Reflections on White Privilege, Its Origins and Implications

By David Montgomery

White privilege, white fragility, systemic racism — we are bombarded with these and similar concepts on national media, in big cities, and even in a rural county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  The words seem familiar and give the impression that they are describing something bad about race relations that should be rectified.  But to most, on all sides of the political issues, the exact meaning of the words remains obscure.  Some shout them to belittle or bully opponents without understanding their origins or purpose, others hear or read them and wonder what it is that deserves such attacks.

Understanding where those phrases came from and why they are used has become a necessity for informed participation in debates over race in America.

They originated in a school of thought named Critical Theory (always in capital letters) or more broadly, post-modernism.  Even a brief history of post-modernism would involve many German and French names, multisyllabic words, and contorted paragraphs.  It would likely engender a feeling that “Montgomery must be making this up.”  I am not, and those inclined to tolerate this kind of reading might consult a source to which I will refer frequently.

For those who wonder why I start with what seems to be a digression into this abstruse world of academic scribblers, I repeat John Maynard Keynes’ quip that “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Getting to the point, Critical Theory rejects science, evidence, and reason as ways to obtain “knowledge”.  Its central tenet is that the purpose of scholarship and research is not to search for truth in an orderly and objective way, but rather to reveal the ways in which one power group (white men in particular) dominates all others and to motivate activism to destroy that system of domination.  As one leader put it, postmodernism “seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.” (Criticism and Social Change by Frank Lentricchia. Page 12. 1983.)

Remarkably, this has become the dominant point of view in humanities departments of expensive liberal arts colleges and universities, and it is spreading rapidly into departments that train schoolteachers.  A quick search in Google for the words “Critical Theory” produced a list of 100 well-known universities that include such courses in their curricula, frequently in their schools of Education.

As a matter of no little historical interest, Karl Marx is an icon of Critical Theory because he also  taught that knowledge is not understanding of an objective world but a product of practical activity to change it.  When it became clear that Marx had it wrong about the economic collapse of capitalism, some of his academic followers became “cultural Marxists,” developing an alternative critique, that Western Civilization is built on oppression of minorities.   It is from this development that the concept of systemic racism emerged.

One more multisyllabic word is useful: “problematizing”.  This means examining any statement, social interaction, historical event, or scientific conclusion with a view to discovering how it is “upholding, producing, reproducing, justifying, or legitimating any form of systemic dominance or oppression, such as racism….

Articles in postmodern professional journals thus follow a similar format: make assumptions about how power works in society and its evil effects – and then find ways to read those assumptions into the specific topic of the article.  This makes for some very strange claims, such as that requiring precise answers to mathematical questions is a racist act of dominance over minorities.

This approach should be familiar to those who have followed the attacks on a Talbot County Councilmember on the Facebook page of the president of the local NAACP chapter.  In those comments there was frequent outrage that anyone would ask for facts, data or examples of racial bias within country government, and explicit condemnation of such requests as themselves embodying oppression of black people.

A nice example makes this methodology a little more familiar.  Instead of using hard data to prove the presence of racism, the post-modern researcher would derive a conclusion from four sources: personal observation (I feel I was disrespected because of my race ), dialog (I talked to other people and they feel the same way), the ethic of caring (I care about the marginalized and want them to be treated better), and personal accountability (those who disagree with me don’t care and are denying my truth, so I can disregard them).

This brings us to the interrelated terms “systemic racism”, “white privilege”, and “white fragility”.

The method of problematizing is used to attack individuals for white privilege and white fragility and to create the notion of systemic racism.  And remember – those who follow Critical Theory have no ethical or practical interest in making truthful claims – their justification is entirely to produce a response that will be useful to their purpose of destroying the current system.  Thus, to quote another characterization, “This mindset begins by rejecting questions like ‘did racism occur?’ and replacing them with ‘how has racism manifested in this situation?’” The existence of racism is assumed, the only task for the advocate is to make up a story of how a person or institution exhibits racism. 

Systemic racism is the place to start, because it is what sustains white privilege and leads to white fragility.   It is defined as “A way of organizing society based on dominance and subordination based on race [that] penetrates every aspect of personal, cultural, and institutional life, [leading to] exclusion, discrimination against, suspicion of, and fear and hate of people of color.

“Systemic racism” is an unchallengeable assumption.  It means that all social institutions are based on racism and make everyone racist.  Individual choice does not come into this–it is a new form of predestination. 

Remember – this characterization of American society was not reached on the basis of sociological studies like those of Daniel Bell and Patrick Moynihan, not even on public opinion surveys by the Pew Foundation, but from a cumulative process of imaginatively “problematizing” every aspect of American society with no regard for truth, with regard only for how useful the “findings” of a publication will be for advancing the cause of social change. 

Another basic assumption of Critical racial Theory is that remedies for systemic racism cannot be achieved within the existing legal, political and social institutions.  The radical Representative Ilhan Omar (D, Minn) was simply stating that creed when she said “We must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression wherever we find it.” In an ultimate irony, the method problematizes itself by concluding that all possible ways to solve problems of racism or other forms of oppression are inherently contradictory.

In these terms, white privilege is very simple.   Every white or “white-adjacent” person benefits from systemic racism, because it is everywhere and its purpose is to maintain the dominant position of the white race.  A white person has a white identity because of birth and socialization, and those confer white privilege due to the systemic racism of American institutions that make all whites dominant over all blacks. 

The central tenet of white privilege is that it is impossible for a white person to be or become non-racist.   Thus articles and comments describing how a white person grew up in poverty, raised a family as a single mother, never felt any hostility toward her black neighbors (and might even have married a black man), never made a racist remark, abhors racism and votes straight Democrat – are deemed entirely irrelevant.  The degree of white privilege is not determined by individual virtue, character or behavior – indeed, in the postmodern framework individuals do not even appear as agents.  All that matters is race and every member of the white race is equally immersed in white privilege by virtue of being a member of the dominant race.

The only hope for salvation is to become “antiracist,” which requires not just a change of attitude but engagement in activism to overthrow the system of white dominance.  This is accomplished by a neverending process of searching ever more deeply for one’s sins of racism and oppression — what psychologists and Catholic moralists call scrupulosity — and recognizing the need to tear down the “system.”  Eventually confession, conversion and activism make it possible to reject white identity and earn the status of antiracist. 

Those who deny being racist and refuse this process of reeducation are said to be exhibiting “white fragility” – the title of a book that has rocketed to number one overall on Amazon.   

 “White fragility” is defined by activists as “The state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves [in white people]. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.

The eponymous book by Robin DiAngelo challenges white people who deny being racist or benefitting from white privilege to be taught (very profitably for Ms DiAngelo) how they are being racist in ways they are unable to acknowledge.  Thus she exploits the general belief that racist behavior and policies are wrong in order to shame white people, especially women, into confessing racism in actions that they never realized were wrong.  Frequently, all a white person has to do is open her mouth to be guilty of racism.  Examples abound in White Fragility.

This is very much the same process as “problematizing,” but practiced one at a time on individuals.  The resemblance to re-education in totalitarian regimes or indoctrination into a cult should not go unnoticed.

The best part about the process of becoming aware of hidden racism is the built-in kafka trap, a situation in which denying a transgression is taken as evidence of guilt.  Also known as heads DiAngelo wins, tails her reader loses.

If the participant confesses to racism, DiAngelo has a convert.  If the participant denies being racist, that proves she is suffering from white fragility that makes her unable to see how racist she is.   To give an example:  a black and a white woman walk into a dress department simultaneously.  If the sales attendant waits on the white woman first, she is being racist for giving priority to a white customer. If she goes to the black woman first, she is being racist for wanting to keep an eye on the black woman so that she cannot steal something.

To those of us with a smattering of education in logic, these circular definitions make the word “racism” meaningless, because they make it impossible not to be racist.  For the teachers of white fragility, this kind of logical objection is itself an example of racism.  If logic interferes with the political agenda, they reject logic.  The method of “problematizing” implies finding out how every situation involves racism — based on the unchallengeable assumption that every white or white-adjacent individual is racist. 

Understanding these principles of antiracism makes some of the puzzling dialog more comprehensible.  When an black speaker accuses a questioner of white privilege and racism for requesting some data and analysis to support their position, they are simply repeating a basic tenet — that logic and quantification are tools of white dominance.   The only valid mode of discourse involves listening and further problematizing. 

As we have seen in the recent events in Talbot County and the myriad comments in Facebook and local papers, white privilege and white fragility are terms used to bully and intimidate white people into agreeing to the agenda of identity politics.  They are used to make black spokesmen exempt from the requirement to make their case with data and logic.  Asking for such convincing evidence or questioning factual mistakes, fabricated claims, and nonsensical arguments is prima facie evidence that the sceptic is racist. 

There is a clear agenda at work throughout the country, and here in Talbot County, to use these techniques to gain majority assent to the destructive program of postmodernism.  Its favorite tools are diversity training, which is itself very often an exercise in indoctrination through the Kafka trap of white fragility and school curricula that similarly indoctrinate children to believe in white privilege and abandon the traditional values of individual responsibility, logical thought, hard work, and respect for all others as equals.

  All these are coming here.

Nor are they likely to make any material difference to the actual condition of minorities and poor of all races, which the postmodern program ignores.  Actual data on outcomes suggest that antiracist training like that offered by DiAngelo creates antagonistic reactions that may play into the agenda of identity politics but only exacerbate conflicts.

 Since the goal of the postmodern approach is exactly what Ilhan Omar stated, the overthrow of all existing institutions, it has no sympathy for – indeed scorns – liberal efforts at improving housing and education, reducing crime against minorities, and changing cultures like those described by former black students at prestigious secondary schools (see Worth Reading).  Indeed, its only recommendation for those students would be to further alienate themselves from the mainstream of life in America, by committing to their racial identity group to the exclusion of all others and working to overthrow the system.