Some of the defining pillars of the modern college experience–its culture, politics and perception by the general public included–have all undergone seismic changes in recent years. American awareness of the “ism’s” (racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, etc.) and the rise of identity politics to accompany them have fundamentally altered the way that students both at Stanford and other institutions around the country experience their time on campus. The 2016 election and its subsequent splintering of many of the traditional bastions of American life have proven that this isn’t a short term fad, but rather a lasting change to the fabric of our society.
As we have come to collectively question many of the truths we once held, both sides of the aisle have sought refuge in the creation of a number of weaponized ideologies intended to explain these unprecedented levels of societal uncertainty. Many of these sociological concepts draw upon vaguely constructed meta-trends of oppression. There are many one can potentially cite—the patriarchy, the ‘liberal agenda’ and intersectionality all come to mind— but regardless of the political ideology they serve as a proxy for, these contrived axioms have poisoned the figurative well of American politics and contributed in a very real way to the polarization that has brought productive discourse in this country to a standstill.
In my personal (and undeniably biased) opinion, the most egregious of these empty phrases is that of ‘white privilege.’ Leftists believe that by acknowledging their unearned benefits in life, light-skinned people can develop a more empathetic and socially conscious view towards racial relations and the fabric of modern America. The problem with the idea of white privilege, however, isn’t the notion that Caucasians have advantages over their fellow Americans. It’s instead the blunt wielding of this idea as an all-utility tool to explain the evils of the world and all the problems that minorities face. This ubiquity and relentless application have converted it from a potential teaching tool into a catalyst for little more than polarization.
Because white privilege does not have one specific lens through which it is intended to be viewed, its proponents tend to apply it to every single situation that they can, regardless of the validity of said usage. This constant ramming of “white privilege” down the throats of the American public dilutes the message’s importance for those who believe in its merits and bewilders any skeptics to the point of utter alienation from the entire subject of identity politics. This shaming—of whites, republicans, the wealthy or really anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with leftist ideology—is exactly the type of cultural bewilderment that has led to so much conservative backlash. This is the same backlash that originally manifested itself in the form of the Tea Party and anti-Obama sentiment, but that quickly morphed into the far more sinister realities of the alt-right and the election of Donald Trump. In essence, the usage of the term white privilege has swollen the very evils it originally sought to combat. Its general air of vagueness only amplifies the confusion and frustration that conservatives feel towards racial politics and the left at large.
All of this uncertainty only encourages the idea that our lives are governed by invisible forces that we are powerless to stop–not exactly a positive development for a generation that claims to seek so much change. True “change,” however, will require the exchange of hard data and concrete information, concepts that are once again betrayed by the usage of white privilege and similarly incomplete explanations for the toughest questions that our society faces today. Unfortunately, political discussion is made virtually impossible when every debate can become stymied at the single mention of “check your privilege.” It is political and cultural suicide to deny the existence of white privilege and the like, and yet the vague nature of its existence means that acknowledging it doesn’t actually help us solve the issues that it seeks to address. This idea is, in my own opinion, the greatest flaw of all these terms–white privilege, the patriarchy and intersectionality included. We cannot take a proactive attitude towards the solving of individual issues and examples of inequality and bigotry when these hollow phrases are used as catch-all scapegoats to explain every hardship that the self-deemed oppressed may face. Nobody in their right mind can claim that unearned benefits don’t inherently exist for certain groups. And yet, building a throne of victimhood out of empty ideas and blanket accusations does absolutely nothing for those who are truly disadvantaged. Perhaps instead of ending our more socially conscientious tweets with #whiteprivilege, we should consider including ideas like #doawaywithsfzoninglaws or #nomorevoteridrestrictions. Of course these may not be as convenient for easy consumption, but their specificity and willingness to tackle actual issues means that their potential for catalyzing change is so much greater.
Politics are concrete and have very real and tangible effects on people’s lives. They therefore must be discussed in concrete terms. If we want to instigate real change, then we must focus on the precise, specific and oftentimes uncomfortable realities of the conversation–not the inherently reactionary and counterproductive screaming of white privilege this, liberal agenda that or whatever other empty phrases enter the modern lexicon. Despite its best intentions and supposedly enlightened design, the application of the phrase white privilege–and all that goes along with it—defeats the very purpose of the phrase itself.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.