clubs have sprung up. The water clubs have developed various water filtration systems, and they deliver safe drinking water to all their members who must pay a yearly fee to be a part of the water club. You have joined a water club called AquaVir.
The Dark Side of AquaVir
Now imagine that after several years of belonging to AquaVir, you find out that the CEO and board of AquaVir don’t like short people. In fact, through subtle screening methods, they have excluded all people shorter than 5”6 from joining AquaVir. You are 5”7.
This discovery alone disturbs you. And then you also find out that the AquaVir owners have been quietly and systematically working to drive all other water clubs out of business or buy them up. They want to have a monopoly on the water club business. And they still plan to exclude all adults that are shorter than 5”6.
When you find this out, you worry about folks much shorter than you. You worry about how they will have consistent access to clean drinking water, and you are angered by this blatant act of discrimination.
Scenario #3: The Organization for Excellent People.
Imagine that you belong to an organization called The Organization for Excellent People (OEP). In fact, you and your family have been a part of OEP your whole life. It is an organization that aims to encourage excellence in all its members. It is a very wealthy organization and provides its members with rich social, artistic, and educational opportunities.
In addition, many key religious, political, and entrepreneurial leaders of the state you live in are members of OEP, and so all members of the organization are connected to influential people and usually get very good jobs because of these connections. You love being a part of OEP, but in recent months you have been troubled by odd reports.
You have heard that many of the top leaders in OEP have an irrational fear of red-haired people and that this paranoia has long been a part of the history of OEP. In fact, you hear stories of the early days of OEP, which was founded in the 1700s, of OEP leaders holding Red Hunts in which they hunted down red-haired people and beat them up or, in worse cases, killed them.
You had heard occasional stories like this before but you thought that most of them were just myths or a few isolated incidences. This was the OEP’s official statement on such reports. You never believed there was anything like widespread paranoia of red-haired people in the early days of the OEP or currently.
What You Discover
But these new stories make it apparent that Red Paranoia and Red Hunts were most certainly a reality and much more prevalent and widespread that you had thought in early OEP history.
Worse yet, you hear new rumors that Red Paranoia and Red Hunts never actually stopped and still happen today. You discover that the OEP members who engage in these beliefs and practices are much sneakier about it than they were in the past. And as you hear these stories, you remember all the odd comments about red-haired people you heard growing up that you thought were just jokes. Now you’re not so sure.
And you further realize that there have been no red-haired people in the OEP since you have been a member. The only exception is Sam, who was the janitor of the OEP when you were growing up. You remember one time when you were ten that someone painted an obscene picture of Sam on one of the external OEP walls. And you remember how the OEP official laughed it off before they made Sam paint over it.
Things Get Worse
And one day as you are walking through the OEP building, you see various framed pictures commemorating the founding leaders of the OEP. You recognize most of them as the main characters in the stories about Red Hunts you have recently heard.
An you remember several of your red-haired friends whom you had invited to join the OEP and how you were met with silence and odd looks after extending the invitation. Once, one of your friends had even replied, “You know we’re not welcome”. You had just shrugged it off as over-sensitivity or a misunderstanding on your friend’s part. And now you wince at the memory.
Now you worry that Red Paranoia is actually pervasive through OEP; that your red-haired friends are not actually welcome and even in danger; and that you have benefited from years of opportunities and connections denied to red-haired people everywhere.
Your Advantage and Privilege
If you think about all these scenarios, you will realize that you had a significant advantage in each of them.
In the KY-TN Race Scenario, you had an advantage of not running in shoes with a design flaw. This advantage quite possibly contributed to you winning the race.
And In the AquaVir Water Club Scenario, you had the advantage of being 5”7. This advantage allowed you consistent access to safe drinking water.
Lastly, in the OEP Scenario, you have the advantage of being born with brown hair. This advantage gave you connections, enrichment opportunities, education, and freedom from the fear of being hunted down and harmed for your hair color.
In all of these scenarios, you have had a privilege, which is “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a [particular] person [or group]”.
First, in the race scenario, you had Kentucky privilege. Second, in the water club scenario, you had height privilege. And third, in the OEP scenario, you had brown hair privilege.
And you may have had other disadvantages in life. Maybe you were in a serious car accident when you were younger and lost one of your limbs and had to get a prosthetic leg and years of therapy. Or perhaps one of your parents died when you were young, and you experience significant trauma because of it.
These tragedies should not be downplayed. You suffered, and no one can deny it. But similarly, no one can deny that, despite your suffering, you possessed Kentucky, height, and brown-hair privilege in each of the scenarios above.
The question is should you feel ashamed of your privilege? First, let’s look at what shame is because there are different kinds of shame. I will examine two.
What is Shame?
We will call the first kind of shame, Shame #1. When you have Shame #1, you may feel like you are worthless, disgusting, and unlovable. People often feel this kind of shame when they suffer dehumanization and people treat them like less than a human being. Such dehumanization occurs during situations like bullying, mockery, abuse, neglect, abandonment.
When we suffer from Shame #1, we struggle to fully realize our worth and dignity as a human being. These feelings of shame might be a symptom of trauma.
Different Reasons We Feel Shame #1
We may also feel Shame #1 when we assume, incorrectly, that we are worthless because of mistakes or failures we have made in our life.
No one like mistakes and failures, but most of us understand theoretically that we are not shameful for making mistakes or failing. Nevertheless, we may feel worthless because of our mistakes and failures even though technically we know we are not. If we are not able to recognize and overcome such feelings, they may become deep-seated beliefs that erode our sense of worthiness and dignity.
There is a second kind of shame I will call Shame #2. Shame #2 is the feeling we have when we recognize that we have failed to live up to moral principles. Moral principles help us aim for a higher good both for ourselves and others.
They may help us to adopt virtues that help human communities flourish. Or they may help us honor the dignity of human beings and keep us from making ourselves the exception to the rule and from living an egocentric life. (You can read more about moral principles here.)
It is essential that everyone do their best to live consistently by clear moral principles. If we fail to do so, we will likely develop vices like selfishness, callousness, cruelty, or apathy, whether we mean to or not. We will also likely develop the habit of acting solely according to our own self-interest with little regard to how our actions may harm other people.
When We Fail to Live According to Moral Principles
Many people who do great harm to others do so, not because they are deeply evil people, but because they are careless, impulsive, or indifferent people who regularly fail to consider how their actions impact others.
When we regularly fail to follow moral principles, we hurt ourselves and other people. It is right to feel shame in these situations, like the shame we would feel if we purposely punched our friend in the face in a moment of anger. Or like the shame we would feel if we were being reckless and did the same.
In these cases, we need not feel Shame #1. We aren’t worthless people because we have made a mistake or failed. But we should feel Shame #2 because we have failed to follow moral principles, and we have failed to treat ourselves and others in the way human dignity requires.
We must do better, and Shame #2 invites us to do better and to be the moral people we were meant to be.
Should We Feel Ashamed of Kentucky, Height, and Brown-Hair Privilege?
Now let’s apply these ideas about shame to the three stories mentioned at the beginning of this post.
In the three scenarios mentioned above, we need not feel Shame #1. We might feel Shame #2 because we have inadvertently been a part of a race or club or organization that harms other people in some way.
As understandable as our feelings of shame might be this case, it is not a sign of true guilt on our part. Rather, it is a kind of shame-by-association.
We didn’t rig the Kentucky-Tennessee Race. And we didn’t discriminate against people under 5”6 or try to deprive them of fresh drinking water. Furthermore, we didn’t engage in Red-Hunts. So, while we unknowingly benefited from privilege in all three scenarios, we are not guilty of violating any moral principles, insofar as we did not realize our privilege.
But What about When We Become Aware of Our Privilege?
The moral situation becomes more complicated once we recognize our privilege. Morality requires that human beings be treated with equal dignity and have equal access to the basic goods of society that help them flourish as human beings.
No one has the right to treat some human beings as less human or less-deserving of dignity. And no one has the right to decide that certain people do not deserve basic fairness and justice because of the state they live in, their height, their hair color, or some other arbitrary feature.
In addition, morality requires that we speak and act on behalf of people being treated unjustly. If we fail to do so, we are exhibiting vices like apathy, indifference, cruelty, and a lack of compassion.
Furthermore, we are making ourselves the exception to the rule, and we fail to treat others how we would want to be treated. We would certainly want others to speak and act on our behalf if we were being treated unjustly.
What Should We Do with Our Privilege?
In the above scenarios, morality requires us to speak up and act on behalf of all the Tennessee runners, people shorter than 5”6, and red-haired people. Morality requires us to demand that any organization of which we are a part treat everyone with justice.
And it requires us to stop supporting organizations that refuse to do so. If we recognized our privilege but fail to meet these moral demands, it would be right to feel Shame #2.
And to excuse ourselves by saying, “I didn’t know” when these injustices have been happening all around us, when we had heard rumors, and when people had been speaking about them for years would also be a moral failure. In these cases, we have exhibited vices of willful ignorance, apathy, a lack of compassion and indifference to those around us.
Our silence in these situations would be immoral.
And we might not know how exactly to remedy or stop these injustices, but morality would demand that we at least think about how we could do so and try to do so in earnest.
It is important to understand that since the beginning of U.S. history, white people have benefited from privileges much like the ones described in scenario #1, #2, and #3. (You can read more about white privilege here.)
And black people, as well as other People of Color have continually spoken about white privilege and the way they have been excluded from and harmed by this privilege for hundreds of years.
Photo courtesy of History in HD
White privilege is so pervasive in the U.S. that many white people do not recognize their privilege for many years. In these situations, they are like the person in scenario #1, #2, #3 who unwittingly benefited from privilege. (I certainly did not understand my white privilege for many years. You can read about my awakening to my white privilege here.)
Becoming Aware of Privilege
When white people come to recognize their privilege, they should feel neither Shame #1 or #2 because they did not construct, nor were they aware of, the privilege they have, although it is normal to grieve unwitting participation in organizations or cultural practices that reinforce white privilege.
However, If white people continually ignore or deny their privilege as they get older, this is a moral problem. It is increasingly difficult to ignore the voices of People of Color who speak about this privilege or the evidence of it we see regularly in the news.
To fail to listen to these voices or to fail to pay attention to the evidence is to demonstrate vices of willful ignorance, apathy, and indifference to those around us asking for help. Such actions might also indicate vices of arrogance, paternalism, and condescension. For instance, white people who continually ignore claims of racism by People of Color appear to believe that they (the white people) know better than People of Color about their own lived experience.
The Proper Kind of Shame
White people in this case should indeed feel shame, but they should not feel shame for being white. They should feel shame that they have failed to follow moral principles and to treat people with the dignity they deserve. They should feel Shame #2.
Such feelings of shame are not a sign that we are worthless human beings. Rather, such feelings are an invitation to acknowledge our moral failings, which everyone has at one point or another, and to commit anew to work for a just, fair and humane world for everyone, a goal which is not easy but is most certainly possible to obtain.
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