No one can give up privilege, but we can give up oppression. And Black Liberation is dependent on our commitment to do so.

-Arielle Iniko Newton

By Arielle Iniko Newton

I first heard the term “white privilege” in college after the predominately white student government association refused to allow a Black-only mixer for Black students and professors. A Black student organizer reasoned that a campus sanctioned Black-only event was necessary because “white privilege” meant that white students inherently had access to professors, whereas Black students had to work extra hard to get adequate and compassionate face-time with educators.

I always knew that white people had unearned benefits and advantages due to their race, and I was excited to finally know a term that explained this dynamic. In time, the term “white privilege” became central to my organizing in that it allowed me to communicate with sympathetic white people about how best to support Black organizers and activists.

My ask was that they “acknowledge and relinquish” their white privilege as a means to fight white supremacy. This ask is now a staple within the Movement for Black Lives, but I am beginning to find it inadequate and futile.

While the fact remains that white people can navigate socially with ease, “privilege” suggests that this uneven racial dynamic can fundamentally shift should white people, as individuals, act in a manner that is deferential to Blackness.

“Privilege” is a lackluster concept because it centers individual behavior over systemic failure, and suggests that changing these behaviors is a sufficient way to dismantle oppression. Further, “privilege” is a minimal acknowledgement that calls for the most basic of actions that are easily undone and difficult to scale.

“Privilege” innately derails productivity in our fight for Black Liberation because it forces us to reckon with whether or not it is an organic good. When we hear “privilege,” we are compelled to determine if privilege is an asset or an attainment; do we need those with “privilege” to use that privilege to co-conspire, and/or are marginalized people fighting for a society in which they amass social privilege themselves?

Any affirmative answer to these question leaves the fundamental core of white supremacy intact. On one hand, relying on privilege means white people (and therefore whiteness) are a necessary factor in our Liberation. On the other, we’re remodeling a society that depends on an oppressive embrace of social order. Neither of these answers suffice for the Liberation I seek.

My greatest concern about how privilege is discussed and unpacked, however is how we misplace it within Blackness. We often compartmentalize our existences in the form of male privilege, cis privilege, able-bodied privilege, light skin privilege, etc., and in doing so, we prescribe our intra-communal remedies on the basis of how we rectify the violence of white supremacy.

As Black people, when we situate our relationships with one another within the context and confines of privilege, we dangerously mirror our responses, actions, and behaviors with one another in the same ways we interact with white people. As such, we begin to unravel the firm truth that no Black person, in whole, has privilege in a society that does not deem us human. While some of us are positioned within the white supremacist order to avoid certain violence that others are forced to withstand, the order still remains.

The extent to which we misapply “privilege” is often expressed through heteronormative patriarchy at the expense of Black folk who are non-cis, non-heterosexual, and/or non-men. This misapplication, intentional or otherwise, allows Black cishet men to believe the carceral state “most” impacts them, or non-gay men to propose that “Black gay male privilege” is real because Black gay men make more money, erasing the multitude of other violence Black queer and womenfolk face despite these things.

When we adopt privilege as a measurement of social access, we are inexact in how we analyze situational hardships that arise in a Community that is remarkably expansive. For example, when I’ve seen Black cis women and male-bodied femmes get into disagreements in organizing, the competition of who is more “privileged” regularly becomes a focal point for measuring who is more (in)correct in their grievances.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie similarly upheld this failed logic when she violently implied that Black transgender women aren’t real women because they’ve lived their lives with male privilege. Again, when focusing on the perceived (and, in this case, erroneous) advantages that some parts of Black identities have, we begin to misidentify and distort the depths to which we are oppressed.

In refusing to name “privilege,” I still recognize that some of us are have more access to certain parts of society due to the various natures of our identities. Hence, instead of weighing the intangible and subjective “privilege” as a prescription, we should focus on oppression as a method for reckoning with ourselves and those who are non-Black.

In this way, we can more clearly understand and hold into account the more violent tendencies in our community and beyond it. For example, Black women are more than four times as likely to die from intimate partner violence not because Black men have male privilege, but because the oppression of Black women is so thorough—we’ve been devalued to such a degree—that even Black men find it reasonable to kill us.

White privilege is not responsible for the mass incarceration of Black people; rather, white dominion over Black bodies is so lucrative that the white supremacist surveillance state is eager to adopt practices that enslave us.

When the launching point for our prescription is one of oppression, we can more easily place blame where necessary, heal where permissible, and confront how institutional subjugation is carried out in personal interactions.

Privilege is non-real. To say this means that while the social order allows some of us and all white people to benefit immensely from its structure, this relative comfort is merely symptomatic of socioeconomic institutionalized violence that ultimately and primarily needs to be defeated. Giving up social privilege is impossible because this system of oppression are continuous in how it categorizes who is (in)human.

No one can give up privilege, but we can give up oppression. And Black Liberation is dependent on our commitment to do so.

Image via Getty


Arielle Newton aka Iniko is an editor at @RaceBaitR, an organizer within the Movement for Black Lives, and the founder of the Black Giving Fund. As Head Girl of Ravenclaw, she is an unapologetic mermaid, abolitionist, and radical militant freedom fighter.  

Follow her on Twitter at @arielle_newton or send her an email at arielle@racebaitr.com.

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