Thoughts on Tim Wise: Part 1, Defining White Privilege

Today I went to the faculty luncheon with Tim Wise. Wise speaks in Moody Coliseum this evening. In the next few posts I'll share some thoughts about Wise's presentations.

To start, what is "white privilege"? Wise defines it as a kind of oblivion, a taken-for-grantedness. To illustrate this notion Wise asked us to think about how we entered the building for lunch. For most of us able bodied persons, we didn't have to spend any time at all on how we would approach or enter the building. As able bodied people we can take entering buildings for granted.

But if were were handicapped in various ways we couldn't take entering a building for granted. We would need to think about parking and where handicap accessible entrances might be located (or if these entrances exist at all for this particular building). In short, for handicapped persons entering buildings cannot be taken for granted. A handicapped person has to think about how he or she is going to negotiate building entrances.

In short, privileged groups can take certain things for granted. Less privileged groups cannot take these things for granted. A woman working in a man's world has to negotiate aspects of male privilege. She has to think about things and negotiate things that men just don't notice or pay attention to. Handicapped persons have to think about things and negotiate things that able bodied persons don't notice or pay attention to. And people of color have to think about things and negotiate things that white people don't notice or pay attention to. In this sense, privilege is a kind of cognitive and behavioral freedom that is a luxury less privileged groups do not have.

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tim Wise: Part 1, Defining White Privilege”

  1. This reminds me of a rule at my school that new boys could not use the front stairs. We were being taught about privilege. Was it a good lesson? I have a handicapped first nations son who has had to earn his privileges at forensic psychiatric units - and he cannot maintain them. What does this say about brain damage and cultural responsibility?

  2. i listened to all six parts of his white privilege talk on youtube. Have you listened to it? It was enlightening, but there were some definite non-sequitirs in there. i don't at all see how under-privilege necessarily implies over-privilege. i see how that could turn out to be the case, but he seemed to suggest that it necessarily followed.

    Also, it seemed like he first argued that rich people would choose to own black slaves and work them for free rather than hire poor whites as wage labor. But then he turned around and said mexican immigrants willing to work for less wouldn't harm wages of white natives. How are those points consistent?


  3. Is this post in support of eugenics??? Could you arrange these groups in a proper hierarchy, Korean, West African, Chinese, North European, Pacific Islander, Jew.

  4. Richard,

    Pecking order(s)? Complex. Convoluted. Multicolored. I guess it depends on who the chief, uhh, pecker is. I keep thinking of the Bob Dylan song: "You gotta serve somebody!" Even white privilege serves somebody.


  5. I'm not sure I'm up for a full-bore explication of Wise's "white privilege" theses, but I frankly think many of the "stumbling-blocks" folks run into when they are confronted by it are in fact evidence of it's enormous impact.

    Guy, why WOULDN'T under-privilege NECESSARILY implicate a corresponding over-privilege, certainly in the areas Wise is addressing?? Some persons are privileged to take for granted the very things with which others must contend and overcome. We might disagree on how best to deal with these disparities, but they are very real, and our customary obliviousness to them -- or outright denial of them -- is a huge part of the problem.

    And there is no inconsistency between the point about the impact of slave labor on poor whites and what Tim actually says about the invalidity of the premise that ridding this country of low-wage immigrant labor would increase wages of folks you term "white natives" -- which is an interesting choice of language, in itself. In any event, Tim's point here is that borders will NOT be closed to capital, so that capital will be free to follow low-wage labor wherever it is located -- a point too obvious to miss in our present world, I think.

    I can't be sure from George's terse comments precisely what he means, but I think it is true that "white privilege serves somebody." That's the problem. It serves the folks that need it least, but want it most. And it is our oblivion to its insidious effects that perpetuates the problem.


  6. Gary,

    Suppose we could agree that all men being equal affords them 10 particular privileges--whatever those may be. We may have a society where there is one person or a class of people who are receiving less than those 10. But that doesn't imply than anyone is receiving more than 10. Underprivilege alone does not imply overprivilege. The only way you can get that conclusion is if you have some further premise (perhaps something that demonstrates that privilege is a zero-sum game).


  7. Guy, thank you, first of all, for your temperate reply and for looking at the issues. I think you raise a good point regarding whether privilege is a zero-sum game. I believe it is, almost definitionally, and certainly in the way that the "white privilege" operates in our culture. I believe the "benefit" of that privilege -- however much we are oblivious to it, or even deny its existence -- comes precisely at the expense of those "burdened" by under-privilege. I think it operates as a zero-sum game, and that it does so pervasively and stubbornly BECAUSE those who benefit from it do not recognize that the benefit they receive can only come at the expense of those who do not share it.

    I also agree with something Richard has written about before, to the effect that Jesus calls us to a life as non-zero-sum people; especially in those areas, perhaps, where others are playing zero-sum games, consciously or unconsciously.

    But I am interested in how you think underprivilege "alone" does not imply overprivilege. I am not being condescending. Perhaps I am missing something basic, but it seems to me as oxymoronic as Keillor's tongue-in-cheek claim about Lake Woebegone, where "all of our children are above-average."

    Help me out. What am I missing?


  8. Guy, in an effort to respond as directly as I am able to your hypothetical, I ask you to consider these concerns: You suggest a society where all persons are afforded 10 particular privileges --but then you assume a person or class of persons who in fact receive less than those 10. Can you see the irreconcilable conflict between the two premises?? Then, you suggest that (where some don't receive all 10) this doesn't imply than anyone is receiving more than 10. And you conclude: "Underprivilege alone does not imply overprivilege." But back up a moment. In your hypothetical, there are only 10 privileges, so I suppose the "privileged" (who receive all 10) do not receive MORE THAN 10, by virtue of having some or all of the 10 withheld from other persons or classes. BUT, the Privileged DO receive a greater quantity of the ten privileges -- relative to those from whom they are withheld. In other words, the 10 privileges should have been distributed equally to all, according to your first premise. Whatever portion is withheld from the under-privileged (in your second premise) has to inure to the benefit of the privileged. They are RELATIVELY better-off than the underprivileged, to precisely the same extent that the underprivileged are burdened by whe withholding.

    Perhaps I need to know how you think your hypothetical (or our current culture) can be anything BUT a zero-sum game, UNLESS (as I think Tim is suggesting) some or all of the dominant/privileged class decide to treat the situation as a non-zero-sum game, where the privileged voluntarily act to give up (transfer) the disproportionate share of their 10 privileges (from your hypothetical) to those from whom they are being withheld. As I understand the exercise, the current point is that this transfer/giving-up will not occur until the privileged group comes to recognize that they do have more, and voluntarily determine to redistribute.

    Does any of this make sense?


  9. Gary,

    By "afford" i meant to convey the idea that perhaps we could define the precise level of individual entitlement. If that level of entitlement is defined, then anyone above that level is "overprivileged" and anyone under that level is "underprivileged." It could be that many people are not receiving what they are entitled to (suppose they're getting 8 out of 10). But that **alone** does not imply that anyone is receiving more than 10. Theoretically, it could be the case that *no one* is receiving all they're entitled to. Perhaps some phenomenon like the lack of natural resources has brought an entire population below "the poverty level" as we've defined it. Therefore, underprivilege does not necessarily imply overprivilege.

    Are the people who are getting their 10 better than the people who are only getting 8? Of course. But that doesn't mean the 10-ers are overprivileged, because by the definition of entitlement we began with, they're only getting precisely what they should be getting--no more, no less. The standard is the original definition, not other people. Whether or not i'm keeping up with the Jones's isn't the point; the point is whether or not i'm getting what i'm entitled to given the definition (law, statute, whatever).

    Now if you did have *further* information which proves that all of the "storehouse" of privileges is necessarily handed out everytime, and thus *someone* had to get those privileges withheld from others, then you have overprivilege. (That may very well be true in this country. i'm not claiming so either way because i have no idea really.) But you didn't get this from the concept of underprivilege alone. That's my only point--that if Wise is saying that "underprivilege" alone implies overprivilege, then he's guilty of a non-sequitir. He needs more premises in his argument.


  10. Guy, I get your point that the initial definition (or quantification) of entitlement must be the benchmark for determining under and over-privilege. And I also think I get the idea of (at least theoretically) a "storehouse" of privileges; and that the "storehouse" itself could expand or shrink due to non-discriminatory reasons. But I think what we are discussing here is distribution of entitlements, not the stock in the storehouse. In other words, I guess I don't think we can (as a society) maintain a balance of undistributed entitlements -- in the sense we are discussing them here -- and that, thus, it really is a zero-sum game. Anything "taken" from one necessarily inures to the benefit of others. It doesn't just dissipate from the storehouse; neither can it be "stored" for future use.

    Can we tweak your hypo a bit? Assume your set of 10 entitlements, each of which can be distributed to persons in quantities measured on a scale of 1 to 10. Assume further that ideally, or definitionally, each person in that society would receive all 10 entitlements, and receive them at a level 5 on the 10-pt scale. If the society operates so that some class of persons is under-privileged -- they receive less than level 5 of all 10, or less than a 5 on any of the 10 -- then I submit that there is a corresponding "overpayment" to some other class or classes of persons in that same societal economy. Grossly speaking, if some class is getting 3's, then some equivilent class receives 7's. In real life this kind of precision (+2 vs. -2, on an individualized, measured basis) may never occur in ways we can measure -- but the point of this exercise is to bring us to SEE that withholding some measure of entitlement from others bestows an advantage on ME, if I am not subject to the same withholding. I do not labor under the same disability. That is the definition of Privilege.


  11. Gary,

    Not completely sure i understand your "level" system. If i do have it right, then you mean for each of the 10 entitlements, there is a quality level for each one(?) So in other words, perhaps during the "handout," my 1-4 were all level 5 in quality, but my 6-10 were, say, level 2 in quality(?)

    If i've got you right, i still don't see how that alone implies overpayment. Suppose entitlement #2 is receiving a roll of toilet paper every week. Just because my roll is smaller (and thus, not a level 5) does not necessarily imply that someone else's roll was bigger that week. It could've been the case that not enough toilet paper was produced that week. It also could be that the left over toilet paper is sitting in a wharehouse rotting somewhere and no one has it.

    Or suppose my entitlement #3 is 'access' to a 'good' high school. And suppose that 'access' is defined in terms of so many miles distance from my house and having such and such a level of transportation to and from that school. And 'good' high school is defined in terms of X number of teachers and staff, and X number of learning-supplies given to me free (out of tax money). But when a high school has X-1 teacher, then it's no longer a level 5 distribution of my entitlement #3. Given those parameters, just because, say, i go to a high school which has X-3 teachers does not necessarily imply that someone somewhere is going to a high school with X+3 teachers. Again, the mere presence of underprivilege doesn't imply overprivilege.

    You may very well be right that there are factors which render the situation a zero sum game. i'm not denying you that possibility at all. i really don't have a view on the matter. My only point is that whatever factor it is, it is *both* underprivilege *plus* that factor which creates overprivilege, and not underprivilege *alone.*


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