Delray Beach, FL.- Aiden, a reader from South Africa, wrote recently, taking me to task for the essay I wrote about the very hot (in certain circles) topic of white male privilege. https://www.markford.net/white-male-privilege-where-do-you-stand-on-the-social-justice-scale#more-4272
(Aiden – thanks for the letter.)
The idea is not complicated: Historically, white men have benefited from being at the top of the pecking order in most modern societies. Some activists argue that this advantage became institutionalized in the economic, political, and cultural experience of people as paternalistic hierarchies — and that this is responsible for most of what is bad in the world. In particular, the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power that hampers (if not actually prohibits) the advancement of all women and every other ethnic and racial group.
Their argument is, in other words, a philosophy of blaming.
Aiden’s letter was, in part, a reiteration of their stance that since white males are to blame, the solution is to knock them out of their privileged positions and replace them with women and people of color. Once that is done, the equality of not just opportunities but outcomes will be possible.
In South Africa, he says, “white male privilege is real.” And 24 years after apartheid was abolished, it is still “glaringly obvious” in every corner of the country, from “the boardrooms of large corporate companies to the dusty streets of the townships.”
“As a colored man from South Africa,” he says, “I live in a world that is unfair, unequal, and scaled on gender-race privilege.”
He challenged me: “Now ask yourself, how is a black child who is undernourished, uneducated, and displaced supposed to raise themselves out of poverty and into a world where they have more than enough?”
Here is my answer:
Yes, Aiden, we live in an unfair and unequal world. We also live in a world where racism and sexism are commonplace.
Of course, racism and sexism are just two of the many ways the world is unfair and unequal. It is also unfair and unequal in the distribution of wealth and intelligence and physical and emotional gifts and cultural advantages.
Being white and male are two such advantages. But if you limit the advantages to just race and sex, you are bound in an absurd argument.
To repeat the point I was trying to make in the essay you objected to: It makes no sense to suggest that a white boy that comes to this country speaking a second language and whose parents are dirt poor is somehow more privileged than the female children of Barack and Michelle Obama.
He may become successful. Some do. But not many. In fact, the statistical chances of that boy succeeding in the USA are no better than the chances of a third-generation-from-slavery black kid growing up in a ghetto.
This is a fact that only a politician can afford to ignore.
An Academically Incorrect Hypothesis
If you really want to improve things for children that grow up with serious disadvantages, you are unlikely to do so by campaigning to replace white men with white women or with men and women of color.
I could give you dozens of examples of why that is true. But since the example we are talking about here is South Africa, look at its northern neighbor, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). In my lifetime, white men in Zimbabwe have been all but run out of all positions of power, with horrifying results in terms of the daily lives of the country’s black population.
Does racism still exist in South Africa? Yes. Does it exist in the USA? Yes. Just as sexism exists. And ageism. And classism. And every other prejudicial ism you can think of.
A good and useful function of government is to eliminate legal, political, business, and other formal structures that support those isms. But if modern history has taught us anything, it’s that eliminating these sorts of “institutional” biases can only accomplish so much.
It has not and I believe it cannot eliminate cultural and personal prejudices. And in countries like the USA and South Africa, where such institutional biases have been eliminated legally, removing one group of people from whatever perches they occupy will do nothing to advance the causes of everyone else.
The battle for fairness and the equality of outcome cannot be won through government-wide initiatives. They have failed miserably so far. Believing that the solution is to do more of the same is the definition of futility.
Group-Think Results in Big, Hopeful, Useless Solutions
The answer – my answer – is that this sort of social advancement can take place only on a local and even individual basis. There is nothing that the South African government or the US government can do to make it happen.
Aiden goes on to say that I shouldn’t take the term “white male privilege” as an insult. “[It] doesn’t mean your achievements boil down to the fact you’re white and male. It simply refers to the fact that NOT being a white male is a determining factor for success to the majority of underprivileged people in the world.” And he quotes the historian Tom Head: “It has to be accepted that you started off with that advantage. It’s not your fault – it never will be – but all that marginalized communities ask is that you accept its existence. It really is nothing personal.”
To that I would say this: I agree that being white in the USA gives me certain undeniable advantages. But I also feel that the values I was taught as a child – believing in not just hard work and education and deferring pleasure (i.e., saving) – were immensely more valuable than my white skin or my sex.
And I believe that anyone reading this who feels disadvantaged because of their gender or the color of their skin will do nothing but distract themselves from success by putting the blame for their circumstances on another gender or racial group.
The only realistic and proven way to achieve all that you want to achieve in life is by putting aside blame – however much you might feel it’s deserved – and putting the full scope and depth of your mind and will towards practicing the proven thoughts and habits that can and will let you advance to a more privileged position in this unfair and unequal world.