I’ve been thinking about my “white privilege” recently. If I understand the concept correctly, I have advantages in all things here in the United States of America simply based on the fact that I’m a Caucasian, a descendent of Europeans. In other words, a white guy. My “whiteness” accrues to me social and economic benefits I did not earn and, by extension, do not deserve. As a result, I should at a minimum feel guilty. I should feel ashamed of my privilege, if not the entire history of “white guys.” Further, I should do everything in my power to minimize my privilege relative to non-white guys by supporting legislation and social pressure to award employment and career positions to people of color in preference to white people.
Let’s lay out some facts: I personally had no control over the circumstances of my birth. (Surprise!) Nor did I have any control over the actions of my ancestors. (Surprise, surprise!) Nonetheless, I benefit from my white ancestry and the fact that I am a white guy. That my ancestors may have been sharecroppers or indentured servants, that they may have died from black lung disease after working a lifetime in a West Virginia coal mine, that they may have lived in a one-room shack with a one-hole outhouse behind it has no bearing on the “white privilege” argument; the only fact one need acknowledge, which is both necessary and sufficient, is that I am white. Because white people throughout the history of western civilization were the predominant holders of power, I, therefore, benefit in relation to non-white people in current western civilization.
Seems to me, though, that this is all a matter of perspective. Here’s my thesis: People of African heritage in the United States today benefit from Western Civilization Privilege. Not considering Africans who are relatively recent immigrants by choice, but looking only at those who are descended from those brought to this country involuntarily in the 17th and 18th centuries, it seems reasonable to consider how they might be privileged relative to their lineage who were left in their countries of origin.
According to History.com, the majority of African slaves originated in the countries of (current day) Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Angola, and Democratic Republic of Congo. If we may use mean household income as an objective metric and reasonable substitute for comparing quality of life among the various countries of interest, we find, according to Wikipedia, mean household annual incomes of all people in these countries is (measured in $US as of the most recent information):
|Country||Mean Household Income|
|Dem. Republic of Congo||$645.68|
Compare those numbers with the mean household annual income of Black people in the United States (most recent US Census numbers), which is $49,629. (Forty-nine thousand six hundred twenty-nine dollars per year.)
If I, as a person of European descent, benefit from that privilege purely based on an accident of birth, having had no input into the actions of my forebears, should not Americans descended from African slaves, now living in western civilization and in a country that at least tries to guarantee every person equal respect under the law, also be said to benefit from their ancestry? True, their ancestors suffered greatly against their will, but that suffering gave their descendants opportunities they never would have enjoyed in their countries of origin.
Can we not say that Americans of African descent in the United States enjoy Western Civilization Privilege? If not American privilege? And should they feel guilty they are here in the United States while their long-lost relatives were left behind to suffer a life of poor health, poverty, and little opportunity?
One might say that the history of slavery changes everything, that there is no comparison, no parallel or analogous situation. One might say black people are in a unique situation here in the United States due to our history of slavery and no rationalization or comparisons are allowed or valid.
I disagree. Slavery was part of the human condition the world over. Western civilization holds no monopoly on that tradition. Western civilization, however, was the first to develop a collective abhorrence of the institution. It was made illegal in Spanish colonies by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabela and Ferdinand, in the early 16th century and it has not existed in western society since the 19th century. However, according to The Wall Street Journal, fifteen countries still, in the 21st century, engage in slavery. None of which, by the way, are in what would be termed the Western World. (These countries are India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Russia, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Egypt, Myanmar, Iran, Turkey, Sudan)
We of European descent in the United States, as well as current day Europeans, enjoy declaring our guilt. We adore proclaiming our sins. We take great pleasure in our “I’m sorry” culture, apologizing ad infinitum to anyone and everyone who will listen. We relish focusing on the very worst of our culture, decrying every failure and imperfection, while celebrating the very best of other cultures and ignoring or not bothering to learn of their less than stellar past and shortcomings.
I was fortunate to be born not into a white society, but into the society of western culture, into a culture that has produced countless great works of art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and music, that values rational and scientific thinking, that strives to honor the inviolability of each person, that values human rights, a culture borne of the Judeo-Christian tradition (love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, do unto others…). In spite of all this, the only culture today that is not allowed to be celebrated is the one culture that allows all other cultures to be celebrated. True, we have imperfectly implemented our values, but we are no less perfect than any other culture.
Throughout history in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas untold millions were enslaved by people of every race and religion. War and the accompanying starvation and pestilence killed hundreds of millions of people. Yet, miraculously, our ancestors survived and you and I are alive in the 21st century, enjoying the fruits of western civilization. Unfortunately, as Europe and The United States is populated by humans, we still endure prejudice and bigotry. I venture to guess one would find it impossible to go anywhere in the world where these failings were not present. Yet western society in general, and The United States in particular, have laws that protect individuals in every strata of society. And we enforce—some would say over-enforce—them. Still, imperfect as humans are, we in The United States have enshrined in the highest law of the land that each person, regardless of any identifiable characteristic, is equal under the law.
All of us here in western society are privileged relative to those in most of Africa and much of Asia by virtue of our Western Civilization heritage. An attitude of gratitude and your own personal intestinal fortitude will bring you more of whatever you desire than one of envy and resentment. Many people have a difficult life due to circumstances imposed upon them by others, circumstances beyond their control. Still, if you were born into western society at this time in history, you, regardless of your color, benefit from Western Civilization Privilege.