Whether you love him, loathe him or are still trying to figure out who he is, former Texas congressman turned Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke has lobbed a hot potato onto our national political stage. In addressing several examples of his youthful indiscretions — aka bad behavior — O’Rourke acknowledged that he had been treated differently than other people because of “white privilege.” Couple white privilege with O’Rourke’s gender — male — and we get “white male privilege,” a potent force indeed.
The definition of white male privilege is squishy, to say the least, making it difficult to pin down criteria. A general definition references systemic advantages white men have over women and people of color, some of whom have faced racism. Financial resources, educational attainment and social status all play roles, as do other factors. It is safe to say, though, that one defining litmus test is that many African-American parents deliver “the talk” to their children about how to behave if they, especially the boys, are stopped by law enforcement officers. Far fewer white parents feel compelled to do that.
The Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly has just displayed the power of white male privilege with its recent election of well-heeled members to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, the 24-member policy-setting body for our state’s university system. Twelve members were elected by the legislature, 10 of them incumbents. The newly constituted board will have six women, three African-Americans and one Native American, with the remainder being white men. The lone Democrat, an African-American, was eligible — and sought re-election — but was not put back on the board. There are no Democratic members. This is in a state that has 51 percent women, 22 percent African-Americans and 39 percent of voters registering Democratic.
This is not to say that the people elected to the Board of Governors are not capable. Most of them are, but so are many people who are not white men. Clearly, some sort of privilege is at play here.
The concept of white privilege, including the higher subset of white male privilege, has been written about for centuries and picked up steam during the civil rights era, beginning in the 1960s, and was widely discussed in academia. As social media took hold, white privilege moved into mainstream conversations and into films and popular music. It is, however, a bit like art and pornography. We all know it when we see it, but we have trouble coming up with an actual definition.
Author Peggy McIntosh took a stab at defining white privilege in her 1987 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Wrote McIntosh, it is “an invisible weightless knapsack of assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, tools and blank checks.”
A scholar and activist, McIntosh also wrote, “as a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage.” Putting it bluntly, McIntosh wrote, “if a traffic cop pulls me over or the IRS audits my tax returns, I can be sure I have not been singled out because of my race.”
It is into this context that Beto O’Rourke dropped his thoughts on white privilege and white male privilege in particular. We have yet to see whether a national discussion will follow, but it should. The reality of white privilege pervades so many aspects of American life, both private and public, and it has smoldered for centuries.
We will never get over it if we cannot talk about it.