There are all sorts of euphemisms used within the lexicon of white supremacy; those words and phrases Oxford and other dictionaries define as “a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.” White privilege is a euphemism used in place of the term, “White Supremacy.” It sounds better. It has fewer negative connotations than White Supremacy or Supremacist, because privilege is an easier word to accept than supremacist when discussed around issues of race. It also soothes the feelings of white people who would rather learn about all the benefits they are perceived to have over Black people, even if those benefits are unearned, rather than their collective atrocities against Black people. They can use the points and details of its definition to refute and debate the efficacy of the term. They can apply guilt about being privileged because they are now consciously “accepting” the truth of their dominance over Black people but without accountability or responsibility. They can show concern and sadness about the disparities without owning the blame, since as individuals, they are the beneficiaries of a legacy, the inheritors, not the creators of the ideology that gave birth to the system that produced the disparities.
Whether it is used as a baton to smack the hands of white people who believed they were superior because of their skin color, or thought they excelled because of their inherent merit, or didn’t believe they had privileges at all, only to learn there was actually “something different in the way they were treated,” one thing is clear: white privilege as a term in American social and racial culture has positioned itself as the one-stop, two word description of white people as an offshoot of Racism to distinguish white people from being defined by other seamier terms used to describe them in a racialized America. In fact, white privilege exists today as a term can simultaneously pacify and anger white people at the same time, depending upon how they choose to interpret it, but the fact still remains, it was created by a white person to describe white people in the least uncomfortable way possible.
White privilege was first coined in the 1980s by Peggy McIntosh, an associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. In an excerpt entitled, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she discussed the behavior, benefits and unearned entitlements associated with being identified as white. As a white feminist and activist, Ms. McIntosh must have been keenly aware of white supremacist ideology as the source for such privileges and entitlements, given the simple fact that her essay would not have made much sense without the ideology being in her mind, even if suppressed or unconscious at first. Indeed, she identified with crystal clarity the kinds of unearned benefits white people receive that Black people have known about since Reconstruction. By her own admission and understanding as the self-ostensible spokesperson for white people, she explained that they have no clue about their privileges. Having no clue, whether unintentional or purposely, has the effect of cover for privileges not earned, since such entitlement is deep-rooted within their individual and collective psyche; that part of white exceptionalism which denies any notion of benefits and privileges as free or without at the very least, being merit driven. What was missing throughout her numerous descriptions of benefits and privileges, however, was the very fact of white supremacy as the core ideology for all of them, opting instead for the use of the term, Racism, noting, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” This is interesting as a subject for critical thought.
By the 1980s, The Post Racial Colorblind era had already been in effect for over ten years, a period in which whiteness and white were made “invisible,” and the thinking was that the individual acts of people was what constituted “Racism,” but no actual system stood in place, even if it had before, e.g., Jim Crow. The nation was normal, neutral, and natural in its relationships with each other and how it defined its culture through its white bellied, euphemistic term, “the mainstream.” Nude and flesh, blush and pink were used as the color for white skin, because the word for the color white as skin was no longer spoken of in polite company. Meritocracy and character content were the popular focus for both white and Black people alike, even as character and merit were being defined by the same white supremacists who had successfully redefined Racism in the 60s as Segregation and then for the latter half of the twentieth century as hate, or in the case of the 80s, meanness, based on color. All the while, the system of Racism, which is the structural denial and limited apportionment of equity, equality, opportunity, and justice within all institutions of America’s culture, continued to sustain itself.
For people like Ms. McIntosh, systemic Racism was “invisible.” She, as was and is still the case with many others, were conditioned to believe that “individual acts of meanness” on the basis of color was Racism, which in turn, changed the entire focus away from what was originally put into place after the Enslavement to ensure white supremacy would be maintained. For clarity of the fundamental core of white privilege, just ask yourself this question, “If during the Enslavement, when there was no need for a system of structural, institutional “racism” to guarantee the superiority of white people, what could have possibly been the driving force behind the Enslavement, white people, and the treatment of the enslaved?” Answered quite frankly, it was the ideology that whiteness and white people were superior to the Enslaved Black people, that whiteness reigned supreme and that after the emancipation of Black people, Racism came out of that ideology to ensure that false sense of supremacy would be maintained and sustained.
No white person on the face of this Earth wants to believe that their greatness, their achievements, their privileges, and perceived entitlements were due to anything other than their sweat, hard work and of course, their own merit. This is why many will not accept that a system was put into place to ensure the only competition for privileges, achievement and greatness would be only among themselves and then after the 60s, primarily among themselves. If the brand of Racism as defined today by white people is merely the “individual acts of meanness,” how does that alone account for the delivery of greatness, achievements, privileges, and unearned entitlements to white people? Well, it doesn’t. According to Ms. McIntosh, she realized white privilege was due to “invisible systems conferring dominance,” suggesting something esoteric like “the invisible hand.” That explanation itself creates an unearned privilege all its own, of a feigned superiority in the use of the word, “conferring” or “bestowing.” So, while she was acknowledging what she was taught, she didn’t refute what she was taught. Rather, she gave what she was taught status, a kind of stature to her inherent supremacy, through the bestowing of indiscernible, or “invisible” systems of white dominance. The use of the word “dominance” in itself also creates a supremist connotation when used with the words white and invisible systems.
It is evident that on an individual level, the loan officer, rental agent, employer, school admissions officer, politician, police officer, or any other person tasked with delivering such privileges, entitlements and benefits can deny or apportion opportunity in any meaningful, equitable, and equal way on account of race and color. It could also be said that their “individual acts of meanness” were and continue to be the cause. In fact, this is part of the purposeful way that the descendants of the original designers and others who are tasked with ensuring the maintenance of white supremacy and sustaining the System of Racism retooled it to create plausible deniability for these same mean white people, who, through their actions, keep the structural barriers in place. Nevertheless, it doesn’t negate the existence of those very real structural barriers within all of the institutions where these mean white people work and make decisions. How does any of her rationale even make any sense? Therefore, there is really nothing “invisible” about it, and accepting the knowledge of privilege without acknowledging the very ideology that allows for a frivolous notion of “invisible” systems of white dominance as the reason is absurd.
There is no question upon hearing, reading, or writing the term, “white privilege,” that I am immediately annoyed and even insulted by the prospect, since the only thing the words do is exacerbate my discontent. But for the system of Racism, there would be no need for the term, nor would there be a reality basis for the term’s use. Now, this is not to say that I don’t believe white privilege exists, nor do I discourage the use of the term within the context it is used today. The term, white privilege, however, does have a purpose, as do so many other terms within white supremacist ideology. These terms are purposed for centering whiteness as superior even when being utilized within a context of so-called progressive or liberal thought.
It is extremely interesting how little thought is given to these kinds of terms because of the way they are couched within frames of understanding behavior without owning the cause of their behavior. By now, any forward thinking, liberally minded person of any race who has what they believe is an understanding of the term, white privilege, will express a “truth” of its existence. But how many white people who acknowledge white privilege will also acknowledge white supremacy as the bona fide core ideology behind it? Here is where I guarantee there will be trepidation, doubt, and debate as to the existence or belief in the ideology of white supremacy as the root cause.
Think about this: If white supremacy didn’t exist, neither racism nor white privilege would exist. There would not have been a need to create and sustain a system of denial and limited apportionment, thus creating “privilege” for white people who benefit from the system because they are “white.”
White supremacy is slowly remerging in this beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, but not quickly enough. White privilege is being used as yet another euphemism that does these things among others:
It acknowledges the existence of unearned entitlement and benefits on the basis of white skin color.
It conveniently leaves out the root core ideology that white people used to create the system which sustains it.
It effectively admits, accepts and allows guilt for dominance and better treatment while leaving open thedebate on the existence of racism as the cause of such privilege.
White supremacy does not have to be addressed at all, since any discussion of privilege is only about their benefits, not their atrocities, which provides cover for those atrocities. In essence, white privilege is the direct result of having a system in place to deny and apportion equity, equality, opportunity, and justice to Black people, and Racism is indeed the cause of white privilege. However, because white supremacy is at the core of Racism AND white privilege, white privilege as a catchall euphemism for white supremacy allows white people to center themselves around their “dominance” of Black people, their privileged state of being white, without having to be concerned with the reality of the atrocities which put them there, but by acknowledging an esoteric, indiscernible set of systems, a hidden hand, as the reason instead.
Rather than saying, “your privilege” is showing, it might be more appropriate to say, “Your white supremacist attitude” is showing.”
Oxford Dictionary definition of Euphemism
Racial Equality Tools. Peggie McIntosh Excerpt from Essay Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege. Excerpt Titled: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Dr. Cynthia Alease Smith is an antiracism essayist and educator, a writer, novelist and editor specializing in essays and presentations with various perspectives on white supremacy, race and Racism and the implications of the language used that are not generally considered.