How Whites benefit from fighting White privilege #1: Self-Esteem

A White person may benefit from fighting White privilege, because if she accepts the existence of White privilege, she will develop a healthier self-esteem.

High self-esteem is not always healthy self-esteem.

High self-esteem is not the same thing as healthy self-esteem, according to psychology research from the University of Georgia. Those with “fragile” high self-esteem are more likely to be verbally defensive compared to those with “secure” high self-esteem.

According to the news release, people with fragile high self-esteem:

  • compensate for their self-doubts by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth
  • are verbally defensive; they lash out at others when their opinions, beliefs, statements or values are threatened
  • feel that potential threats are more threatening and work harder to counteract these threats

This behaviour differs from individuals with “secure” high self-esteem:

On the other hand, individuals with secure high self-esteem appear to accept themselves “warts and all,” and, feeling less threatened, they are less likely to be defensive by blaming others or providing excuses when they speak about past transgressions or threatening experiences.

One reason the study’s findings are important, Kernis said, is that it shows that greater verbal defensiveness relates to lower psychological well-being and life satisfaction.

What does this have to do with Whites and White privilege?

Defensive Whites have a fragile high racial self-esteem.

The study is not about race, but the idea of distinguishing between “secure” high self-esteem and “fragile” high self-esteem can be applied to Whites’ view of themselves. Whites with secure high racial self-esteem can accept themselves “warts and all” and can accept that society confers privilege on them due to their skin colour, while Whites with fragile high racial self-esteem will “lash out” at the mere possibility that our society is not a meritocracy.

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Science is not the oppressor.

Some anti-oppressive thinkers distrust powerful institutions, and end up distrusting the scientific institution and even scientific knowledge itself. However, scientific knowledge and scientific practise are not inherently oppressive. The oppressions that appear to come from science actually come from the upper-class white male domination of scientific disciplines.

Science is not the enemy; the practise of science is a productive method for understanding ourselves and our world. When some scientific studies overgeneralize and/or neglect certain groups of people, the problem is bad science, not science.

One of the serious problems with the lack of diversity in the practise within certain knowledge domains is that some important aspects of reality are not even considered, leading the researchers to overgeneralize and draw incorrect conclusions. This problem comes from the fact that scientific practise is a social activity, subject to the biases and prejudices of the scientists. In contrast, the scientific methods of gathering empirical data to refute hypotheses, and using statistical methods to determine statistical significance, are perfectly sound.

It is illogical to assume without reason that the results of a given scientific study (especially one that you do not particularly like) must be false. There is no contradiction between truth and justice. Anti-oppressive thinkers should not be afraid of science.

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Fallacy: Making moral judgements about ethnic minorities based on the actions of foreigners.

If you condemn people of ethnicity P who live in your country based on the actions of foreigners of ethnicity P living in a different country, your reasoning is illogical. At a basic level, this is fallacious because

  • If individual x has property P and individual y also has property P, one cannot conclude that x = y.
  • If individual x has property P and individual y also has property P, one cannot conclude that if x has some property Q, y also has property Q.

In the ethnicity example, if a foreigner x of ethnicity P in a different country participates in action Q that is morally questionable, one cannot condemn a minority y in your country for action Q simply because that individual is also of ethnicity P.

For example, if a Muslim in a Western country complains that her rights were violated by the state, it is illogical to argue that this individual is being hypocritical because the laws in Saudi Arabia are worse in terms of human rights violations. Here, the individual y who complained about the violation is not necessary the person x who carried out a human rights violation, even though both x and y have property P, being Muslim. Furthermore, it is not the case that if some w has property P and property Q, all z who have property P also have property Q.

At a second level, this reasoning is fallacious because it assumes that minorities of ethnicity P in countries like the United States and Canada are representative of people of ethnicity P living in countries where ethnicity P is the majority. This is often not the case, as those who choose to immigrate to a Western country tend to be sympathetic towards Western values, and may even be escaping persecution from their original country. Cuban Americans on average tend to be anti-communist despite or perhaps because of the fact that Cuba is a communist country. Iranian Americans on average tend to be actively against Muslim fundamentalism despite or because of Iran having a Muslim fundamentalist government. Making generalizations about ethnic minorities based on foreigners living in a different country is simply ignorant, and often ironic.

At a third level, this reasoning is racist because it assumes that Canadian-born Canadians and American-born Americans of Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latino descent are somehow “the same as” or interchangeable with foreigners. This is known as the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype. For example, the tastes, culture, and politics of a fourth-generation American of Asian descent are often inferred from the tastes, culture, and politics of her ancestral country instead of her native country and country of origin, the United States. On the other hand, the tastes, culture, and politics of a second-generation American of Western European descent are assumed to be American. The perception of foreignness when it comes to native-born North Americans of Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latino descent is almost always a result of racial prejudices rather than the “culture” manifested by these individuals.

Related webpages:

  • Asian Americans and the Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome by Frank H. Wu – An analysis and history of the perpetual foreigner syndrome as it relates to Asian Americans, explaining why it is racist and making references to “color-blindness”, color-consciousness, and the reality of participating in racial discrimination without being mindful of it.
  • “Asking Permission” by X. Dean Lim – Humourous video about equating “Asian” with “foreign”. Rather than the reverse situation shown in this thought experiment, in practise, there are more situations where an Asian American is alone and under the scrutiny of the white American majority, so social pressure usually works against him.

Racism vs. Race-consciousness

A white supremacist and an anti-racist ally are more racially-conscious than a 'colorblind' liberal. However, a white supremacist and anti-racist ally are on opposite ends of the racism gradient, while the 'colorblind' liberal is in the middle.

A race-conscious person is not necessarily more racist than a person who claims to be racially ‘colorblind’.

White people are the most segregated.

In American public schools, whites are the most segregated, while Asians are the least segregated.

The statistics from the 2000-2001 school year show that whites are the most segregated group in the nation’s public schools; they attend schools, on average, where eighty percent of the student body is white. The two regions where white students are more likely to attend substantially interracial schools are the South and West. Whites attending private schools are even more segregated than their public school counterparts.

This may be surprising at first for some white people who are unconscious of the pervasiveness of whiteness. However, this fact becomes unsurprising when given the quote above which racially frames a familiar sight or experience. Most racial minorities in North America live in metropolitan areas that are typically racially diverse, while more white people are spread out in suburban and rural areas that are overwhelmingly white.

However, on seeing a group of white people, most North Americans would not categorize the experience as seeing a “group of white people”, but the group would instead be remembered as just a “group of people”. On the other hand, people will see and remember a “group of Asians” or “group of black people” because minority races are foregrounded against the white-race background. The bias to remember relatively unusual instances makes it seem like non-whites are more segregated than whites.

Michael Kimmel’s article “Toward a Pedagogy of the Oppressor” discusses the invisibility of whiteness and the invisibility of privilege in general.

To be white, or straight, or male, or middle class is to be simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. You’re everywhere you look, you’re the standard against which everyone else is measured. You’re like water, like air. People will tell you they went to see a “woman doctor,” or they will say they went to see “the doctor.” People will tell you they have a “gay colleague” or they’ll tell you about a “colleague.” A white person will be happy to tell you about a “black friend,” but when that same person simply mentions a “friend,” everyone will assume the person is white. Any college course that doesn’t have the word “woman” or “gay” or “minority” in the title is, de facto, a course about men, heterosexuals, and white people. But we call those courses “literature,” “history,” or “political science.”

It is ironic when some white individuals accuse racial minorities, especially Asians, of being especially segregated. This is not reality, but this myth is rarely challenged in discussions where the participants are mostly whites unconscious of their whiteness.


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