On the topic of ‘white privilege’

Megan Burnett

There have been two letters to the editor in response to this column: “Another perspective on white privilege“, and “In response to white privilege column“.



Today’s America is a society of victims. In every corner of the Internet, you can find someone blaming someone else for having a specific sort of “privilege.” Male privilege, white privilege, you name it — these days, any sort of success or achievement is not attributed to hard work, but rather the uncontrollable circumstances in which someone is born into.

“Check your privilege” is a favorite phrase among the champions of the Oppression Olympics. However, this generalizes and makes assumptions about a person based on their successes in life, without ever getting to know the individual or learning their back-story.

Last year, during an on-campus demonstration, I was told to “check my white privilege.” This struck a nerve with me. Although I did grow up in a successful household, with all that my parents could provide for me and my siblings, this had nothing to do with my ethnicity or heritage. My parents worked incredibly hard throughout their lives to make sure that I could attend college — the same college as those who accused me of having too much privilege.

Many people tend to forget that the United States is a nation built from the ground up by immigrants. Why have so many people willingly immigrated to the United States in the past several centuries? Were they not satisfied with their cushy life in western Europe? Many college students nowadays might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t just racial minority groups fleeing from famine, war or oppressive governments.

My personal “white privilege” stems from my ancestors escaping starvation during the Blight in 19th-century Ireland. During this time, the people of Ireland were discriminated against for being, shockingly, Irish, and even more shockingly, being Catholic. The famine occurred largely because of political reasons, and Ireland was denied aid relief while 1/3 of the population starved to death.

After coming to America, my ancestors did not immediately settle into a cushioned lifestyle. Irish Catholics were still discriminated against, and could not easily find jobs other than those in coal mines. My grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. all lived in poverty until my parents’ generation, where hard work helped them find success and achieve the American Dream.

This is not to start a competition of “whose family had it the worst.” My purpose is to point out that every social and cultural group since the dawn of humanity has experienced some sort of oppression, and it is not exclusive to one race, gender, etc. To tell someone to “check their privilege” is insensitive to that person. You may be speaking to the descendant of a Holocaust survivor, or someone whose grandparent was in a Japanese internment camp.

One’s skin color or any other uncontrollable personal attribute does not define the individual nor their success. Blaming each other for terrible things that happened centuries ago — such as slavery — does not have any merit in our current American society set on equal opportunity. It is up to every individual to define their own success, despite the obstacles that may stand in the way.

Perhaps instead of “white privilege,” we should be using the term “American privilege.” We live in one of very few nations on earth where every group has the opportunity to be successful despite their possibly “unprivileged” background. Unfortunately, not everyone with their victim goggles on is able to see this.

Collegian Columnist Megan Burnett can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @megsbcollegian.