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“There are White people who – no matter where they are on the rung or ladder of success still have their – Whiteness.” This was a statement made by Oprah during a virtual conversation with former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho and other guests, where they discussed the concept of “White privilege” and the “realities of racism in America”. The statement came as a rebuttal to a panel member who had daringly claimed that “not all White people have power.”
It appears that Oprah’s attempt to enlighten this uninformed and “unwoke” panellist failed, as he doubled down in response, stating that while he agreed with Oprah’s statement (one wonders if he truly agreed or was just paying lip service to one of the world’s wealthiest people), many working-class White people really “had no power” and it was incorrect to generalise a whole group.
The guest’s continued unwillingness to be “educated” on oppression and privilege by the billionaire mogul prompted Emmanuel Acho to intervene, reminding him – and anyone else watching – that “White privilege” doesn’t refer to the fact that one’s life hasn’t been difficult but that their skin colour would not have contributed to the difficulty.
If there weren’t many instances where this exact thing has happened – White people being judged unfairly solely based on the colour of their skin – I might be more tempted to agree with Acho. Not only have their private thoughts or intentions been presumptuously assumed, prescribed, or imposed; but they have also been the target of casual discrimination masquerading as “inclusivity” and “equity.” I am definitely in favour of increasing the diversity of both people and, more importantly, ideas; however, the overt exclusion and wrong treatment of others is not the wisest way to achieve this goal.
At this point, I expect to be passionately reminded that due to the power imbalances and historical implications, “it’s just not the same.” I wonder how much longer “history” will serve as a scapegoat and justification for immoral acts in the present. How can one claim to be fighting for a fairer, more just society while simultaneously deciding that some individuals or groups are simply undeserving of that fairness? The constant back-and-forth of the pendulum has to stop eventually.
The idea of privilege varies across time and across cultures. A quality or trait that is regarded as advantageous in one society can act as an impediment in another. Consider how many societies view having a disability, particularly a mental disability, as a disadvantage. Certainly, progress has been made in changing people’s perceptions of disability, and many laws exist to protect people from discrimination. Yet there is still a long way to go, particularly with mental disorders, where sufferers are often isolated, stigmatised, excluded, and even mocked. This is not automatically the case, however, if one travels to some other societies. For example, in certain shamanic communities in some parts of South Asia, an individual experiencing a “psychotic episode” may be viewed with such awe and respect that they are almost worshipped as a deity.
The complexities in each person’s life are grossly oversimplified by the definition of “White privilege”. It forces people to prioritise the group over the individual and ignores the unique struggles and/or accomplishments of each member within the arbitrary and socially crafted group. Adversity in no way invalidates this unquestionable privilege that White people have. Any issues they claim to have are disbelieved at best, ridiculed at worst, or simply written off as a natural part of life. For Black people, however, any adversity we face is almost always attributed to the fact that we are Black.
And I believe this to be the crux of the matter. There are some life problems that occur no matter who you are or what kind of lifestyle you lead, and not all of them have anything to do with your identity marker. Because of the unique circumstances of each person’s life, no single set of instructions can ensure a person a problem-free existence. Nobody is guaranteed success, not even those who are born into ideal circumstances, or what we perceive to be ideal circumstances.
We should certainly strive to make the world a better place so that conditions are as favourable as possible for each individual to live and navigate through life comfortably; however, we cannot run away or hide from the realities that life can be harsh and, in many cases, unfair – naturally and without any intervention from man.
Numerous other factors, such as a person’s intelligence, social status, family values, age, personality, and attractiveness, can also play a role in determining how smooth or challenging their path to success will be. Even a person’s geographical origins, such as the country they were born in and whether or not it is considered a first-world country, are significant. This explains why some White people in some nations have poorer prospects than non-White people in other nations. We must respect and value every aspect of who we are; perhaps it is time to stop viewing race as the final arbiter of success or failure.
Ada Akpala is the founder of Different Voice Initiative. It is a space for learning to help people navigate in this world of uncertainty and disorder.