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Confronting White Privilege

People listen to speakers on the steps of the Alabama state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, at a June 27, 2015 rally against the removal of the Confederate flag from a momument at the capital.

In a remarkably straightforward and honest essay that’s perfectly timed to make sense of current events, Katherine Speller lays out the argument for “why it’s not racist to talk about white privilege.”

“We know these conversations can be really hard to have,” Speller posted Tuesday morning on the MTV.com website. “They involve taking a critical look at not only our lives, but the society we live in and the power structures that have been in place since way before we were born.”

Her approach is nonaccusatory yet forcefully persuasive. A news writer at MTV News, Speller, who is white, makes it clear to a presumed audience of her peers—I’m guessing white millennials, though that’s not explicitly stated in her writings—that talk about the social advantages enjoyed by white people “are not attacks on you as a human being, but on a culture of inequality” that affects the lives of everyone.

It’s a brilliant argument that needs to be shared, especially in the wake of nationwide public and private conversations about Confederate flags, marriage equality, and affirmative action that have dominated the headlines over recent weeks. Yet despite last week’s amazing run of news events, discussions of race remain fraught and contentious.

For evidence, look at the comments amended to Speller’s essay. I’m certain they weren’t what she might have hoped to achieve. As of this writing, I’m waiting for a response from her to my direct message on Twitter to discuss the essay and the responses it provoked. Suffice to say, most of the few who bothered to comment expressed strong disagreement with her opinion.

Someone named “melissa” made clear her disgust:

The phrase “White Privilege” is offensive and racist. Your feeble attempts to legitimize it fail miserably. If you are going to make racist remarks, own that ****. This is not an intellectual piece, it is bigoted garbage. Oh, I am aware a white person coined this ridiculous phrase. Just proves what most people already know: White idiots are alive and well in this world.

There’s nothing surprising about such a response. “The 51st state of America is denial,” as my friend Leonard Steinhorn—a communications and history professor at American University in Washington, D.C.—likes to say about the failure of people to acknowledge the disparities of race in our nation.

After reading Speller’s essay and the reactions to it, I called Steinhorn—who is white and has written for decades about how white and black Americans struggle with racial awareness—for his insights into the turbulent waters of discussing white privilege. He fears that too much talk about white privilege without historical and social context may do more harm than help; not because it doesn’t exist, but because what is said fails often to be heard or understood by white people.

Expounding on this idea, Steinhorn pointed me to his essay on the subject posted on TheHill.com, in which he writes:

But if we want white people to dig down deep and confront their prejudices, labeling their American Dream a result of “white privilege” may be counterproductive.

That’s because most white people who have climbed into the middle class—from factory workers to managers—have done so earnestly, by striving to get ahead and playing by the rules. To suggest that their lives are built on privilege will evoke a bridled, defensive response.

The better approach: show how white prejudice unfairly handicaps black Americans.

What we want is a society in which random blacks no longer endure the institutional and interpersonal prejudices that keep them from having the same opportunities and advantages as random whites. We want a society where skin color is descriptive, not defining. And the first step in reaching that goal is to root out white prejudice—so when Jamal interviews for a job, no one will ever judge him as less competent, hardworking or intelligent as Johnny.

I think both Speller and Steinhorn are correct, but that’s not the real import of their writings. The significance is that Speller, Steinhorn, and other white folks are discussing white privilege among themselves at all. This is a major accomplishment, because outside of a few academic settings or conversations among insular social activists, concepts such as “racial privilege,” “institutional advantage,” or even “racism” were rarely discussed in mainstream spaces. Now, they’re becoming a part of our daily discourse, from presidential candidates to major corporations to private conversation that I have overheard among white colleagues.

The long anticipated race conversation has begun in earnest. But this beginning is only a modest step, and many more must follow. I pray the talking continues unabated until, as President Barack Obama said in his Charleston eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pickney, the nation does “what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American.”

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.