The concept of white privilege has been mentioned in many opinion pieces recently, inspired by the injustice of the recent grand jury decisions. You can find lots of articles in the media about this concept, along with lots of vigorous debate.
It is a difficult debate: if you don’t agree you are automatically seen as clueless. But I continue to disagree. Not with the facts cited by proponents, not with the stories of terrible bias and injustice, not with the statistics about inequality. But I see the concept as the wrong frame for thinking about issues of racial equality, fairness, education and community development.
The idea of a group being over-privileged is based on a false sense of scarcity. Most of the best things in the world are not a zero-sum equation. One person’s enjoyment a healthy urban community – beautiful parks and landscapes, libraries, books, the arts, vibrant churches, youth programs, fun places to shop and eat, free concerts – does not have to take away from the ability for others to enjoy the same things. The best things in life (“privileges”, community benefits) are not limited commodities.
The guilt/privilege conversation takes attention away from the real work of building healthy communities, strengthening education, removing barriers in job markets, expanding small business opportunities, improving and reforming policing. And it ignores the real strengths and successes and assets of urban communities and families.
The concept of white privilege is built on a flawed idea that the country is fundamentally structured around discrimination and inequality, that nothing is changing, and nothing will change. What message does this give to people are working in their communities, workplaces, schools and churches toward positive social change? Most importantly, what message does this give to children and teens who are assessing their own life goals and options?
A better frame of thinking is a focus on healthy community development and positive youth development. A positive approach focuses on assets, not deficits, honoring the assets, strengths and successes found in people’s lives, families and communities. Children and youth hear messages about the strength of their communities and are encouraged to get involved the good things that the community has to offer.