‘White Privilege’ Is a Problematic Notion in the Fight against Racism

For Jean-Luc Bonniol, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Aix-Marseille, reintroducing the attribution of color to people, prohibiting them from choosing their own identity, reproduces ancient mental frameworks of racial division.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the notion of “white privilege,” which stems from the concept of “whiteness” transposed from the United States to France, invaded public discourse, establishing a clear-cut dividing line among anti-racists. Indeed, in the face of the rise of identities, there are nowadays two anti-racisms.

Let’s take a look at the arguments put forward by each side.

On the “decolonial” anti-racism side, the most recent type, which seeks to promote the notion of “white privilege”, it is a question of drawing all the consequences of the relationship of inequality historically established between “whites” and “Blacks.” The expression serves to describe all of the social advantages that people who aren’t the targets of racism benefit from. Being white means enjoying the peace of mind of not having to define oneself. One also has to acknowledge that the dominated, themselves, can initiate watchwords for their demands, to take into account their capacity for self-organization in their struggle against the discrimination and violence of the state and to accept the words they use. At first glance, these are acceptable arguments because there is indeed a “discriminability” differential between people according to their physical characteristics, particularly the color of their skin. And who could dispute the fact that such discrimination persists, hinged on a structural racism, which takes on particular relevance in France where republican principles are on full display?

Among the older anti-racism set, that which opposes the “war of races” and the importation of the notion of “white privilege” in France, this tendency to favor words and the fight of the dominated alone is contested because it plays the identity game and signs off on abandoning the universalist dimension, which should inspire the anti-racist fight, in favor of the differentialism of minorities. Yet for this camp, the support of the majority, inspired by a general fight for the recognition of human rights, seems essential. One also emphasizes the performative power of words, especially those composing the racial lexicon. By “naming” the races, one inevitably names the “whites,” aggregating them into a group to constrain, favoring the formation of white supremacist groups in response and encouraging the spread of a “Great Replacement” fantasy.

False Symmetry

One can add more arguments to the equally admissible ones advanced by this second stance, which leads one to believe that no, the notion of “white privilege” is decidedly not an ideal weapon to use in the anti-racist struggle. The very concept of privilege is ambiguous: It cannot be used where there is only the exercise of a human right. Certain rights which “non-whites” are deprived of are not “privileges.”

As highlighted on his Mediapart blog by Emmanuel Dockès, who, as it so happens, is a proponent of the term “white privilege”, this is a “terrible, ancient scandal. … This does not make those who enjoy human rights privileged. Simply, they are not victims. Not being a victim is not in itself a ‘privilege.’”

The notion of “white privilege” therefore sets up a false symmetry: The inferiorization of one part of the population is genuinely a major scandal, but it does not automatically result in the superiority of the other part (as it was of course the case in the past, during the French colonial era).

The American origin of the notion of “white privilege” implies in effect an important bias: Although France and the United States share a history of slavery, which produced racial labeling in the service of domination, the latter only recently emerged from its institutional system of segregation, unlike France. Notably, there is still a rule of hypo-descent there (the famous one drop rule: one drop of “Black” blood is enough to be categorized as such). This genealogical instrument allows for the attribution of an unambiguous racial identity to each and every individual and for a great distinctive clarity between “Blacks” and “whites,” eliminating by the same token any real consideration of race-mixing. That has a distorting effect that is very difficult to pull away from, even for the most discerning minds. And none of the anti-racist movements in the United States have ever challenged this tenet of racial classification of people.

The Colorist Lexicon

This false symmetry is reflected in the very evolution of the racial lexicon. At the dawn of Spanish colonization, the noun negro appeared to describe someone based on their skin color. In French, the term became nègre, which is endowed with a strong pejorative connotation and which started to come into use in a systematic fashion in the middle of the 17th century.

As for the term blanc (white), it was first used as an adjective: It was only relatively late that it gradually evolved into a noun. The term is absent from the “Code Noir” (the dominant party is named not by his color but by his social status, as “master”).* It’s largely at the end of the 17th century, at least in French colonies, that a white racial identity was constructed by closing off the group.

This is because the racialization that particularly characterizes colonial slavery implied an empowerment of “race” in the social field: Phenotypic characteristics started to gain an intrinsic value, serving to position people and their lineages on the social ladder. The distinct effectiveness of colorist racism thus largely relies on natural somatic realities whose appearance cannot be modified, which transforms a biological contingency into a fixed social identity.

Colonial slavery, unlike ancient slavery, leaves a visible trace in the very appearance of its victims’ descendants and continues, through this genealogical link inscribed on the corporeal envelope, to endlessly segment society. As Tocqueville thought in an illuminated analysis of the relationship between race and slavery, “The most difficult thing to change among the ancient people was the law, among the modern people, it is the customs and … the difficulty starts where antiquity saw it end.”

Reversing the Stigma

Race, as an instrument of oppression and domination, could historically only be imposed upon those who suffered from it, which falls under the term “attribution,” a characteristic imposed by a physical signifier. Admittedly, the concept has known a paradoxical mutation in the past century, insofar as it can be appropriated and claimed from within by the dominated, either past or present. Even if imposed from the outside by attribution, race is consequently, simultaneously and continuously created from within, an expression of the way an aggregate of minority individuals can claim it to define themselves as a group against an oppressive system, starting from a shared experience of suffering and struggle.

It is through the well-known mechanism of reversing the stigma that the descendants of the system’s victims were able to construct an identity, now sporting the color of their oppressed ancestors as an instrument for advocacy and a political weapon. The core identity on which the ancient prejudice rested therefore remained in place, referring no longer to the ancient attribution but to an interior awareness.

However, to reintroduce a forced attribution based on an individual’s appearance, to confine them to phenotypic compartments according to their bodies, all the while forbidding them the freedom to choose their own identity, only reproduces ancient mental frameworks of racial divides with their essentialist weight of reducing people to their skin color. This contributes to reinforce a certain concept of ethno-racial identity, promoting the growth of identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum and crystalizing racial categories for centuries to come.

Yet race is no more than a murky fiction that the enlightened words of Frantz Fanon yearned to dispel in “Black Skin, White Masks”:**

“The Negro is not. Any more than the white man. … There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden. … There are in every part of the world men who search. … O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”


Editor’s Notes:

* The Code Noir (1675) was a royal decree of French King Louis XIV that defined the terms of slavery in France’s colonial empire

** Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a French-Martiniquan anti-colonial scholar and activist

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