Last night, Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart got into a heated discussion over the existence of white privilege in America. I’m guessing the heat was generated for the purpose of entertaining the viewers because any rational discussion of the subject would have started with a definition of the term.
Instead of starting with a definition, O’Reilly immediately responded to Stewart’s allegation by asserting that if there is white privilege in America, then there must be even more Asian privilege because, according to a variety of measures (income, education), Asians are more successful than whites. Stewart responded with a non sequitur that the recent Asian immigration experience was irrelevant because it was completely different than the historical black immigration experience.
So off they went, with each throwing out a series of talking points instead of actually responding to each other’s points. In the end, Jon asked Bill to concede that the black historical experience (slavery, Jim Crow laws) was a “factor” (pun intended) in the current sad status of blacks in general and inner-city blacks in particular. Bill conceded that point, and Jon thanked him for showing a humility that reminded him of the new pope.
If Bill or Jon had been interested in a definition as a starting point, they might have checked with the Urban Dictionary:
- White privilege is the racist idea that simply being white benefits people in some unexplainable way, and that discriminating against white people is not only okay, but enlightened and necessary. The excuse some extremists use to justify pretty much any level of racism, as long as it is coming from people of color.
The Urban Dictionary definition, however, seems to have been written by a white guy, so I found another definition by someone more like Jon Stewart. According to the White Privilege Conference:
- White Privilege is the other side of racism…. Privilege exists when one group has something of value thatis denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to,rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them. Examples of Privilege – being able to:
- assume that most of the people you or your children study in history classes and textbooks will be of the same race, gender, or sexual orientation as you are;
- assume that your failures will not be attributed to your race, or your gender;
- assume that if you work hard and follow the rules, you will get what you deserve;
- succeed without other people being surprised; and without being held to a higher standard;
- go out in public without fear of being harassed or constantly worried about physical safety; or
- not have to think about your race, or your gender, or your sexual orientation, or disabilities, on a daily basis…
Based on the preceding definition of white privilege, even Bill O’Reilly would concede there is white privilege in America.
The final arbiter of the disputed definition needs to be Wikipedia:
- White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people in the same social, political, or economic circumstances. The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white persons may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely.
The Free Dictionary definition of privilege is, “a special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste.”
Based on these definitions, I believe Jon Stewart is correct. Black individuals in America suffer from, and are forced to overcome negative generalizations and stereotypes, whereas white individuals probably benefit from positive generalizations and stereotypes. This type of privilege exists even in the absence of racism.