Afterword II


I’m going to start with a question many people will find, for all sorts of reasons, highly controversial.  Bear with me a little.


Does ‘white privilege’ even exist?


It seems to, based on the sheer number of think pieces published in a vast number of reputable (and not so reputable) journals and suchlike arguing that it does.  There is no shortage of people telling other people that they have privilege, then offering to run courses training them to acknowledge they have privilege and then ... and then what?  There is no clear answer to that question, largely because the people who run such courses don’t want to put themselves out of business.


First, let me try to answer my original question.  Does ‘white privilege’ even exist?


My answer is rather nuanced.  I have indeed experienced a degree of ‘white privilege.’  But I had that experience in Malaysia, which is not - by any reasonable measure - a white-majority country.  Whites make up a very small percentage of the overall population, smaller still outside the bigger cities.  (When I lived in Kota Kinabalu, I was the only white person in the apartment block.)  This ‘white privilege’ came with a price, literally.  When I shopped alone, in places where there were no price tags, the price was generally higher than when my (Malay) wife and I shopped together.  Whites are generally assumed to be wealthy in Malaysia, which is one of the reasons the whole ‘beg-packing’ phenomenon is regarded with a mixture of bemusement and annoyance.  It’s also true that I got more respect from the local police than other immigrants, who seemed to believe it was unlikely that any white person in Malaysia would be anything other than a perfectly legal immigrant.  I was allowed to walk through a checkpoint for illegal immigrants even though I do not look remotely Malaysian.


In Britain and America, however, the question of ‘white privilege’ is a great deal more thorny.  By definition, a racial (or sexual or religious or whatever) privilege must apply to the vast majority of people who fit the bill.  White privilege can only exist if the vast majority of white people have it (in the same sense, perhaps, as men can be said to have ‘penis privilege’ and women can be said to have ‘vagina privilege’).  And it is by no means apparent that the vast majority of white people possess privilege.  It certainly doesn’t seem to provide them with any real advantages.  Indeed, in some ways, it provides quite the opposite.


The ‘privilege-checkers’ are fond of citing Peggy McIntosh’s famous 1989 essay, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.’  McIntosh lists 26 of what she calls the daily effects of white privilege in her life, putting race ahead of any other factor.  However, the list is deeply flawed.  Not, perhaps, because it is inaccurate in her case, but because it is inaccurate for so many others.  We might break down her 26 effects as follows:


True (of the vast majority of white people): 6, 9, 17, 20

False (based on non-racial factors): 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 11, 13, 15, 21, 23, 25

Dubious: 5, 7, 12, 14, 18, 22, 26

Flatly Untrue: 10, 16, 19, 24


Many of her effects - the false or dubious effects - are oddly slanted, drawn from her personal experience rather than more generalist experiences.  #8 - “if I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege” is laughable from almost any other point of view.  Finding a publisher is not easy and only someone who’d spent most of her life in academia would argue otherwise.  #19 - “if a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race” - is odd because it is quite difficult to see who is driving a car or written the tax return until the drunkenly-driving car is pulled over or the auditor checks to see if the person claiming a million-dollar income is really drawing in so much money.  In both cases, there can be ample grounds for suspicion long before the person’s race is clearly recognised.


Others are flatly untrue, depending on personal conditions.  There is no way #1 fits me unless I cut my wife, my mixed-race children and all my in-laws out of my life.  The only way someone could fit #2 is through having vast amounts of money and a certain amount of social clout.  And really, one doesn’t need to be a different race to have neighbours who are not friendly or even neutral (#3).


It is fairly easy to believe, therefore, that McIntosh was simply wrong.


John Scalzi, the well-known science-fiction author, had a different way of looking at it.  He put forward an essay entitled ‘Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,’ (Follow Up, Follow Up II) in which he compared growing up a ‘straight white male’ to playing a computer game on a very easy setting.  This is a more solid argument than the invisible knapsack, as it is less tightly bound to specific advantages, but it suffers from a number of flaws.  Most notably, the obvious response is something that boils down to “I’m a straight white male and my life has been anything but easy and therefore Scalzi is wrong.”  This isn’t really helped by the simple fact that most ‘easy’ settings are really easy.  I tend to agree with this: my life wasn’t easy, even though - yes - I am a straight white male. 


It might be better to say that the advantages of being a straight white male are negated by being a friendless nerd with poor social skills, no gift of the gab and a shortage of money.  Indeed, one can even argue that ‘friendless nerd’ is right at the bottom of the social hierarchy.  Scalzi’s argument is better, as he’s talking in general terms, rather than specifics, but it still has problems.  People don’t think in generalities when they’re suffering and react badly to people who say they should.


In a sense, both McIntosh and Scalzi are talking from a position of privilege.  They recognise their own privilege, their own advantages, but they don’t realise that other white people - straight or not - don’t share their advantages.  (Scalzi did address this point in his ‘Double Bubble Trouble’ essay.)  This lack of empathy leads to problems when they both fail to realise that other white people face other problems and don’t, in any real sense, have privilege.  It’s quite easy to reap the benefits of certain issues - immigration, globalisation, etc - without realising that others, the people you don’t see, are suffering the disadvantages.  It is easy, for example, to push eco-friendly power plants if you’re rich enough to pay the increased bills.  If you’re poor, if you’re already spending money you don’t have just to stay alive, why would you support anything that raised your costs? 


And, when activists ask white people why they deny their privilege, could it be that they don’t have any privilege?


It is true enough that most power and wealth in the Western World rests in the hands of white men.  They make up the majority of political leaders, corporate directors, etc.  However, it is also true that the political-financial elite is a very tiny fraction of the whole.  The wealth and power they hold is not shared amongst the remainder of the straight white male population, let alone the entire population.  One may argue that wealth and power can be averaged out and so there is an even distribution of such things, but this doesn’t work in practice.  It is true, to use a simple analogy, that some writers make fortunes (JK Rowling, George Martin), and this suggests that all writers make fortunes, yet this isn’t actually correct.  The vast majority of writers cannot sustain themselves by their writing alone.


From the outside, looking in, this may not be obvious.  But from the inside, it is so painfully obvious that any practically any writer who heard a suggestion he’s one of the super-rich would laugh hysterically ... and then dismiss the speaker, on the grounds the speaker is too ignorant to be taken seriously.  And he’d be right. 


It is this lack of perspective that gives rise to identity politics and the problems they bring in their wake.  A broke white guy, suffering the sort of poverty and deprivation that is commonly associated with the Third World, is not going to accept the suggestion he’s privileged.  And why should he, when he isn’t?  A writer struggling to enter the field and make a career for himself is not going to like suggestions that writers should be published on any other basis than writing skill.  Why should he, when it works against him (even if he appears to be given an unfair advantage)?  Indeed, one of the most ignorant statements I had to deal with was a suggestion that I was privileged for attending boarding school.   The school in question was deeply deprived, lacked the facilities to offer more than very basic classes (to the point that certain career options were foreclosed before I knew I wanted them), and was infested with bullies.  If being beaten up and/or insulted just about every day is privilege ... I can’t take anyone who makes that argument seriously.  And why should I?


This leads to bitter resentment.  People who don’t have any privilege, in any real sense, resent it when they’re told they do.  People struggling to survive and build a career for themselves hate it when they’re told they have to work harder than others, as compensation for crimes they didn’t commit (and weren’t, in many cases, committed by their ancestors).  The idea that victimhood justifies further rounds of victimisation is bad enough, but when it’s aimed at people who didn’t commit the original victimisation it is considerably worse.  Why shouldn’t it be resented? 


Perversely - but unsurprisingly - the growing awareness of ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ fuels racism.  The more people are aware of different groups within society, the more they draw lines between themselves and other groups.  The more people see other groups as having an unfair advantage, one that comes at their expense, the more they hate and resent it.  And the more inclined they are to believe that other groups bring their misfortunes on themselves, rather than being the victims of forces outside their control.  People who feel they’re being nagged and pressured into making endless concessions resent it.  Of course they do.  And when they feel they’re being treated unfairly, they want to push back.


And they do, by arguing that other groups have privilege too.  Male privilege is countered by female privilege.  White privilege is countered by black privilege.  Christian privilege is countered by Muslim privilege.  Etc, etc ... it’s all a terrible mess that promotes tribalism and encourages a cold war between groups that ensures old wounds will never close, with an endless series of ‘atrocities’ to keep the cycle going. 


Or, as someone more cynical than myself put it, divide and conquer.



But there is, it should be noted, a very real form of privilege.  Class privilege.


Indeed, pretty much all of the time, the person discussing ‘white privilege’ is actually talking about ‘class privilege.’  A person born into a higher class has more privilege than a person born into a lower class, regardless of the colour of their skin.  Obama’s daughters will have more privilege, for the rest of their lives, than a random white guy born in flyover country.  If you look back at the Invisible Knapsack essay, you’ll note that most of the effects credited to ‘white privilege’ are actually due to ‘class privilege.’  They would actually be true for someone born to wealth and power, who would be - in the West - almost entirely white.


A person with ‘class privilege’ has more than just money.  He has connections.  He grew up knowing the movers and shakers - and the next generation, who would become movers and shakers in their own right.  He probably met hundreds of celebrities, media personalities and many more, people who are either important or think they’re important.  The upper classes are a de facto aristocracy.  They marry amongst themselves; they rarely interact with people who are lower than themselves.  People like George W. Bush would probably not have risen so high if they hadn’t been able to draw on their family’s connections.  They can also count on the unspoken support of their fellows, even those who are technically on the other side, as long as they’re not too poisonous.  Class protects itself. 


One of the few things I will agree with the privilege-checkers on is this: the person at the top, however defined, often doesn't realise what it’s like for the people at the bottom.  It is easier, from one’s lofty vantage, to divide people into subsets (race, gender, etc) than recognise that each and every person is an individual in his or her own right.  However, this also has the massive downside that the people at the top are often unaware of their own ignorance (like the person who insisted that going to boarding school was a sign of privilege) or how their well-intentioned words and deeds come across to others.


The point is that, if you’re on the top, it is easy to do a great deal of damage to the people at the bottom even if you have the best of intentions.  If you are well aware of your own ‘white privilege’ - which is actually ‘class privilege’ - and not a particularly deep thinker, you might assume that everyone who happens to share your skin colour also shares your privilege.  A moment’s rational thought would be enough to put the lie to this, but such people are rarely deep thinkers.  They grow up in an environment that does not encourage it.


Imagine, for the sake of argument, that a wealthy - and liberal-ruled - suburb wants to embrace renewable energy.  The environment will be protected, but the costs of electric power will go up.  This is not a issue for the wealthy, who don’t mind paying an extra £100 per month, but a serious problem for the poor.  They don’t have the money to pay for power, leaving them powerless ... collateral damage of a well-meaning, yet seriously misguided attempt to help.  If you lack the experience to realise that other people are different from you - and not just poorer than you - you will wind up accidentally hurting them.


            Percy: Oh, come now, Baldrick. A piffling thousand?  Pay the fellow, Edmund, and        damn his impudence.


            Edmund: I haven’t got a thousand, dung-head!  I’ve got 85 quid in the whole world!


If you live in a bubble, and most people with ‘class privilege’ do tend to live in a bubble, it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing people by their group, rather than as individuals.  It requires close contact to separate the members of a different ‘tribe,’ for what of a better term, into separate people.  If you don’t have that contact, it’s easy to start thinking that ‘all X are Z’ and other fallacies that are strikingly hard to lose.  It’s also easy to start hurting the people who lack your ‘class privilege’ - and to feel, when they object, that they’re in the wrong.


The average senior politician, for example, has a great deal of ‘class privilege.’  He or she also has a great deal of protection.  So do the very wealthy.  People like Bill Gates can afford to live in giant gated communities, places where they never have to come into contact with the great unwashed.  They enjoy a degree of safety that someone living in a poor and deprived community does not share.  A member of the protected class, as Peggy Noonan put it, is protected from the reality of the world he/she helped create.  They can argue that a serial killer shouldn’t be executed, on the grounds that the death penalty is immoral, but they’re not the ones at risk.  The ones who are at risk - the unprotected; the poor, the people who cannot afford private security - feel otherwise.  And then they’re insulted by the protected, who cannot understand their point of view.


This tends to lead to amusing moments of naked hypocrisy.  The wealthy are all in favour of immigration, diversity and suchlike as long as they don’t have to endure the downsides.  If they do - if there’s even a chance they might have to endure the downsides - they change their minds very quickly and shout “NIMBY!”  This hypocrisy rapidly becomes sickening, which is at least part of the reason Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016.  The three main candidates for the Democratic nomination for 2020 - Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden - all live in areas that cannot, by any reasonable sense of the word, be termed ‘diverse.’  Indeed, they’re pretty much majority-white ... and expensive enough to preclude the average Trump voter from moving there.


Unfortunately, merely exposing the hypocrisy is rarely enough to stop it.


In theory, we live in a meritocracy, in which a person with sufficient merit can rise to the top.  In practice, we live in a world where people lucky enough to have the right parents have a genuine edge over the rest ... an edge so pronounced that they are rarely aware of what life is like for people at the bottom.  This breeds contempt for the lower classes, a contempt that is being increasingly returned.  This is not a good thing.


Throughout history, there is a pattern that tends to repeat itself.  A very competent man, someone who climbs to the top, will be followed by a son or grandson who is foolish enough to fritter away everything his ancestor built.  In Britain, for example, there was a long string of very competent monarchs being succeeded by fools or weaklings.  Why would this happen?  Put bluntly, the competent monarchs had to struggle to earn their power and, by the time they were secure, they understood the limits of their power.  Their successors, born to power and privilege, lacked that awareness.  They pushed the limits too far and often got their fingers burnt.  But very few of them truly suffered for their crimes.  They had ‘class privilege.’



This is the crux of many of our modern-day problems.  On one hand, our political-financial-media-etc elites have become disconnected from the real world and consumed with a distrust, even a hatred, for those who do not share their views and the wealth that insulates them from the consequences of their own actions.  On the other, society has become infected with the virus of ‘identity politics,’ which makes it impossible to put the past in the past and, perhaps more importantly, focus on what’s important.  On one hand, we have a steady move towards a de facto aristocracy that cares as little for the ‘commoners’ as any of their more formal processors; on the other, we have a rise in nationalism and radicalism that could easily lead to disaster. 


Why?  Well, I’d like to put forward a quote that - I think - explains the growing problem.


“And when Johnny doesn’t get the job and gets frustrated and complains about it he’s told that he shouldn’t be bitter because he has all the advantages and privileges of being a white male. So here he is at age 22 or 23 wondering exactly which advantages he’s had all along here because for every major event he’s had in the last 5 years, he’s been shot down because of his race and/or sex.


“If he’d been passed over at one stage by 1 point, people like Johnny would probably shrug it off. But after a while when you see people stepping in line ahead of you at every line you go to, at some point Johnny has to start wondering when he gets to compete on even terms. But the answer to that from affirmative action advocates is “never”.


“You saw it happen once and you kind of shrugged it off which, I think is pretty normal. Would you have the same response be if that was the 30th time you’d seen it? And what would be your response if each time you saw it happen was a building block towards another future event? Isn’t that what we refer to as “systemic”?”


There are people who will say that the above quote is nonsense, that it isn’t true.  But that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that people believe it.


If you were born in some really high-class area and you happen to be white, there’s a good chance that you have a lot of privilege.  But if you happen to be born white in Hillbilly Elegy country, you might reasonably ask why you don’t have white privilege?  And then you might ask why people who have never worked a day in their lives insist that you do have white privilege?  And then you start thinking that these people are, at best, as ignorant and stupid as the person I mentioned above ... and, at worst, that they are racist class warriors out to destroy you.


Is it any surprise that people like that voted for Donald Trump?


The point most privilege-checkers forget, I think, is that most people are self-interested.  They may not be selfish, not in the sense they will gleefully steal candy from children, but they will put their self-interests first.  Why would anyone vote for policies that will make their lives harder?  It’s not easy to get a job at the best of times.  Why would anyone want to make it harder?


But it gets worse.  The curse of identity politics is that it encourages people to think in terms of their identity - and ‘white male’ is an identity.  Instead of coming together as a united human race, we are being divided into tribes and judged by our tribes.  What may seem, to the people at the top, a scheme to redress historical disadvantages scans very differently to the people at the bottom.  They see it as nothing more than racism.  Not reverse racism, racism.


If you stack the deck against one group, for whatever reason, you are engaged in racism.  Whatever excuses you use, whatever historical justifications you invent, you are engaged in racism.  Instead of dampening racial tensions, you are inflaming them.  You are harming the people least able to cope with it, pillorying them when they dare to protest ... and then acting all surprised when they vote against you.  Drowning men will clutch at any straws!


Look, I am a student of history.  I know that injustices have been perpetrated throughout history.  I know that people have often gotten the short end of the stick because of things - skin colour, gender - beyond their control.  But one does not redress such injustices by perpetrating them on someone else.  That merely makes them worse.


As a writer, I am not scared of even competition.  If a writer outsells me ... well, good for him.  But if that writer has an unfair advantage that isn’t connected to writing - being black or female or whatever - it bothers me, because I can’t compete.


I’ve been told that, throughout history, writers were largely WASPs.  That might be true.  But it isn’t my fault, nor is it the fault of everyone else like me, and there is no reason that we should be made to pay a price for someone else’s misdeeds.  And, for that matter, it is not fair on non-WASP writers to have to face the suspicion that the only reason they were published was to fill a quota.  Why should they have to pay a price because someone with more power than sense thinks that quotas are a good way to rectify historical injustice?


As a historian, I am well aware that women generally got the short end of the stick throughout history.  But, as the father of two boys, I don’t want programs that profess to rectify this injustice by piling injustice on my sons.  Why on Earth would I want them to be at a disadvantage? And, if I have a daughter at some later date, I don’t want her to suffer a disadvantage either.  And everything I know about history - and human nature - tells me that she will.


Coming to think of it, my kids are mixed-race.  Do I want them to go through their lives unsure where they really belong?  Or if they don’t have a tribe of their own?  Or to have to waste their time calculating precisely where they stand on the indemnity politics roster?


A few years ago, I saw a marriage come to an end.  And the reason it came to an end, from what I saw, was that both the husband and wife were fond of dragging up the past, from minor to major offences, and neither one could move past it and travel into the future.  All relationships go through bumpy patches, but it is immensely frustrating to have the past dragged up and thrown in your face time and time again.  At some point, people just stop caring.  They get sick of being told that they cannot put it behind them and move on.  And so they get bitter and they end up curdled.


And they start saying “why should I care about the injustice done to them when no one cares about the injustice done to me?”


We need to put quotas - and suchlike - behind us, once and for all.  The past must remain in the past.  We need to ensure a level playing field, with everyone having an equal shot at everything from education to jobs; we need to ensure that the laws apply to everyone; we need to prove, as best as we can, that the best person for the job got the job.  I don’t say it will be easy, because it won’t be easy.  But it has to be done.


I’ll let Dale Cozort have the last word:


“If you look around the world you’ll notice something.  The real dead-end basket case countries and regions are usually the ones where old injustices or perceived injustices are most remembered and most important to people.  [SNIP]  None of this is to say that ignoring history is good, or even that ignoring old injustices is good.  The reality though is that both the villains and the victims of history are for the most part dead, or have one foot on the banana peel ... [SNIP] ... The other reality is that dwelling on those old injustices tends to lead to situations where the guys who would normally be holding up convenience stores end up running around with AK-47s and RPGs in the service of one side or the other in the dispute. 


“When that starts happening on a major scale, anyone with brains and/or money heads for the nearest exit.  You end up with a downward spiral as jobs evaporate and people fight ever more bitterly over the remaining scraps of value.  And of course a whole new generation of injustices are created, which will undoubtedly be used to justify the next round of victimizations.  'Get over it' isn't the perfect answer.  It does have some downsides, but it does work.”


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2020