Rex Murphy: ‘White privilege’ on the march
I’ve seen the captious phrase “white privilege” — a camp neologism by my reading — very often lately. It emerges from the intellectual marshes of social justice “educators,” a typical pseudo-concept from that roiling pastiche of academic pursuit.
At base this nonsense asserts that white people come equipped — habited as it were — with all sorts of advantage, opportunities, easy dealing, and in general a faster better reach for the good things of life than human beings less pale. The phrase has not surprisingly spawned a slogan — after all, what academic discipline doesn’t aspire to the abrupt short-thought of a bumper sticker? — Check Your Privilege. Which translates into a hectoring from social justice warriors, as they so deliriously style themselves, for white people to stand back and tabulate with tearful guilt the infinite advantages that result from their epidermal good luck.
Scholars of white privilege point to the cascade of superior opportunities that the accident of white skin colour invests in all those who have won the paleness lottery. It’s easier, for example, to get the right shampoo. Lest you think that example a sarcastic fancy, it comes in in fact from a list of “perks” that all whites own: “When I cut my finger and go to my school or office’s first aid kit, the flesh-colored Band-Aid generally matches my skin tone. When I stay in a hotel, the complimentary shampoo generally works with the texture of my hair.” How Martin Luther King passed by these outrages in his I Have a Dream speech is a perplexity doomed never to be untangled.
Here in Canada, white privilege has been with us for centuries. In my part of the country, Atlantic Canada, the white epidermis has been a pure passport to bliss and favour. For generations Cape Bretoners, for example, have revelled in the advantages that poured on their coal-dusted heads and corrupted lungs from generations of labouring under the earth, stooping with pick and shovel, in the murky, dank, mildewed hell of the coal pits. Privileged? I’ll say. How they lorded it over the folks selling haberdashery in the above-ground stores bathed in sunlight and fresh air. Forty years in a coal mine — if accident or early death had not claimed them — and the world was their grime-coated oyster. What were the odd mine collapses, early deaths, TB, and a lifetime working in darkness and danger compared to the privileges that came their way just from being white?
Likewise a lot of the early men and women who fled the Irish Famines — so white and pale from endless hunger they could pass as ghosts. Sure, they left a lot of their families either starving — literally — or past all emaciation and already into the grave. But they came to the East Coast as servants, went off to the holiday of a seal hunt, or chewed a living out of the thin soil and treacherous sea for generations. It was life as one big open-air picnic — diversified by endless corn beef and cabbage dinners, and the beautiful thought that they didn’t ever have to worry about money or goods, because they didn’t have any money and there weren’t any goods.
But they were white — so privileged crowned their every hour. Up at 4 a.m. to go to sea for the men, up earlier for the women to light the stoves, start the breakfast for their masters, and work their fingers to the bone serving their betters. A privileged life? You betcha.
War was always one of the crowning moments of white privilege. The poorest whites, the least educated, always went to war in the biggest numbers. And there their privilege was to crowd in rat- and rain-filled trenches, huddled next to dead comrades, and then to throw themselves “over the top” to face a frenzy of artillery and rifle fire, where loss of life and loss of limb was preordained.
The history of all peoples is an anthology of pain and sorrow, hardship and brutality, intermingled for the lucky ones with moments of delightful exchange
I think you could easily run through history, recent or distant, and find a hundred or a thousand more examples of such pernicious entitlement. But if I may drop the ironic mode, let’s not. Let us instead agree that the history of all peoples is an anthology of pain and sorrow, hardship and brutality, intermingled for the lucky ones with moments — mainly domestic or social — of delightful exchange: of weddings, summer gatherings, a little kindness here, a little success there.
The world, or the God who convened it, if that is your faith, has been bathed in hardships and worse — and exemptions to this fate were not set up by skin colour. And as we emerged from the bleaker, less barbarous times of our past, efforts were made to make life just a little friendlier, a little softer and more caring for all. Most of the good stuff and most of the bad came from particular historical times, corrupt or evil leaders, or just random chance. The gulags made no allowance for whiteness.
To even set up white privilege as a category is prima facie racist. It is to reduce the sum of a person, his dignity, his drive, his worth and his soul to the colour of his skin; it is to posit skin colour as the point of departure for all interactions with that person, to found judgments on that skin colour, to draw feverish and deliberately negative conclusions from it.
That such a pseudo-concept even exists, and has full annual academic conferences to elaborate on its tedious fancifulness, and undergraduate courses to inject it into half-formed sensibilities, testifies — one more time — to the modern university’s descent into fatuousness. That any institution which claims to be one of higher learning even allows such trivial exchange offends the dignity of expression, and purporting to offer “instruction” under its banner is just the latest fulfillment of Alexander Pope’s prophetic alarm: A little learning is a dangerous thing. Emphasis on little, very little.
Some universities have become parodies of themselves, shops of petty moral vanity, given to feverish exhibitions of their putative sensitivity and moral preciosity. Hence “trigger warnings” for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the hysteria over “rape culture” and, as here, activist sideshows masquerading as academic courses. (Exhibit A, from Columbia University’s Spectator: “Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom.”)
It is to the great shame of modern universities that they have debased themselves to the pursuit of these follies.
The obsession of seeing everything in race-coloured terms is itself racist. Anti-racism pursed by zealots transforms itself into the very vice it deplores. This is the cost of identity politics, and its close bedmate, victimology enterprises — the desire to judge, define, represent and indict the individual by the group he or she belongs to. Every human being’s experience in its infinite particularities and potentials transcends category.
It is to the great shame of modern universities that they have debased themselves to the pursuit of these follies, and that they do not cast this cant aside as being hollow, sublimely tendentious and utterly shameful to the idea of, or the aspiration to achieve, an educated mind. Wasn’t Doctor King’s most famous prayer that he hoped to see the day “when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?”