I’ve seen the captious phrase “white privilege” — a camp neologism by my reading — very often lately. It emerges from the intellectual marshes of social justice “educators,” a typical pseudo-concept from that roiling pastiche of academic pursuit.
At base this nonsense asserts that white people come equipped — habited as it were — with all sorts of advantage, opportunities, easy dealing, and in general a faster better reach for the good things of life than human beings less pale. The phrase has not surprisingly spawned a slogan — after all, what academic discipline doesn’t aspire to the abrupt short-thought of a bumper sticker? — Check Your Privilege. Which translates into a hectoring from social justice warriors, as they so deliriously style themselves, for white people to stand back and tabulate with tearful guilt the infinite advantages that result from their epidermal good luck.
Scholars of white privilege point to the cascade of superior opportunities that the accident of white skin colour invests in all those who have won the paleness lottery. It’s easier, for example, to get the right shampoo. Lest you think that example a sarcastic fancy, it comes in in fact from a list of “perks” that all whites own: “When I cut my finger and go to my school or office’s first aid kit, the flesh-colored Band-Aid generally matches my skin tone. When I stay in a hotel, the complimentary shampoo generally works with the texture of my hair.” How Martin Luther King passed by these outrages in his I Have a Dream speech is a perplexity doomed never to be untangled.
Here in Canada, white privilege has been with us for centuries. In my part of the country, Atlantic Canada, the white epidermis has been a pure passport to bliss and favour. For generations Cape Bretoners, for example, have revelled in the advantages that poured on their coal-dusted heads and corrupted lungs from generations of labouring under the earth, stooping with pick and shovel, in the murky, dank, mildewed hell of the coal pits. Privileged? I’ll say. How they lorded it over the folks selling haberdashery in the above-ground stores bathed in sunlight and fresh air. Forty years in a coal mine — if accident or early death had not claimed them — and the world was their grime-coated oyster. What were the odd mine collapses, early deaths, TB, and a lifetime working in darkness and danger compared to the privileges that came their way just from being white?