White Male Privilege

This is a bit off-topic today, but I had such a visceral reaction to the use of the term "White Male Privilege" this week that I simply can't let it alone.

The phrase was used repeatedly in a blog comment (not mine, another one I read), and the context of usage was to disdainfully dismiss the observations and opinions expressed in a particular opinion piece.  I was outraged because, as you already know if you've seen my picture, I'm a white male.

Further reading calmed me down and I began to ponder a bit on the subject of "White male privilege" (or WMP henceforth).  WMP is a particularly important subject to me as, in addition to being a white male, I have three children of color -- two daughters and a son, and all adopted from Ethiopia -- and while I'd like to think there is no such thing as WMP, I worry that it is in fact, alive and well and may have negative impacts on their lives.  After a few hours researching, and a few days pondering, I've come to the following conclusions:

  1. WMP does exist.  At least when we define it based on outcomes.  From a statistical standpoint whites and males definitely experience better economic outcomes in America than women or people from other ethnic groups.  An example of this is the often quoted "women earn $0.77 for every $1.00 earned by males."
  2. There can be little doubt that there was rampant discrimination against ethnic minorities and women in the not too distant past.  I can still recall overt racism and prejudice being expressed by people when I was a child.  I see scant evidence of it today, but that might be simply because it has been driven partially underground.  Or maybe I just travel in more enlightened circles.
  3. While I can't prove it, it seems to me that racism and discrimination have been greatly reduced since my youth (in the 1960's.)  While I suspect quite a few people still harbor prejudices in their hearts, it is now poorly tolerated in civil society.  There have also been many programs instituted by the government to help reduce the effects of WMP, things like affirmative action, desegregation, EEOC hiring and promotion practices, anti-discriminatory housing laws, and others I'm forgetting.  While these don't necessarily eliminate discriminatory practices, and sometimes they cause a backlash, it appears the programs have helped to level the playing field.
  4. Correlation, however, does not prove causality.  The question of the effect of WMP in today's society, is not as simple as pointing to inequality of outcomes and presenting that as proof.  Human beings are complicated creatures, and the trajectories of their lives are impacted by a great many factors beyond WMP.  For example, when I quoted the $0.77/$1.00 earnings number, that is a piece of raw data.  I understand that when factors such as years of experience and continuity of employment are "accounted for" (however that is done), the gap is much smaller.  The battle between correlation and causality seems always to lead to arcane mathematics.  Reminds me of the famous Mark Twain quote:  "There are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics."
  5. From the perspective of a white male, I don't think we can detect when WMP might be operating in our favor.  It isn't obvious if it is giving us a leg up in some way.  In addition, human nature seems to dictate that we normally attribute positive life events to our own skills, brilliance, or abilities.  It works in the opposite way as well -- when something bad happens, we tend to blame outside forces (like WMP?).  What's really going on often requires a bit of sleuthing.  None of this means WMP isn't real, but it helps explain why its operation is so darned hard to detect.
  6. All this being said, I'm pretty optimistic about the future for my African-American children (and my other daughters, as well).  The playing field, while certainly not perfect, is probably the most "level" it has been in the history of our country.

This being said, I still have a bone to pick with the concept of WMP.  You see, while it represents a real problem (one that appears to have been partially beaten into submission), the phrase is used as a weapon in debate.  Here is what I mean....

If you're a white male and you are successful, someone is bound to say it is because of WMP.  The statement is demeaning in the extreme, and presupposes an understanding of a person's life that immediately discounts ability, talent and effort.  I promise that even with some unseen aid, most of us that have succeeded in life have had to work extremely hard to make it happen.  The WMP argument is an attempt to reduce a lifetime of struggle and effort to a mere statistical event.  The implication is that without WMP, none of our success would have occurred.

The truth is, few of us (if any) would recognize any overt assistance from WMP.  As for myself, I doubt it was a significant factor in my life's course.

So here's the bottom line -- White Male Privilege is still around, but it is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  Its impact is hard to pinpoint, and most white males will not recognize its role (if any) in their successes.  So please don't demean us by trying to reduce our lives to a fancy, academic buzzword -- it's insulting in the extreme.