Cambrian: Opinion

‘Privilege’ stands in the way of necessary dialogue

Steve Provost
Steve Provost

Commonality. It’s the essential element to all effective communication. Unless the speaker and the listener have a common understanding of the words and phrases being used, communication can’t happen.

If one person is speaking Greek to someone who only understands English, it’s likely to elicit a shrug of the shoulders and the famous admission that “it’s all Greek to me.” Or gibberish. The Greeks, for their part, referred to less civilized peoples around them as barbarians from the word “barbaros,” meaning “babbler.” They apparently thought the foreigners’ language sounded like bar, bar, bar, bar, bar. It definitely was not Greek to them.

People don’t have to speak different languages to miss out on commonality. Occasionally, a word or phrase will gain currency that means one thing to those who use it (the speakers) and something entirely different to those with whom they’re trying to communicate (their audience). When this happens, a speaker has two choices:

1. Learn the audience’s language, or

2. Attempt to teach the audience the speaker’s tongue.

The first option is far more effective, because a single speaker may want to communicate with many different listeners. Teaching each and every one of them to speak his language will be a lot harder than teaching a single person — himself — to speak theirs. Not only is it easier, it also shows a measure of respect for the listeners that is likely to earn their trust. Politicians understand this. That’s why they take out ads on Spanish-language TV stations touting their candidacy in, yes, Spanish. They won’t win any votes speaking English to a Spanish-speaking audience.

This brings me to a phrase that entered public discourse more than a half-century ago and has been used more frequently in the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Ferguson, Mo.: “white privilege.” The term is meant to call attention to racial inequities, situations in which white people are treated better than nonwhite people. There’s no denying that such inequities — some of them tragic and grossly unjust — exist, and that they must be addressed, but the term “white privilege” isn’t doing anything to help the situation. In fact, it’s doing just the opposite. Whenever I see it come up in conversation, it doesn’t facilitate dialogue, it shuts it down.

The first problem is that the term, by its very nature, makes “whiteness” an issue, as though it were a condition to be ashamed of. If you criticize a person’s behavior, it’s one thing. If done constructively, with tact and respect, you can gain a willing audience. But if you appear to be attacking a person’s identity, you’re likely to put that person on the defensive, and when people become defensive, they stop listening. Instead, they start thinking of ways to rebut you — or tune you out.

The second problem is with the word “privilege.” Are we really talking about privilege here? Or are we talking about rights: civil rights and human rights. It’s not a “privilege” to be able to walk freely through a public place without being stopped and questioned, or without being harassed. That’s a fundamental right. It’s a right that, at times, has been trampled on, and the victims are often, disproportionately, people of color.

Should we minimize this right by reducing it to the status of a “privilege” and making white people feel guilty for “enjoying” it? Or shouldn’t we rather seek to protect this right (and others) by emphasizing that it’s far more basic than any privilege — a fundamental right that should be enjoyed by all human beings?

Almost every time I see the phrase “white privilege” used, the speaker demurs that it’s not intended to make anyone feel guilty or ashamed. That it doesn’t apply to all white people (even though the very nature of the phrase suggests that it does). Qualifying statements such as this only indicate that the phrase itself is not effectively communicating the speaker’s intent. Imagine if, every time I mentioned a shoe, I had to add, “You know, that thing you wear on your foot.” The phrase “white privilege” has been around for decades, yet those who use it still feel the need to explain, on a regular basis, that they don’t intend it to mean what their listeners think it does. Still, some speakers insist upon using it.

This, frankly, baffles me. The point of communication is to convey meaning and elicit understanding. If the words you choose don’t accomplish this, you’re not communicating. There’s no commonality, but rather, division. And division is the last thing we need if we want to build a meaningful dialogue on race in America: a dialogue this country sorely needs.