A prestigious private school in Pretoria, South Africa, has recently become a place of protest. Black learners and parents have accused Cornwall Hill College of rejecting calls to make its white-only council more representative of its diverse body of learners.

In response, a group of right-wing South African youth called Bittereinders (the Bitter Enders) staged an anti-transformation protest. “Unhappy? Build your own schools,” replied one member.

Why is it racial inequality so resistant to transformation? Some say it is because of a failure to recognize and confront white privilege.

The police murder of George Floyd in the U.S. city of Minneapolis in 2020 sparked protests around the world and intense discussions about anti-black racism.

From France to Colombia and South Africa, protesters have used the term “white privilege” to challenge people to confront the racial disparities evident in their own country.

Amid the protests, a group of international academics gathered at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 2020 began discussing the usefulness of the concept of “white privilege” in addressing racial inequality. systemic in national contexts.

While it is clear that the term has become popular in various contexts, some objected to it. They say the term “white privilege” reinforces stereotypes, reifies conceptualizations of race, upsets potential allies and creates even greater resistance to change.

As racial justice movements have become more global, the term has circulated beyond national borders. However, it does not always adapt well to these new contexts.

A story

The term white privilege originated in the United States in the 1980s, referring to both the obvious and hidden advantages offered to whites by systemic forms of racial injustice. Unlike terms such as “racial injustice” and “systemic racial bias,” the idea of ​​privilege centers the discussion on individuals.

Focusing the discussion on the individual is particularly effective for anti-racism education and advocacy purposes. Unpacking how whiteness operates to grant privilege can help us understand how “others” are systematically denied these same rights.

By the mid-2000s, the term white privilege had been adopted by many educators and activists in the United States. They sought to draw attention to the myriad of ways in which whites, regardless of class, enjoy white supremacy and are therefore involved in sustaining the system. For whites in the United States, where many live in racially homogeneous communities, the concept of white privilege could elicit individual self-reflection and motivate individual political action.

While researchers in some other countries have recently used the term to elucidate systemic patterns of inequality in their own societies, in other countries researchers have been more skeptical about the concept.

In South Africa, white privilege is the legacy of apartheid, which subdued and devalued anyone whose skin color was not white. Despite the political dismantling of apartheid, white privilege persists. Calls to transform racialized organizations are viewed as threats by whites who rightly see demands for racial justice as the end of white privilege.

In France, the use of the term white privilege is relatively recent, introduced at the end of the 2000s by sociologists. The concept is particularly accurate in describing the legacy of slavery and colonial politics. And it captures the experience of structural racism that many residents of French social housing districts have shared.

Yet with the growing acceptance of the concept, there has also been resistance. Some denounce the “white privilege” as a creeping Americanization, unsuited to the liberal tradition and French universalism.

Others, echoing criticism in the United States, argue that a single focus on racial inequity can strengthen, rather than redress, racial divisions in the country.

For example, the use of “white privilege” can backfire when it fails to resonate with whites disadvantaged by class, gender or religion. As a result, the term can sometimes elicit defensive reactions and heightened denial of racial disparities.

Race as a political category

The constructions of whiteness and its associated privileges are shaped by different – sometimes contradictory – histories of racial discrimination and activism for racial justice. Indeed, understandings of race and racial categories, as socially constructed categories, remain inconsistent and unequally salient in space and time.

For example, a person from North Africa, the Indian subcontinent or Oceania might be considered “white” – despite having a dark complexion – in many contexts.

Race as a political category is laden with stories of racial extermination and racist policies in some places and less in others.

In France, the “white privilege” could be perceived as provocative because it challenges the French universalist narrative and the modern conception of citizenship and a common will.

Thus, discussions of the material consequences of “race” as a category can take place more openly outside Western Europe, in Africa and in the Americas where indigenous populations have been exterminated, enslaved and subjected to subjugation. various forms of social and political exclusion.

Yet the question of who counts as “white”, “colored”, “black” or indigenous remains deeply contested around the world. So too are the explanations for the disparate outcomes and treatment of people in these socially, and sometimes legally, constructed categories. Therefore, the whiteness and privileges associated with belonging to such a category remain contextually defined.

For example, a person of European descent may be treated differently depending on where they are in the world. But this does not negate the fact that a person of black African descent will often be treated less well than a person of European descent in the same situation in many countries. White privilege persists, even in the absence of any universal definition of “white”.

Towards a goal of racial justice

There have been countless moves to keep the status quo going, such as the Cornwall Hill College anti-transformation protest, You Silence We Amplify, and the U.S. Capital Uprising.

The privilege depends directly on the denial of the right to vote, measured in terms of who has and does not have access and opportunity. In countries with white supremacist histories, the meaning of white privilege may seem obvious to many. But for others there and in other countries, the term may spark new questions and challenges.

While the concept of “white privilege” has proven to be valuable to those advocating for social change in different national contexts, there is also resistance in many countries to the idea that whites are only “privileged” by their race. .

Some critics seem reluctant to dismantle white supremacy while others point to the limits of “white privilege” in capturing the full range of inequalities that shape people’s lives.

A transnational movement for racial justice requires a shared commitment to end racial inequalities across national borders. It also requires sensitivity to specific local conditions in which race and racism touch the everyday lives of people.

The concept of “white privilege” remains useful when presented in a way that both resonates with individuals and highlights the structural causes of racial inequality.

Second, it has the potential to motivate those with advantages to fight injustices. However, it can undermine racial justice movements when it fails to raise awareness of the historical, structural and political forces that give certain groups advantages over others based on skin color, phenotype. , hair texture and other physical characteristics attributed to “race”. ‘

What is clear is that as an advocacy tool, “white privilege” cannot be an end but rather a beginning, one of the many concepts that can lead individuals to criticize racism. systemic and global anti-darkness.The conversation

Nuraan Davids, professor of philosophy of education, University of Stellenbosch; Karolyn Tyson, professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Kevin Driscoll, assistant professor of media studies, University of Virginia; Magali Della Sudda, Researcher, Sciences Po Bordeaux; Veronica Terriquez, associate professor, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Vivian Zayas, professor of psychology, Cornell University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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