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Why don’t the most privileged of white men understand the concept of white privilege?



I’m a white male, but I never bought into those charges of white male privilege you hear, with increasing frequency, bandied about on the Left. While I understood that the history of America—and, indeed, of the Western world—is one of the domination of other races, ethnicities and of women by white men, I never felt particularly privileged because

  1. I wasn’t. My parents had no money, and I never had any money.
  2. Besides, even as a white man, I was way, way down on the totem pole. I was short, in a country and culture that has negative views of short men, and I was gay. Being gay, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up and before I came out, was very difficult. One certainly didn’t feel “privileged’ in any sense of the word. Hated, yes. Feared and loathed. Discriminated against. Those are hardly feelings that would foster a sense of privilege.

Still, the concept of white privilege has become almost incessant these days. You hear it broached whenever a question of race arises, which is pretty much every day. The theory, as I understand it, is that even if a white person, and particularly a white male, doesn’t feel especially privileged, he or she actually is, because the system is greased towards white people, and against people of color. I will concede that I have struggled with this theory, and continue to struggle with it. And yet, the argument concerning white privilege always strikes a certain resonance in my mind. Part of it is irrefutable: I know from history that white men conquered most of the known world and then ruled it in such a way as to ensure their continued dominance. Who could deny that? Still, in the end, I always look at my own life, which has been so challenging to me in so many ways, and I think: Man, if I’m privileged, I’d hate to experience being un-privileged!

So I’m a little confused. But one thing that helps me put all this into perspective is when I come across another white man who seems so clueless, so ornery and devoid of feeling for under-privileged people, that it allows me to see actual white privilege demonstrated in a stark, brazen manner. I frequently have that sense when reading or hearing denizens of the Right who support this current president. Often, I see it in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, which is a bastion of white malehood; and for the epitome, or rather, the nadir of this expression of white privilege, you need look no further than yesterday’s op-ed piece by William McGurn.

These rightwing Trumpists have lately been flailing away at the anti-Confederate statue movement, which is right in their wheelhouse, and while it’s already old news, McGurn resurrects it to lash out at what he calls “the Democratic left” which “hunts for hate” by “railing at dead white hateful males,” the word “hateful” obviously used sarcastically. McGurn creates a false narrative: he blames New York Mayor de Blasio for wanting to remove the vestiges of Confederacy worship, while castigating him for every problem New York has: the public schools, the minimum wage, welfare—as if a Mayor can’t deal with social issues on the one hand and also be in favor of removing Confederate statues. But rightwingers like McGurn rejoice in throwing up smokescreens to deflect attention from real issues. Trump does it all the time.

So I look at a guy like McGurn, a bespectacled Baby Boomer like me, white, a New Yorker, and all I see, to tell you the truth, is a guy who just can’t let himself feel what Black people (and many others) feel when they see a statue or monument to Lee, or Stonewall Jackson, or any of the other heroes of the never-say-die white supremacists, who have nursed their grievance at losing the Civil War for 150 years, and show no signs of accepting the final verdict. And I wonder: What the hell is wrong with William McGurn? Does he not have an ounce of empathy? Is he so sure of himself—that Democrats like Mayor de Blasio are “dunces” who are “grandstanding” when they question the public display of these monuments? Surely this is an issue worth talking about. Surely, when so many of our friends and neighbors feel so strongly, we ought to listen to them. Yes, it can be a difficult conversation–but you have to have these tough talks if you don’t want to live in an echo chamber, and I don’t.

If white men like McGurn would get as upset with Trump for his sexual predation, his lies, his sullying of the presidency, his misogyny (which is getting worse every day), and, yes, his likely collusion with the Russians, I might keep an open mind when he argues in favor of Confederate symbols. But his outrage is selective, his insults are too predictable, and so his credibility is pretty much zero.

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