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Why do so many white people deny the existence of white privilege?

They’re surrounded by pieces of the puzzle, but can’t put them together

Team Westport, a town-sponsored diversity committee in predominantly white Westport, Connecticut, recently caused an uproar by sponsoring an essay contest for high school students. An essay contest — how could something so innocuous incite anyone? But this was no ordinary contest. No, it was one that asked students to — gasp — consider white privilege and search for any marks it may have left upon their lives.

One resident of this wealthy Manhattan suburb, Bari Reiner, 72, denounced the contest as offensive. “It’s an open town,” Reiner told the Associated Press. “There are no barricades here. Nobody says if you’re black or whatever, you can’t move here.”

That this white enclave permits a “black or whatever person” to reside there disproves nothing about white privilege, of course. Denying white privilege while misunderstanding the concept, well, that song has blared throughout American history. This land is ripe with Bari Reiners.

This ordeal led me to ponder a question relevant to our race conversation, to the extent such a conversation takes place: Why do the white folk who deny white privilege think that way? The answer, I believe, is that American culture conditions white folk to not fully grasp how society privileges them. They are surrounded by the pieces of the puzzle. But they have been miseducated on how to complete the image that portrays their racial group in an unflattering light.

Many white people rebut the notion that white privilege augments their lives. That’s because they consume the world in a specific manner, through what sociologist Joe Feagin calls the “white racial frame.” Think of a frame as the process by which people take in new information, sift through the data, sort the important from the unimportant and decide how to feel about it all.

Feagin argues that American culture has taught whites to believe they represent the intellectual and cultural vanguard, to conclude that racial inequalities cannot be traced to their past or present behavior and to view their dominant status — their privilege — as natural and yet invisible.

An example of how white people view their privilege as natural and invisible appears in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land. She interviews working-class and middle-class white people in Louisiana and learns they’re disenchanted with their government and no longer recognize their country. They feel as if black folk, other minorities, immigrants and refugees have cut ahead of them in line, meaning the government caters to others before them. The line-cutting angers them, although they never question why they should occupy the first position. That implicit assumption — I should be tended to before all others — encapsulates how they view white privilege as natural and invisible.

The white folk who most view the world through the white racial frame will interpret events to defend racial injustice and a whites-on-top racial hierarchy. The wealth of evidence demonstrating police officers often brutalize black people, for instance, establishes that black people deserve the blame. The white racial frame deludes white folk into believing the system is operating as it should when it advantages them and disadvantages people of color.

Believing the system, when the system favors them, warrants vociferous defense, has become a cultural-family heirloom, much like grandma’s pearl necklace or grandpa’s gold pocket watch. Thus, when many white people hear requests to scour their lives for signs of white privilege, they are being asked to execute a mental routine they have been trained to perform poorly. White privilege is unconsciously considered both normative and normal — meaning, the system should privilege them and the daily privileges they receive never register as special.

Instead of knowledge and acceptance of white privilege, many white people display ignorance: What is this privilege of which you speak? I do not detect a hint of it. Perhaps you are being lifted by a race-based privilege because surely it is not I.

Such ignorance becomes a tool of racial domination. By denying the unfairness, white folk never have to confront it.

Charles Mills, in his book The Racial Contract, argues that this ignorance produces “the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.” This country was built on privileging whites over nonwhites. But this truth has been lost because many white people have programmed their antennas to disregard that signal.

White folk who do detect white privilege have learned to neither reflexively disregard evidence of their privilege nor twist it into proof against its existence. Only a minority of the population, sadly, has reprogrammed itself in this way.

Some contend that working-class white folk should not be expected to perceive their privilege. The well-to-do, so the argument goes, obviously reap these benefits and therefore criticizing the wealthy who fail to reckon with their privilege is proper. White people living paycheck to paycheck, however, should be excused for their denials. Detecting it proves too hard for them, considering that we talk about white privilege in ways that would confound anyone in their circumstance.

J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of an economically struggling and largely white small town in Ohio, articulated a version of this thesis in a podcast with Vox’s Ezra Klein.

Vance invoked the hypothetical son of an unemployed West Virginia coal miner who resides in an all-white economic wasteland. This son, confined to a pocket of poverty, tastes no hint of his supposed privilege. Thus, Vance told Klein, “If you’re asking [him] to check his privilege … you’re asking just too much from basic human cognition. That kid cannot look at his life and say about a group of people that he doesn’t understand, that he doesn’t even interact with a lot day to day, that their lives are much worse than his, and I think that’s one of the things that the modern discourse around racial privilege and racial disadvantage misses.”

In a National Review piece, Vance bolstered the claim that the white working-class inhabit a world that increasingly obscures white privilege from their field of vision: “the privileges that matter — that is, the ones they see — are vanishing because of destitution: the privilege to pay for college without bankruptcy, the privilege to work a decent job, the privilege to put food on the table without the aid of food stamps, the privilege not to learn of yet another classmate’s premature death.”

But Vance’s argument is wanting. For one, American culture, not impoverishment, has taught white folk to misunderstand white privilege. Individual white people shoulder no responsibility for creating white privilege, but denying its presence prolongs its life span. And that does warrant criticism. Granting the white working-class this moral reprieve absolves them from culpability.

To understand that white privilege is real only requires believing people of color when we tell our stories, and belief is not contingent upon socioeconomic status. The white working class hears these stories. But many choose to disregard them and castigate minorities for blaming the white man for all problems.

Now some might respond that the white working class has its own story, one imbued with struggle. Their story rings true — people born into economic turmoil, regardless of race, face tough times indeed. But the two stories don’t conflict.

Pre-Civil War, when poverty captured lots of white folk in its vast net, white privilege was nonetheless a strong force — not because white skin protected against descent into poverty but rather because it ensured white folk would never endure a range of negative experiences inflicted upon only people of color. Then, it was slavery and now it’s something else.

That coal miner’s son will never sit down on his bed, parents standing over him, faces stamped with worry, as they explain how to survive a police encounter. That coal miner’s son, once he decides to leave his parents’ home, will harbor no fears of being denied an apartment because of his race. If he decides to participate in politics, he will never worry about a state legislature trying to stop people who look like him from voting. Right now, as the evidence of the white supremacist leanings of presidential advisers comes pouring out of their respective closets, that coal miner’s son can watch events unfold without personal fear of his own government.

The issue is not that some white people lack a proper vantage point to see their privilege, but that from their vantage point they have chosen to avert their gaze.

Vance, in his National Review piece, invoked the phrase “check your privilege,” and although the coal miner’s son has likely never been told that, the phrase has fallen from a lot of lips recently, particularly on college campuses. I must confess I believe it to be an unfruitful conversation starter. “Check your privilege,” after all, is a command and robust dialogue rarely commences with demanding that the audience complete a task.

But I doubt most black people summon the “check your privilege” mantra to convince listeners. Civil rights activist and poet James Weldon Johnson once wrote “the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” Black folk, for self-preservation, have become self-taught Caucasian anthropologists. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, endorsed this point when writing that black folk have learned “to anticipate white people’s emotions and fears and grievances because their issues are singularly our problem.” Because we, to use Cottom’s phrase, “know our whites,” we know full well they won’t check their privileges simply because we tell them to.

“Privilege checkers” likely pursue a more emotionally thrilling mission — basking in the sweet catharsis of telling white people just how we feel about them.

Consequently, Vance is right — the white privilege conversation features glaring imperfections. And that might push a person to conclude that some portion of the problem is that we talk about privilege in the wrong way.

In the future, wise thinkers might devise more persuasive arguments to convince white people about their privilege. But many will still choose ignorance over knowledge until they resolve to see the world as it is, not how they imagine it to be.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.