Reasons to be Mindful of White Privilege

A number of reasons for recognizing white privilege have been suggested.  This list includes some ideas I’ve encounter in the literature and discussion found online.  Rational actions are accompanied by a theory of cause and effect, the effect being the goal or purpose of the exercise.

An attempt to identify “the Four Noble Truths” of White Privilege doesn’t get past three.      Many if not most discourses on White Privilege (WP) seem to avoid explicitly stating the purpose, value and expected end result of cultivating such an awareness.  Some critics suggest that either the advocates are uncertain themselves or they don’t want to publicly reveal their purpose and motivations.  Raising the question of “why”, “what for”, and “for whom” seems especially relevant as in the discourse the goal and purpose is rarely made explicit.

A rhetoric that values free and informed choice would offer a explicit theory of cause and effect and statement of desired result.  Not so with White Privilege.

Comments from articles, web sites, and blogs

  1. To urge people into activism against the conditions that afford whites their privilege?
  2.   Is it to face and conquer white shame?
  3. To combat objections to Affirmative Action policies.
  4. It’s merely ‘awareness raising’.
  5. A necessary prelude to change — we need to disseminate this awareness of White Privilege before we can start on the political part of the project.
  6. America is a nation “in denial” about racism past and present.
  7. To encourage a “conversation” on race.
  8. To get more whites to agree to a certain agenda.
  9. It’s more about feelings than actions.
  10. It’s more about mindfulness than actions
  11. Whites want to feel OK about themselves.
  12. “The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin. Until that task is accomplished, even partial reform will prove elusive, because white influence permeates every issue, domestic and foreign, in U.S. society,”
  13. The ultimate aim is not racial harmony but class war that will result in capitalism’s demise and socialism’s ascendancy.
  14. Encourage citizens to “get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance“.
  15. To explode “the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all”.
  16. To weaken systems of unearned advantage.


It’s hard not to notice that amid the White Privilege rhetoric, the activist goal is largely implied. Obviously, no one puts it that way, but as those interested in White Privilege know so well when it comes to racism, what people say is often an approximate reflection of their true feelings and intents. McIntosh’s essay [White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack] refers in passing to something as hypothetical as the “redesign of social systems” at the end of her tome, calling whether we want to seek such a thing “an open question.” The discussion hasn’t changed much since 1988. The White Privilege Conference bills itself as being about “understanding, respecting, and connecting.” Those are all admirable aims but they apply to the White Privilege teach-ins, not about applying the lessons to actually changing society. White Privilege puts a laser focus on the awareness raising. The awareness raising is what it is about. – The Privilege of Checking White Privilege

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.   — Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Meaningful Diversity Requires Alternative Viewpoints

Skillful Means in Engaged Action Requires Well Articulated Alternative Points of View

When an organization lacks members who can articulate alternative points of view in an intelligent manner, the organization’s members tend to discount those perspectives. This is why folks at the New York Times may think their opinions are unbiased and mainstream, and why folks at Fox News can think they are “fair and balanced.”    Conversely, understanding and appreciating alternative points of view is essential to being an effective advocate. —

Law Professor Jonathan H. Adler comments

There is a growing body of research documenting the negative effects a lack of viewpoint diversity can have upon academic inquiry and institutions of higher learning. I believe this is a particular problem for law schools as understanding and appreciating alternative points of view is essential to being an effective advocate. As I wrote several weeks back:

The lack of ideological diversity is a particular problem for law schools as it leaves many law students unexposed to perspectives and arguments with which they will have to contend in the practice of law. Most legal academics are well to the left of those whom law students will represent, as well as to the majority of judges before which they will practice. One need not agree with one’s client or a judge to be an effective advocate, but it is important to understand the perspective of the position one has to represent — as well as the perspective of the other side. The best legal advocates fully comprehend the strongest arguments for the other side and are able to present arguments that can appeal to decision-makers who may approach difficult legal questions from a perspective quite different from their own. On many issues, however, the perspectives of legal academics are relatively monolithic and reflect little understanding of … common right-of-center viewpoints.


The ability to present arguments that appeal to persons of different perspectives is almost the definition of an honest broker and an honest teacher of wisdom.  The quality described by Adler of the best legal advocates are also attributes to be desired of Dharma teachers.  The ability to craft arguments and discussion suited to the person(s) spoken to is a skillful means that is illustrated again and again in the sutras of of the early Buddhist cannon.

Political Diversity Provides More Direct Access to Diverse Viewpoints 

Assuming we accept diversity as essential in higher education, it would seem that we need at least as much political diversity as diversity with respect to race and ethnicity.  …  political diversity provides a more direct way of gaining access to different viewpoints than relying on race and ethnicity, which are at best proxies for viewpoints. Society as whole would benefit because citizens would learn not to reflexively dismiss viewpoints.

If indeed diversity is as important as all our university presidents, including my own, endlessly repeat, political and ideological diversity is at least as important as diversity measured by race and ethnicity. — Universities Should Be as Concerned with Political as with Racial Diversity 


“Politically-correct sociologists, on the other hand, enjoy certain privileges in a very politically conscious and liberal discipline . They can, for example, “paint caricature-like pictures based on the most extreme and irrational beliefs of those who differ from [their] ideologically without feeling any penalty for doing so,” and “can systematically misinterpret, misrepresent, or ignore research in such a manner as to sustain [their] political views and be confident that such misinterpretations . . . are unlikely to be recognized by [their] colleagues”.  —

The language used here “without feeling any penalty” and “confident that misinterpretations are unlikely to be recognized” is virtually identical to language used to describe White Privilege.

Law School Alumni much More Diverse than Faculty

The dean of a law school writes:

“it is a point of pride for the law school that we were cited in a recent academic study as unusual among prominent law schools for having “a near perfectly” even distribution of alumni on the left and the right.”

“I am not familiar with a comparable academic study that compares the political viewpoints of our faculty with other law faculties.”

FACT:  There is unrebutted evidence that law schools have a sharp tilt to  the political left.


Professor Jonathan H. Adler

Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Adler has written extensively on environmental policy.


“Political identity is fair game for hatred”: how Republicans and Democrats discriminate  by Ezra Klein and Alvin Chang on December 7, 2015

Diversity of critical thinking counter acts a “reasoning” that is little more than organized prejudice.   In general we we are much better detectors of the bias in others than for ourselves.

Does Reality Have a Liberal Bias?

The field had become a community in which political values and moral aims were shared, leading to an asymmetry in which studies that reinforced left-wing narratives had come to be disproportionately represented in the literature. And this was not, to quote Stephen Colbert, because “reality had a liberal bias”. It was because social psychology had a liberal bias.    … within the field, those on the left outnumbered those on the right by a ratio of about 10:1. So it meant that even if left-leaning and right-leaning scientists were equal in their bias, there would be at least ten times more research biased towards validating left-wing narratives than conservative narratives. Adding in the apparent double standards in the peer review process (where studies validating left-wing narratives seemed to be easier to publish) then the bias within the field could vastly exceed the ratio of 10:1. In other words, research was becoming an exercise in groupthink.

One area of stereotyping which is consistently found to be inaccurate are the stereotypes concerning political affiliation; right-wingers and left wingers tend to caricature each others personalities, most often negatively so.

Reactions to Jussim’s findings about the accuracy of stereotypes have varied on the scale between lukewarm and ice cold. At Stanford this year after giving a talk, an audience member articulated a position reflected by many within his field:
“Social psychologists should not be studying whether people are accurate in perceiving groups! They should be studying how situations create disadvantage.”

Jussim has heard this position over and over again. Not just from students, but also colleagues. One might find it surprising that psychology researchers would become so invested in shutting down research they find politically unbearable. But one shouldn’t be.

It is not uncommon for social psychologists to list “the promotion of social justice” as a research topic on their CVs, or on their university homepages. … Within the scientific community, the blending of science with political activism is far from being frowned upon. One only has to take a brief look at Twitter to see that scientists are often in practice of tweeting about “white privilege”, “women in STEM”, “structural disadvantage”, “affirmative action”, and “stereotypes”. For many scientists, the crusade to change the world is seen as part of one’s job description.


How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight Into White Privilege

Setting the Stage.  White privilege is commonly described as a negative — the discrimination and hindrances that white people don’t face or face as often.  To understand white privilege we have to know about discrimination that occurs in non-white racial groups.  For knowledge about this and other aspects of racism we often turn to academic fields of study for authoritative information — fields such as sociology and social psychology.  And therein lies the rub.  There is a growing body of research and scholarship that shows that academia itself suffers from a system of power and privilege.  A system that privileges one ideological viewpoint, discriminates against others, and sometimes is intolerant and makes excuses to justify it’s lack of diversity.   So while white privilege is a reflection of a system of power, privilege and discrimination — with the accompanying themes of diversity and tolerance — when we attempt to better understand white privilege we run into another powerful system of power, privilege and discrimination.

Update: See also     New Website on the Loss of “Viewpoint Diversity” in the Academy

I think you will note from the abstract of the paper featured below that the responses of some accademics to the idea of ideological privilege in sociology is reminiscent of the reactions of some stereotypical reactions to to white privilege.

This post features How Ideology Has Hindered  Sociological Insight, a paper by Chris C. Martin, a graduate student from the Department of Sociology, at Emory University.   Martin raises three ways in which an “ideological shew” has impacted sociology: taboos, data censoring, and limited empathy for outsiders.

Abstract.  American sociology has consistently leaned toward the political Left. This ideological skew hinders sociological insight in three ways. First, the scope of research projects is constrained: sociologists are discouraged from touching on taboo topics and ideologically unpalatable facts. 
Second, the data used in sociological research have been limited. Sociologists neglect data that portray conservatives positively and liberals negatively. Data are also truncated to hide facts that subvert a liberal narrative.
Third, the empathic understanding of non-liberal ideologies is inhibited. Sociologists sometimes develop the erroneous belief that they understand alternative ideologies, and they fail to explore non-liberal ways of framing sociological knowledge.  Some counterarguments may be raised against these theses, and I address such counterarguments.

Martin claims that “the discipline as a whole has retained a pessimistic leftward tilt, which compresses
the range of acceptable scholarship, and constrains sociological insight”.

You can read the entire paper here.

Sociology Needs Political Diversity

Martin discusses his paper in a guest post on Johnathan Haidt’s blog Post-Partisan Sociology (Guest Post by Chris Martin).      (We’ve summarize some of Haidt’s work here.)

Does it compromise scholarship when sociologists try to remedy social problems? If sociology, like economics, drew scholars from various ideological backgrounds, I think it would not be problematic. There would be room to debate the pros and cons of new and old forms of social order. American sociology, despite its progressive origins, once had such diversity. Sadly, that diversity has now vanished.
The irony here is that sociologists care about race, gender, and class diversity not just for the sake of social justice, but also for the sake of bringing different perspectives into the classroom. Given the relevance of political polarization to the study of social divisions, isn’t it obvious that sociology needs political diversity too?Post-Partisan Sociology (Guest Post by Chris Martin)

Ideas That Are Often Taboo in Sociology

Martin lists several topics that are taboo.  The subject matter of these taboo topics are certainly debatable but taboo means that debate is strongly discouraged (“no debate allowed”).  The topic is taboo, debate or discussion is taboo.  Often, even discussion about taboos are taboo.
  • that “victims” are sometimes blameworthy.
  • that sexes and races biologically differ from one another.
  • that social beliefs are inborn rather than constructed.
  • and that stereotypes sometimes match average group attributes.

I can see why research on these topics is hard to swallow, but  …  wouldn’t you expect [social scientists] to reach morally troubling conclusions at least some of the time?

Data Censoring

The second problem is data censoring. Often, data are trimmed to fit a liberal cause. Consider the case of White privilege. In the canonical article on White privilege, Peggy McIntosh noted, among other things, that her Whiteness endowed her with the privilege of housing affordability: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford ….”

Here McIntosh correctly implies that Whites are better off than Blacks—but incorrectly implies that Whites are better off than everyone else. White income actually lags behind Chinese-American, Filipino-American, Jewish-American, Indian-American, and Japanese-American income. McIntosh may not have had these figures at hand in 1989, but they’re easily available now. Yet they’re persistently trimmed because they interfere with the story that whites, as the majority-group oppressor, have privileges that are denied to all minority groups.

Limited Empathy for Outsiders.

In everyday life, we often think we have social insight—we assume that we know what information other people hold in their heads. In fact, we have a tendency to assume that if we know something, other people know it too. In reality, of course, that doesn’t always hold. In fact, we don’t even know if other people use the same vocabulary that we use.

For instance, liberals often talk about inequality as a synonym for unfairness. They then describe conservatives as tolerant of inequality. However, inequality (in itself) may simply not be salient for people who aren’t liberals. It’s not that these people don’t care about fairness, but rather that they don’t think that inequality of outcomes necessarily implies unfairnes

Related Pages

Underlying Principles & Observations

  • There are many unskillful and perhaps counter-productive ways of presenting white privilege narratives.  (I found a number of examples on-line where people admit to having regrets about how they talked about WP to others)
  • Discussing or presenting the concept of white privilege is challenging for many.  There are many unskillful ways of doing it.
  • Most Americans believe and accept the concept of white privilege.  Or more precisely, they accept a or their concept of white privilege.   Which leads us to …
  • There are many way of telling the story of white privilege.  Stories are told in narratives.  Therefore …
    There are a diversity of narratives about white privilege.  There are some significant contrasts, differences, disagreements and debates between them.
  • Narratives are often not simple.  They often include theories about causes, accounts and interpretations of history,  implications of white privilege in the present, and ideas or exhortations about how to respond.   It’s quite possible that a educated, compassionate and mindful listener accept some form of WP for themselves while remain skeptical about a narrative’s causes, history, and/or implications for engaged action.
  • The various white privilege narratives are often perceived to carry with them many “code words”, unstated premises, values and beliefs.  Participants should be encouraged to ask “so what?” and “why do you think that is important”?
  • Many suspect (and not without reason) a follow-on conversation along the lines of “if you accept white privilege therefore you must …”.  In other words, while hearing other narratives listeners are often “waiting for the other shoe to fall”, for the political “got cha”.
  • Many who are said to deny white privilege are not denying white privilege per-say, that is they are not denying all narratives, but rather the “denial” is a rejection of some one else’s narrative.
  • White privilege engages issues of power, privilege, diversity, and ideology.  Its easy and I believe common for presentations about WP to privilege advocacy of a particular narrative over others.   Such presentations can thus themselves becomes examples of privilege and power that limit diversity and discriminate against “the other”.  The risk falling into hypocrisy is ever present.
  • There is a important distinction between an honest broker of information and options for action, an advocate, and a stealth advocate.  (Stealth advocacy is probably the most destructive and its quite common in political discourse especial discourse that is partly informed by science.)

REQUIREMENTS for a Just Buddhist White Privilege Narrative

Aug 2, 2015  This is a work in progress.

  1. Recognize and familiarize yourself with a diversity of narratives about white privilege.
  2. Include narratives about shame, white shame,  guilt and responsibility.  Include common psychological definitions of shame and guiltCompare and contrast with your narrative about white privilege.
  3. Recognize that white shame has been used by advocates to compel action.
  4. Include a recognition of issues of identity.  That we may be (and most of us are) strongly attached to feeling good about ourselves and may take unwise action in order to avoid the suffering.
  5. Clearly articulate your goals for raising the issue of white privilege.   What are we hoping will happen in the wake of the exercise that hasn’t been happening before?  Upon what evidence has that hope been founded?   (Indeed this may be the question to raise first.)    [See also: Reasons to be Mindful of White Privilege] 
  6. Observe whether clearly articulating your goal or goals feels subtle or messy.  Would a person asking the question lead you to think they are missing the point.
  7. Recognize that in other contexts students and employees are not asked to recognize their privilege, rather it’s a requirement of the curriculum or employment.
  8. Focus on the personal experience of white privilege in the present.
  9. Be aware that theories of causes, interpretations of history, and the implications for engaged action are the more controversial aspects of the question.  They may not be necessary for understanding.
  10. Actively maintain a welcome and opening for questions such as “so what?”.  These questions may be asked because of differing views, experiences, and beliefs about society —  which is to say, different ideologies / worldviews.  Different ideologies will construct different narratives that make sense of white privilege to them.
  11. Assume that when others appear to be  “in denial” or “they just don’t get it” they may be waiting to hear a narrative that speaks to them.   I believe for nearly everyone there there is a white privilege narrative that they can related to / will speak to them.
  12. Assume that many people have had notions of white privilege thrust upon them in an unskillful, manipulative, demonizing and/or hypocritical manner.  They may therefor be quite understandably wary.  (See the item above about causes, interpretations of history and further implications).
  13. Acknowledge that some narratives of white privilege use “hard sell” techniques, are disrespectful or do not model what they preach.   Say that you want / promise to do.
  14. Remain mindful of the distinction between an honest broker of information and options for action, an advocate, and a stealth advocate.  (Stealth advocacy is probably the most destructive and its quite common in political discourse especial discourse that is partly informed by science.)
  15. Develop your presentation based upon the collective wisdom and experience of a ideologically diverse group.  In particular include persons who self identify as liberal or progressive and conservative while also including moderate Republicans and Democrats, Libertarians and Independents/other parties.
  16. Use the ideologically diverse group to create alternative narratives designed to appeal to different constituencies.  (While involving more work some public policy experts say this process is almost a requirement in order to be an honest broker of information and alternatives and to avoid the stealth advocacy trap.)
  17. Recognize the importance of including a diversity of ideology.   Avoid the trap of privileging your own narrative over others.  I believe many presentations fail to model the diversity, openness, and self awareness and honesty that seems implicit to the topic.
  18. Be cognizant of the presence or absence of diversity of political ideology within your group.  Buddhist sangas often lean toward those who would self identify as progressive or moderately to strongly liberal.  Some conservatives and libertarians may be “in the closet”.  There may also be some self-identified liberals who are sharply critical of some aspects of the orthodoxy.
  19. Be sure that your resources list a diversity of materials reflecting different perspective and narratives.   (Shelby Steele and John McWorter  are two African American professors who are sharply critical of the most common white privilege narratives.  They both are articulate.  Videos and/or written material are available on-line for no cost.  Neither self-identifies as a conservative while acknowledging that many people see them that way because they challenge a certain orthodoxy. I’ll include links to these and others in a latter post.)
  20. Recognize and acknowledge criticisms of white privilege.
  21. Admit that concepts such as social justice are often left poorly defined and articulated.  (Articulated descriptions of social justice have varied considerably in the last 180 years since the phrase first appeared in English.)
  22. Admit that people of good will and compassion have different perceptions of notions such as racism, justice, fairness, compassion and the good society.  They differ especially over how to constructively and operationally define it as well as how to achieve those goals.
  23. Recognize that much of this process recapitulates and illustrates Tatagata’s own process and methods.
  24. Explicitly define what you do and don’t mean by white privilege.
  25. Address alternative constructions such as majority privilege.
  26. Presenters should be familiar with growing literature that documents the systemic privileging of viewpoint in the social sciences, psychology, and various “critical studies’ departments.  This represents a system of power and privilege that arguably biases the public’s and scholarly perception, attitudes and beliefs that are highly relevant to issues of race.

Do to:

  • Argyris Model II – free and informed choice, choice of tests & validation, openness about potentially contradictory information or reasoning