Last month, I retweeted a comment by a contrarian writer who questioned whether racism was to blame for the spread of the coronavirus, and a close (white) friend responded to me with a well-meaning text:
“I feel it is my calling to help end the oppression people of color like you face in our society,” he wrote. “I understand I have white privilege. And that has consequences.”
His message left me feeling bewildered. What “oppression” had I actually faced? And what “privilege” had society conferred upon my friend because of his white skin?
Growing up as a Sikh, turbaned boy in the majority-white environment of British Columbia, Canada, I was a constant target of bullying throughout my elementary school years. On bus rides home, I remember having to sit in the back where the older, “cool” kids hung out, and they used to jump up and slap the top part of my turban. I was consistently harassed with comments like “Go back to where you came from” and “You don’t belong here.”
Upon immigrating from India when I was 4, my family suffered tremendous economic hardships and cultural challenges. My father drove a taxi at night and my mom worked many menial jobs as a cook, housecleaner, barista and motel cleaner. It’s fair to say my family never had success handed to them on a silver platter. But more than a decade post-immigration, we have found our footing in Western society, with my dad making nearly six figures operating his own software company.
Author Rav Arora was teased as a child for looking different (left) but leveraged his economic privilege to succeed.
Rising from poverty to economic prosperity is a common narrative for immigrants from all backgrounds in the West. For example, after the communist takeover of Cuba in 1959, many refugees fled to America, leaving most of their wealth behind and having to start from the bottom. But by 1990, second-generation Cuban Americans were twice as likely to earn an annual salary of $50,000 than non-Hispanic whites in the United States.
The notion of white privilege stems from the idea that white people have benefited in American history relative to “people of color.” And it’s true that the institution of slavery and the following decades of anti-black dehumanization has a continuing impact today. A major 2013 study from Brandeis University found that 32 percent of the wealth gap between whites and blacks can be attributed to inherited wealth and length of homeownership, two factors linked to institutionalized racism. Meanwhile, Harvard economist Roland Fryer’s much-publicized study on racial bias in policing found that cops are 53 percent more likely to use physical force on black civilians compared to whites (his study, however, found no anti-black bias in fatal police shootings).
Because of facts like these, an emerging definition of white privilege is now being widely circulated on social media: “White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It just means your race isn’t one of the things that make it harder.”
And yet, this definition suffers from several shortcomings. For one, it ignores anti-Semitism — the second leading cause of hate crimes in America, according to the FBI. In addition, the growing demonization of whiteness now means that white people are no longer immune to racism. I can think of several instances where friends and colleagues have been racially targeted for being white and holding contrarian but intellectually defensible positions such as “we need to have generous, but reasonable limits on our immigration system” or even “I don’t think racial minorities are systematically oppressed in Western society today.”
Well-meaning white folk often decry their own whiteness as a means of racial protest but many other groups who otherwise have faced severe marginalization are doing better economically.
Well-meaning white folk often decry their own whiteness as a means of racial protest but many other groups who otherwise have faced severe marginalization are doing better economically.Sipa USA via AP
And the concept of white privilege can’t explain why several historically marginalized groups out-perform whites today. Take Japanese Americans, for example: For nearly four decades in the 20th century (1913 – 1952), this group was legally prevented from owning land and property in over a dozen American states. Moreover, 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. But by 1959, the income disparity between Japanese Americans and white Americans nearly vanished. Today, Japanese Americans outperform whites by large margins in income statistics, education outcomes, test scores and incarceration rates.
One could argue the successful stories of my family, Cuban Americans and Japanese Americans are cherry-picked cases. But whites are far from being the most dominantly successful group in Western society. A wealth of data collected in a longform Quillette analysis, shows overwhelming white underachievement relative to several minority groups among health outcomes, educational achievement, incarceration rates and economic success.
On the whole, whatever ‘systemic racism’ exists appears to be incredibly ineffectual, or even nonexistent, given the multitude of groups who consistently eclipse whites.
According to median household income statistics from the US Census Bureau, several minority groups substantially out-earn whites. These groups include Pakistani Americans, Lebanese Americans, South African Americans, Filipino Americans, Sri Lankan Americans and Iranian Americans (in addition to several others). Indians, the group I belong to, are the highest-earning ethnic group the census keeps track of, with almost double the household median income of whites. In Canada, several minority groups also significantly out-earn whites, including South Asian Canadians, Arab Canadians and Japanese Canadians.
Interestingly, several black immigrant groups such as Nigerians, Barbadians, Ghanaians and Trinidadians & Tobagonians have a median household income well above the American average. Ghanian Americans, to take one example, earn more than several specific white groups such as Dutch Americans, French Americans, Polish Americans, British Americans and Russian Americans. Do Ghanaians have some kind of sub-Saharan African privilege?
Nigerian Americans, meanwhile, are one of the most educated groups in America, as one Rice University survey indicates. Though they make up less than 1 percent of the black population in America, nearly 25 percent of the black student body at Harvard Business School in 2013 consisted of Nigerians. In post-bachelor education, 61 percent of Nigerian Americans over the age of 25 hold a graduate degree compared to only 32 percent for the US-born population.
These facts challenge the prevailing progressive notion that America’s institutions are built to universally favor whites and “oppress” minorities or blacks. On the whole, whatever “systemic racism” exists appears to be incredibly ineffectual, or even nonexistent, given the multitude of groups who consistently eclipse whites.
Despite set backs such as being prohibited to own land and internment camps, Japanese Americans have been able to close the economic gap and are a story of immigrant success.
Despite being prohibited from owning land in the past and being placed in internment camps during WWII, Japanese Americans have been able to close the economic gap and now outperform whites in the US.Alamy
In fact, because whites are the majority in Canada and America, more white people live in poverty or are incarcerated than any other racial group in those countries. If you were to randomly pick an impoverished individual in America, you are exponentially more likely to pick a white person than a “person of color,” because of population differences. Today, 15.7 million white Americans (almost twice as many as black Americans) live in poverty. Given such facts, why would we deem all white people as privileged, even if whites have lower poverty rates compared to African Americans and Hispanics?
It should also be noted that suicide rates are disproportionately high among the white population. In 2018, whites had the highest suicide rate of 16.03 per 100,000. The New York Times has reported that whites are dying faster than they are being born in a majority of US states — in large part due to high rates of substance abuse and suicide. In comparison, black Americans had a suicide rate less than half of whites (6.96) and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders had the lowest rate of 6.88 per 100,000. In this context, do blacks and Asians have some kind of unmerited “privilege” they must atone for?
If we look at health outcomes reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we find that African Americans are less likely than whites to die of several health conditions such as bladder cancer, leukemia, esophageal cancer, lung cancer, bladder cancer, brain cancer and skin cancer, to take a few arbitrary examples. But no one in their right mind would protest any “health privilege” enjoyed by African Americans in these instances. And while blacks have the highest COVID-19 death rate, more than double that of whites, the group with the lowest death rate from the coronavirus is actually Asian Americans. Given the crisis of the pandemic, perhaps it would be laudable for Asians like me to confess their “Asian privilege” on social media because otherwise, as the Twitter hashtag goes, #SilenceisViolence.
Overall, I can think of several privileges I have benefited from that are arguably more significant than “white privilege.” Roughly speaking my family has more wealth than many in my social circle, including my friend who texted me to atone for his white privilege. This would be a form of class privilege.
By 1990, second-generation Cuban Americans were twice as likely to earn $50,000 a year than non-Hispanic whites in the United States.
By 1990, second-generation Cuban Americans were twice as likely to earn $50,000 a year than non-Hispanic whites in the United States.Alamy
I was also afforded the privilege of taking a full one-year break from education to pursue my passion for creative writing and social commentary. Had I been in a different economic circumstance, I would’ve been forced to immediately attend college or spend a substantial portion of my time working in my gap year. Comparatively, my friend who texted me went to university right away and tenaciously worked part-time on the weekends to afford his tuition. Perhaps it would be more appropriate for me to confess economic privilege to him. I was also afforded the privilege of my parents strongly encouraging me to read books and learn new vocabulary words at a very young age, which has undoubtedly aided me in my freelance journalism career. This kind of “literacy privilege” has, in part, given me the tremendous opportunity to write essays for top publications like The Globe and Mail and The Grammy Awards, despite being just 19 years of age.
Writing this essay, I also have the immense privilege of being a person of color. I receive plentiful backlash for defending the positions I hold, but had I been a white person, I would have easily been demonized as “alt-right” or even a “white supremacist,” despite having average libertarian or classical liberal views on politics.
Fundamentally, privileges of all kinds exist: able-bodiedness, wealth, education, moral values, facial symmetry, tallness (or in other contexts, shortness), health, stamina, safety, economic mobility, and importantly, living in a free, diverse society. Rather than “whiteness,” an exponentially more predictive privilege in life is growing up with two parents.
This is why 41 percent of children born to single mothers grow up in poverty whereas only 8 percent of children living in married-couple families are impoverished. In a racial context, the poverty rate among two-parent black families is only 7.5 percent, compared to 11 percent among whites as a whole and 22 percent among whites in single-parent homes. In fact, since 1994 the poverty rate among married black Americans has been consistently lower than the white poverty rate. Furthermore, an illustrative study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that when controlling for family structure, the black-white poverty gap is reduced by over 70 percent.
Privileges of all kinds exist: able-bodiedness, wealth, education, facial symmetry, health, stamina, safety, economic mobility, and importantly, living in a free, diverse society.
When surveying the tremendous complexity of racial disparities, it’s simply wrong to presuppose all whites are “privileged,” let alone racist. Using the despicable actions of a few to judge an entire group of people is never sound reasoning. Just because some white people (who were kids) weaponized their whiteness and harassed me for the color of my skin, doesn’t mean I view all white people as racist or privileged.
None of the statistics in this piece discount racial prejudice, unequal opportunities or the privilege of not experiencing racism. They simply point to the glaring fallacies of the all-consuming white-privilege narrative which has degraded our national discourse into identity politics and racial tribalism. White people are now one-dimensionally seen as an undifferentiated mass of privilege and wealth whereas minorities are seen as powerless victims oppressed by a society ingrained with white supremacy and racial bigotry.
Ultimately, I don’t want to be treated as “Rav, the brown-skinned boy” or “Rav, the underprivileged minority.” I want to be treated as an individual with a unique set of circumstances and characteristics. To cohere as a multiethnic, pluralistic society this standard must be applied to all colors and ethnicities. But until we collectively repudiate race-based stereotyping and fallacious, inflammatory generalizations, we shift the focus away from real inequity and discrimination — and never truly make progress.
Rav Arora is a 19-year-old writer based in Vancouver, Canada, who specializes in topics of race, music, literature and culture. His writing has also been featured in The Globe and Mail and City Journal.