Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Privilege Of Being Able To Call Others Privileged

Although it has gained a little renewed attention recently, on June 2, 2020 Jimmy Kimmel included in his monologue

"I know that a lot of white people bristle when they hear the word ‘privilege,’ as in ‘white privilege,’ because there are millions of white people who didn’t grow up with money, or a good education, or a solid family background, or maybe even a family at all. So when they hear the word ‘privilege,’ they go, ‘What privilege? … You hear the phrase ‘white privilege’ and it’s easy to get defensive. The first time I heard it, I did. To me, white privilege was what Donald Trump had, a wealthy father and a silver spoon in his mouth. It wasn’t what I grew up with, so I rejected it because I didn’t understand what white privilege meant. But I think I do now. I think I at least understand some of it.

"White people “don’t have to deal with negative assumptions being made about us based on the color of our skin.” It rarely happens, if ever, whereas black people experience that every day. And please don’t tell me you don’t ever make assumptions about people based on the color of their skin, because I just don’t believe it. We all do. I know I have. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I have.

"I read something last night that I think makes a lot of sense,” Kimmel concluded. “It’s this: 'White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.’ Wherever you stand, I don’t see how you can argue with that.'"

This perspective can be easily critiqued by noting that it only barely takes class into account. Were one as successful as Kimmel, a college dropout (and son of an IBM executive) who has become fabulously wealthy, it would be understandable to conclude that having white skin alone would make one privileged. It's easier to embrace and lament one's own privilege as a white person than to recognize (or at least admit) having more in common with, say, a wealthy black man than a poor white man. Suggesting that a reasonably affluent black is more privileged than a poor white is simply out of bounds (what was once known as "politically incorrect").

Kimmel helpfully concedes "there are millions of white people who didn't grow up with money, or a good education, or a solid family background, or maybe even a family at all," which is more than is usually acknowledged by race reductionists. Moreover, his skepticism that people avoid assumptions about individuals because of their color is well-founded.

But people are not necessarily automatically privileged because of their skin color, though given Kimmel's extraordinary success in the entertainment field accompanied by a lack of higher education, he can almost be excused for assuming otherwise. And people do "bristle," as he patronizingly put it, at the assumption that life has been easy for them. At the least, "privilege" is tone-deaf framing in the manner that "defund the police" has proven to be.

That phrase has been used as rationale to stymie efforts at criminal justice reform. The term "privilege" also is off-putting, as well as neglectful of the impact of economic, or socio-economic, class. That may endanger the attempt to close the chasm between white and black America by programs and policies uplifting the black underclass.

If in fact there has been significant effort. Much has changed since the heady days of summer 2020, when the black lives matter movement awakened Jimmy Kimmel and many others to the notions of "white privilege" and police brutality toward blacks. However, the term "privilege," similar to the phrase "defund the police," is widely alienating. While little criminal justice reform has ensued from those protests, neither has been done to curb actual racial segregation and discrimination. It's almost as if that was never part of the agenda.

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