Opinion: ‘On the topic of white privilege’ shows misunderstanding of privilege, denial of oppression

Caroline King

By now, thousands of people have read the column “On the topic of white privilege” that was published in the Collegian last Thursday. Between letters to the editor, online comments and the CSU Privileged Demonstration currently being organized by students on campus, there has been a large collective response of both outrage and support.

While some have written the issue off as the typical controversy started by opinion editorials, others have taken the issue much more seriously. So why does this article matter when everyone is entitled to their own opinion? It matters because the existence of white privilege is not a matter of opinion. It is a fact, and articles like this one perpetuate the privileging of whites and the silencing and erasure of people of color.

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In the article, Burnett espoused a view that is unfortunately supported by many — the position that white privilege does not and cannot exist in a society built upon equal opportunity, and that further, any claims to being oppressed on the basis of race are irrelevant since, as Burnett says, “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.” However, this view reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of both privilege and oppression, and reproduces racist rhetoric that silences people of color and their experiences under the assumptions of equal opportunity and claims to a universal oppression.

For starters, privilege exists and having it does not make you a bad person. It is a term that refers to the systematic advantaging of one social group over another, meaning that the elevation of one group comes at the disadvantage of another — it is, at its core, a system of power. As activist and author Peggy McIntosh invites us to think about it, white privilege specifically is an “invisible package of unearned assets.” For example, as a white woman writing this article, I can expect to criticize our society and institutions for espousing racist politics without being considered a cultural outsider, while for a person of color, the consequences would be much different.

While having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person, it isn’t supposed to be comfortable to talk about, in part because it is obscured. It is no surprise that white privilege is so hard for white people in particular to recognize and accept when the system of white privilege is maintained through its invisibility. The myth of “equal opportunity” and the resulting claim to universal oppression is one of the ways that this remains so. However, there is no equal opportunity when people of color are still systematically and institutionally excluded, erased, murdered and dehumanized on an everyday basis — a reality that is inextricable from the social histories of slavery, native reservations and many more atrocities. 

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that not everyone can be oppressed. It is not uncommon in rhetoric of privilege like Burnett’s to hear whites refute people of colors’ experiences of oppression by claiming to be oppressed themselves. It is true that everyone is capable of suffering, but suffering and oppression are not synonymous, and while these people may be experiencing oppression in other specific ways (class, gender, sexuality, etc.), whites are never oppressed on the basis of their whiteness.  Marilyn Frye describes oppression in terms of a “double-bind” that results directly from unequal systems of power. Therefore, it is impossible to be oppressed because of an identity that you are also privileged by. In the systematic privileging of whites over people of color, oppression works by trapping people of color between the realities of institutional racism such as wage gaps, overt discrimination, police brutality, etc. and the consequences of challenging these systems — silencing and erasure through negative stereotyping and violence. 

Despite the fundamental misunderstandings about privilege and oppression, Burnett’s article is not anything new when the denial and erasure of white privilege are so common in our society. But instead of demonizing one person for representing views that are oppressive, we should ask ourselves as a campus community and educational institution how we are going to handle the larger rhetoric of racism that this article represents, in order to create a community of inclusion rather than one of oppression.

Collegian Columnist Caroline King can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @cgking7.