The one-way mirror of racial privilege

One of the most powerful tools we have when trying to parse an argument is the analogy. We can take the elements of a position, plug them in to a different context, and then press ‘play’ to see whether or not the argument still logically follows. So when a religious apologist talks about the perfect love and perfect mercy of YahwAlladdha, we can ask if it would still be considered ‘loving’ to lock your children in the basement and torture them (for any amount of time, let alone eternity) if they disobeyed your rules. We can point out the absurdity of demanding that atheists ‘play nice’ or ‘leave well enough alone’ by pointing to the similarities between ours and other civil rights movements, and show how active engagement in the public sphere is vital to progress.

Accustomed as we are to the incredible usefulness of this tool, there are cases where it goes horribly awry – namely, those cases in which privilege plays a significant role. At once, argument by analogy becomes completely derailed, and to the person drawing the (flawed) analogy, it seems as though the “privilege card” is being pulled out of nowhere. The argument seems to be, to them, that one is wrong simply because ze is white, or male, or cisgendered, or whatever dominant group identity is germane to the conversation – that the mere fact of being in the majority immediately disqualifies your arguments. Then out come the waterworks: “you’re just as bad as those you criticize – my opinion is being dismissed as you complain about people dismissing yours!”

Animated .gif of a Decepticon laughing and shooting lasers

Let’s just jump ahead a few paragraphs to the end of the argument and state unequivocally that your argument is bad, and you should feel bad.

Now that everyone who needs to learn this lesson has stopped reading, let’s forge ahead, shall we?

The problem is emphatically not that white people are forever disqualified from discussing race – it’s that the privilege of their perspective makes them underqualified. When you’ve lived your entire life seeing the world from only point of view, you necessarily miss out on a lot of relevant details – a passive omission that reveals itself when you bring out a seemingly-airtight analogy that instead tries to plug only the convenient pieces of the argument in before pressing ‘play’. While such cherry-picking of fact may seem malicious (and perhaps sometimes it is), it is equally likely that it’s simply the result of not being able to see all of what is important.

“So what?” you might be saying. “Maybe people of colour are the ones missing the relevant information. After all, if I as a white person can’t see what the minority perspective is because I’ve only ever been white, maybe Crommunist can’t see all the relevant information because he’s only ever been black!” This response, incidentally, is a near-perfect illustration of the phenomenon I am talking about. What relevant information is this attempt to argue from analogy missing? Let’s ask Greta Christina:

It’s important to remember that most atheists were once believers. We’re familiar with religion because we’ve believed it ourselves. And it’s important to remember that, in most of the world, religious belief is the dominant culture. Atheists have to be familiar with it. It’s shoved in our face on a regular basis. Our friends believe it, our families believe it, our co-workers believe it, it’s all over the media. We can’t be ignorant of religion. We’re soaking in it.

Believers, on the other hand, are not soaking in atheism. Many atheists are trying to change this, of course, and are working to make atheism more visible and harder to ignore — but there’s still a huge amount of ignoring, and of ignorance. And far too much of this ignorance is willful and deliberate. People ignore us, even when they’re supposedly trying to figure us out.

While it is possible for an atheist to have once been a believer, and it is not possible for a person of colour to have once been white*, the point generally applies. We live, at least here in Canada and the United States, awash in a culture that has always been dominated by the white viewpoint (this, incidentally, is what many scholars of race including myself are talking about when they refer to ours as a “white supremacist” culture). As a result, members of a minority group are in fact well-versed in the values, practices, and expectations of white people. It exists all around us at all times. The inverse simply cannot be said for the vast majority of white people – I make an exception for those few places in which a white person lives in an area largely populated by folks of colour (although even then, you’re rarely more than a cab ride away from an area where white folks are a statistical majority again).

So, when we try to draw analogies in discussions of race (or really any conversation in which there is a privileged position), we end up drawing incredibly selective ones because we simply do not have access to both sides of the equation. Frustratingly, this single-viewer perspective can also rob us of the ability to see the flaws in our own argument, and we are left to contend with the only remaining logical conclusion: that we are being unfairly excluded because of the fact of our majority status. In so doing, we miss the real reason that we are wrong: our majority status operates on our viewpoint.

Once again we see the way in which privilege can skew the way we see the world. On one side, those in the minority can see our position quite clearly in addition to their own. However, on the other side of the glass, we cannot see anything aside from our own view, reflected in such a way as to rob us of the ability to accurately perceive reality. Only by listening carefully and inspecting the issues closely can we hope to see through the illusion of the supremacy of our own positions and begin to appreciate what’s going on behind the one-way mirror of our privilege.

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*Strictly speaking. Since race is socially constructed, it is technically possible for a person of colour to experience (or lose) racial majority privilege by moving to a completely different part of the world – in the general case, however, you don’t get to switch races.


  1. ischemgeek says

    What astounds me is that while some white people can get the fact that if they spent their whole life in a city, they’re hardly well-equipped to talk about rural issues like the financial reality of having to drive 150km each way for your groceries, they can’t (or won’t) apply the same reasoning to race issues.

    I don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racism. That’s my privilege. Just like I don’t know what it’s like to spend your whole childhood in one town (let alone one place of residence) the way most children in many of the places I lived grew up. I can’t really talk about what it’s like to grow up in a place where you live so closely and for so long with your neighbours that their children and you are almost as close as you are with your siblings. Just like I can’t really talk about what it’s like to have to deal with racism on a daily basis. Not from first-hand experience, anyway.

    How is it hard to grasp that if something is outside your experience, you’re far less likely to have a good understanding of it than if its something you’ve experienced and dealt with personally?

  2. quietmarc says

    I like the one-way mirror analogy, because with most of these mirrors if you get right up close and cup your hands around your eyes and if the light is just right, you can sometimes see through them. It isn’t impossible to understand privilege, but it does take work, and the image you see will still be dark and tinted and maybe overlayed with your reflection anyway….but you can see enough to learn to trust those who can see through clearly.

  3. says

    Thanks for this post. I’m totally in agreement.

    One of the hardest parts of my story I’m writing is that two characters are black (Freeworlders, as they’re called. It’s a fantasy story.) There is a pervasive, systemic racism throughout pushed at these two for different reasons – one is a low-level guard, the other is the leader of the unit.

    I – as a (visibly) white (visibly) man – will never understand how racism works. I can see the worst effects of it, the visible hatred and anger and meanness. I will never understand the low-level, under-the-radar kinds of things that happen throughout society. I want to write effective, realistic characters, but I feel like I’m not equipped to deal with them.

  4. razzlefrog says

    One of the things that has helped me (and my lily-white, detached, privileged self) start to get a better idea of what “white privilege” really means would have to be this thing I now do where I’ll be reading a magazine or watching a show or just plain people observing, and I’ll start mentally naming the race of any person that crosses my field of vision. This is what that usually looks like: “White, black, white, white, white, white, black, white, white, white, white, white, white, white, white.”

    I keep thinking, “Imagine if this is what you were constantly seeing?”…and that’s weird. And it’s been enlightening.

  5. says

    And then imagine what it must be like to be of East- or South-Asian descent (or Arabic, for that matter), and to see “diversity” happen essentially solely in the context of black and white. It’s better than it used to be, for sure, but it’s still pretty bad.

  6. CPS says

    “On one side, those in the minority can see our position quite clearly in addition to their own.”
    There may be some truth to this, however one cannot help but notice the frequency with which people in minority positions deny that they are at any disadvantage precisely because they have have never had the opportunity to live without disadvantages. For example, even if a particular women is not taken as seriously as her male co-workers she may not realize it if she was always treated that way. She may simply assume that the men around her experience the world the same way she does. Women may be steeped in a patriarchal culture, but they are still going to be largely unfamiliar with what it is like to live as a man in that culture. Were this not the case, I daresay there would be a fair few more angry feminists about.

  7. says

    Taking this one-way-mirror analogy a step further:

    No mirrors are truly one way. They pass light equally well either way, but because one side is well illuminated & the other is kept dark, the reflection from the well lit side ovewhelms the light from the dark side, for those on the well lit side.

    So the question becomes how to light up the other side.

  8. John Horstman says

    I was introduced to this concept as a as a consciousness-raising tactic through a game called “Count the Black People” by my friend Marcel (who is Black). She plays it in most public fora (she also plays Count the White People in specifically-Black-coded social spaces). Applied to other dynamics of privilege, it can be a useful tool for recognizing the existence of privileged-group-as-normative-style systemic privilege (male-as-normative, White-as-normative, hetero-as-normative, etc.). I can’t watch TV any more without doing this; commercials are especially informative (the gender bias alone for household products is still straight out of the 1950s, almost every sexual couple is straight, and most people are White, unless one is watching a ‘Black’ show or a ‘Hispanic’ show or somesuch, though this one has been changing a bit recently).

  9. smhll says

    …awash in a culture that has always been dominated by the white viewpoint… As a result, members of a minority group are in fact well-versed in the values, practices, and expectations of white people.

    I really like your post.

    I have a personal campaign to get people to say “experience filter” instead of “privilege”, since there seems to be a negative Pavlovian response to the word “privilege”.

    Regarding what you wrote in the quoted section, there’s an expression that goes – the inmate knows more about the guard than the guard knows about the inmate. There are some flaws in this analogy. But the person with less direct power generally has to study the empowered person and figure out how to get along in a system that he just can’t bend to his will.

    Media has been very dominated by white men in the US (and Canada, I assume). We see and hear mostly the white male point of view in movies and the majority of screen time goes to white men. One has to try harder to find media written and produced by women or people of color. The pattern is similar, but less extreme, in print media.

  10. kagekiri says

    Yeah…it’s actually weird for me to watch US TV and see SE Asian people who aren’t somewhat stereotyped or just plain weirdos (like Ken Jeong’s various roles), even though I’ve lived most of my life in US cities that have huge numbers of Asians.

    I saw a commercial for a show with someone who looked part Asian as the lead…and I was actually disoriented. This dude’s the lead? White girls are going for Asian guys (pretty dang rare compared to the reverse)? What world is this? Hearing normal American accents out of Asian characters is actually really weird, even for me (someone who only speaks English with some scant, poorly pronounced Chinese on the side), especially if it’s an older Asian person on the screen (like above 30). A lot of the famous Asian leads in Hollywood were big in Asia first, so they grew up there, and have obvious accents.

    I mean, yeah, I’ve gone to more white areas, and had white people be surprised that I spoke…like a Californian. My sister apparently had the same response in the Mid-West. “Wow, your English is so good!” “Yeah, I’ve lived here since I was 2…”

    Despite that personal experience, I’m still surprised to hear Asian actors speaking without any weird accent in Western TV or movies, or seeing them in leading roles that don’t involve kung-fu. Who’s there…Lucy Liu (I’ve had white friends say she’s the prettiest Asian actress….and while she’s pretty, there are LOTS of Asian actresses)? John Cho?

    The stereotypes sink in through media, even for an Asian American growing up around other Asian Americans who were hardly aligned with stereotypes.

  11. says

    The absence of folks of East or South Asian descent on television is incredibly alarming to me. I would imagine that Canadian television is probably a lot better than American TV about that, but I don’t watch nearly enough TV for my opinion to mean anything. If you’re interested in adding a few more names to that list, you should check out Racialicious, which makes a concerted effort to highlight these groups that are nearly completely omitted from the landscape.

    If you want to depress yourself beyond all imagining, read the story of Chow Yun Fat. In China, he was a dramatic action star (something akin to a Jason Statham or a Daniel Craig), but when he tried to break into American film he was immediately pigeon-holed as a kung-fu guy. That wasn’t his genre at all, but because Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li had paved that road, he wasn’t able to get off of it.

  12. says

    I have been reading it. That & eg: Natalie Reeds blog, have been illuminating situations I can’t know except second hand. However, it will take a lot of blogs etc to equalize the lighting on either side of all those one way mirrors.

  13. says

    Definitely. And even as I was writing that, I realized it came across far more snarky than I intended. What I was trying to say is that there are a lot of us talking about these issues specifically because it helps illuminate. The problem is (and has been) that the majority of people never see how these issues affect others, because those others are often quite removed, either geographically or socioeconomically or both. The internet has made the spread of knowledge a lot more anarchistic, which is good news for minority groups. Kudos to you for challenging yourself and reading outside your own experience.

  14. georgiekiely says

    I am really loving your blog. This post was well-written and makes a whole bunch of sense. As a middle-aged Puerto-Rican male, I have more often blamed my own people or other minorities for being racist when they blame white people for their issues. I have never felt discriminated against or treated differently by Caucasians due to my ethnicity, so this has likely caused my defense of white people and the rejection of other’s reality. It is not that I don’t acknowledge or realize there is a privileged class in this country, but that I never felt unprivileged. It is funny, I have only really felt like a minority when I became an atheist a couple of years ago. Becoming an atheist has caused others (family, co-workers) to call me names or look at me different than being an ethnic minority ever has. Also, my conversion to the atheistic viewpoint has allowed me to be more open-minded about other’s viewpoints and your blog will assist me in viewing race and race relations with a more rational and logical mindset.

    What is your opinion on those minorities, like me, that don’t really connect with other minorities or our own ethnic group regarding privilege or the lack of it?

  15. says

    As with anything, there will always be those who do not feel the lash of racial privilege. I personally have very few stories where I experienced overt, obvious racism – that doesn’t mean that others do not have those experiences. I’m overjoyed that you’ve managed to live your life without feeling discriminated against or marginalized. That truly is lucky. That being said, I don’t know of any anti-racist who would make the claim that all people of colour are discriminated against at all times by all people. That would truly be a hellish world, and I’m glad I don’t live in it.

    That being said, we can observe the effect of racism, and we can see when and how privilege operates in many racial dynamics. To deny its existence is quite a different thing from denying its presence in your own life. I just had lunch; it doesn’t follow that world hunger is therefore a myth. I’m glad you enjoy reading the blog, and I hope you will feel comfortable expressing any disagreement you may have with my assessments about this or any other topic.

  16. says

    Not that it’s the point of this particular discussion but I think my husband might fall into the category of being someone who went from being “white” to “not white.” He’s from South America but his ancestors are all french, italian and spanish, so he’s very much white by most North American standards. He lived in South America until his early teens and then moved to rural Florida where he was seen as too foreign to be white but also too unlike his Mexican, Cuban, Dominican and African American classmates to fit in. He went from being in the privileged group in his home country to being part of no group in his new country.

    I don’t know how it is in Europe and Canada but in the US, “white” seems to encompass more than just skin color. There is also the assumption that you aren’t really white if your native language isn’t english.

  17. smrnda says

    I acknowledge what privileges I have, and if I do that around certain white people, I get a huge backlash as if I’m trying to make them feel ‘guilty’ just for ‘having it good’ and that I’m part of some leftist conspiracy to take away all their hard earned wealth and put it into food stamps. (No joke, I hear that all the time.) Discussions are either with someone who already agrees with me, or with someone who takes offense at the mere mention of the world privilege.

    perhaps part of it is that privileged people feel that life is fair, and that though it may suck for others, they cannot personally be asked to do anything to fix it. to me, that’s just a childish response, like an adult who refuses to pick up a piece of garbage since they didn’t throw it on the ground in the first place. the adult picks up the garbage.

  18. says

    I like your suggestion of ‘experience filter’.

    When I first ran across the term ‘privilege’ as in white privilege male privilege christian privilege, I was struck by the examples being a mix of what I thought of as privileges ie: things that nobody should have & rights ie: things that everybody should have. In the latter case the problem is that not all people do have them & calling them privileges sounds like you want to take them away from those who have them rather than extend them to everyone.

  19. says

    My problem with “experience filter” is that it is inextricably linked to privilege as a broader concept. We can talk about how privilege can filter your experience, but the two are emphatically not different concepts. While there is undoubtedly some truth to the criticism that some of us are too quick to use the word “privilege” as a cudgel (i.e., using the term without explaining what it means), that doesn’t mean that we need a better term. “Ad hominem” is an overused (and often inaccurately used) term in skeptical discourse – it doesn’t mean we need to find a better word; it means we have to raise consciousness about what it is and how it works.

  20. Smhlle says

    I think, to a casual reader who hasn’t studied social sciences, the word “privileged” suggests a relatve term, someone who is more privileged than I am. (I being the reader.) I think many USians would read the word privileged as a synonym for really overrich dude.

    I’d also like to find a more convincing way to say “intent isn’t magic.”

  21. razzlefrog says

    I was gonna reply with some excuse just now but then I caught myself. Yeah, now that I think of it I’m actually kind of prone to doing that. I think it might be related to the way black folks have the civil rights movement associated with them, whereas there isn’t a movement in the public conscience of quite that same magnitude for other races. It sort of erases them. At least in my mind. Okay, I’ll start paying attention to that. Thanks for pointing that out.

  22. Medivh says

    Smhlle: through the power of analogy! That you didn’t mean to drop a sledgehammer on my foot does not mean that my foot is any less broken. Similarly, that you did not mean offence does not mean that I cannot be offended (or contemptuous, to thieve from Shakesville).

    Regarding privilege as a sociological term, it’s like theory as a general scientific term. The term is rusted on to the discussions through weight of academia, mainly. On the other hand, that people refuse to understand words have context-sensitive applications is not going to be solved by changing the word to avoid the sensitivity; most of the people who refuse to deal in context this way are looking for ways to remain unconvinced.

  23. Cello says

    WRT post #10, I think most of the resistance to discussions about privilege stems from a deep seated concern about people losing their “stuff”. And that may sound like I am trivializing the concern but that is not my intent at all. “Stuff” is subconciously related to survival. I don’t think fairness is a big consideration one way or another. It’s more about don’t upset the apple cart lest I lose all my apples.

    This IMO is why the most wealthy and privileged like movie stars and the Warren Buffetts of the world tend to be more egalitarian minded – they are buffered by having lots and lots of stuff – and don’t feel so threatened about losing it. While lower and middle income whites may tend to not be receptive to related discussions.

  24. Axxyaan says

    But the reverse can happen too. A non-privileged person making a very useful analogy with the privilege person unable or unwilling to recognize the analogy. This situation happens often enough here in Belgium. Here we have two language communities, the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking, where the French-speaking community through history still enjoys some kind of privilege. Now if you describe the same situation twice, but with the language roles reversed, the chances are that a French-speaking person will reverse his judgment about it. To give an example when a Dutch-speaking politician visits a French-speaking city, they expect the Dutch-speaker to adapt to the local language. When a French-speaking politician visits a Dutch-speaking city then expect to be treated in a hospitable fashion and thus that the locals adapt by speaking French. And a lot of French-speaking people seem unwilling or unable to see how they treat these two similar situations, differently.

  25. Brigit says

    As a Puerto Rican I never felt the lash of racial prejudice until I moved to the US mainland. Why? Because I’m pale and, while I’m of mixed heritage (as almost anyone back home), under our own racial dynamics I’m pretty much de facto white.
    I’m still pale enough, my accent inconspicuous enough, and my class privilege large enough to make my life a lot easier than my darker, from a poorer background Puerto Rican husband. Or my Afro-Puerto Rican stepmom for that matter.
    How I’ve experienced racial prejudice lies more in the intersection of race and gender – the expectations, presuppositions and behavior towards me as a function of being Boricua have been at times pretty fucked up. From assuming I’m poor, that my family is uneducated (Ha! We’ve been college educated since PR was Spain’s colony), that I’m a conservative Catholic (while me and a large part of my family back home are atheists), that I am or was sexually promiscuous, that I either have or plan to have ten thousand children, and that I’m in Fancypants Ivy-league Graduate Program because of my pretty face and/or minority status rather than my hard work and achievements.
    The difference in treatment when I went from being ‘white’ to being ‘not really white’ was an eye-opening experience with regards to social power differentials, and it motivated me to see how blind I was to other types of prejudice.

  26. baal says

    I play an additional game with commercials – how many represent reality? Most of the time the commercials are 100% fantasy land representations.

  27. ischemgeek says

    Speaking as someone who grew up in a priviledged household: I don’t think they think life is fair. I think they admit it’s unfair and don’t mind the unfairness as long as they can keep it unfair in their favor. Any attempt to remove the unfairness or level it out is met with open hostility.

    Because my father (a man who most would consider rich, despite his repeated protestations to the contrary) used to lecture me at length about how life isn’t fair, but how he shouldn’t have to pay more taxes than a poor person because damn it, he worked hard for his money and taking it would be theft. And grants and stuff like that is all BS, they should just work harder because that’s what he (a white, healthy young man from an upper-middle-class background who had access to excellent schooling and took advantage of a number of social programs at the time and faced far lower proportional tuition costs than we have now) did!

  28. left0ver1under says

    I’m white and I’ve lived in Asia for a decade in several countries (currently Taiwan) and can tell you it’s a very different story from the experience of non-whites in North America, Australia and Europe.

    I have encountered many instances of anti-white sentiment and racism, verbal abuse and attempts at physical intimidation, but it’s very different. First, I grew up in a mostly white country where I saw bigotry (and in my youth, was guilty of some) so my reaction is tempered by seeing it from both sides. Second, I know that I can get out if I can’t take it, my options aren’t limited. Third, I’m an odd bird, having not even visited home since I left and never feel out of place because I don’t care whether I fit in or not. Few people last more than two years working overseas, some not even six months, even without anything negative happening to them. But that’s just me, not everbody.

    Being a white face in an Asian country has no comparison to what non-whites feel in predominantly white countries feel. Most people around me actually want me here, they don’t see me as an interloper. Many/Most faces in TV, movies and pop music are white, so people are acclimatized to foreigners.

    The biggest difference is chauvinism about language. English (and French) speakers who travel often expect people in non-English countries to accomodate them, and most absolutely refused to learn foreign languages (e.g. the US’s far right and their attitude towards Spanish).

    Conversely, people in non-English countries usually try to learn English to speak to foreigners or to travel. And they make an effort to speak it to waiguoren/laowai like me, even though I should be the one trying to learn their language. (Yes, I do make an effort, although with Chinese’s five tones, it’s easier to learn to read it than speak it.) The Philippines actually goes overboard in that respect, referring to English as “the language of business”, as if something were wrong with their own language.

    Visitors and immigrants to English speaking countries are treated as “rude” or “lazy” for not speaking fluently. Yet in non-English countries, westerners who make just a token effort to fit in and learn the languages are made to feel very welcome, or the locals will make an effort to accomodate English speakers, even though they shouldn’t have to.

  29. lirael_abhorsen says

    Huh…as a woman in computer science (an overwhelmingly male field), and for that matter in a subfield that’s probably even more male than the whole of CS, I play a variation on this game in many professional and academic settings. Count the Women.

    It really can be used in all sorts of settings. Though it can get tricky with race because some people of color (some multiracial people, light-complected Latino and Middle Eastern people) are able to pass by default.

  30. Alanna says

    I feel like this ties in to another issue I see happen: people who are white who grow up and ARE exposed to a lot of people who are minorities can sometimes find it hard to see more subtle racism. I’m white, but a decent number of my relatives are Asian (mostly Chinese). My “international” high school had a number of Asian students from Asia (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong). Overall, I’ve been around a lot of American-born Asians and Asian immigrants and visitors, and it took me a while to see that it was making me a little blind to racism against Asians. The stereotypes seemed so silly that I thought people couldn’t really believe them (excuse me, everyone from South Korea does NOT look identical!). I also still don’t think I could identify in myself instances when I’ve had racist thoughts/actions towards people of Asian descent, which is a problem because no one is perfect, and you need to be able to see your problems before you can change them.

    Growing up in with a strong minority presence may help you see things more clearly, but like anyone in a majority position, it can also mislead you into thinking you see more clearly than you do.


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