This interview originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Bridge Operations and Admin News (the in-house newsletter at my day job).
A Very Abbreviated History of the Concept of ‘Privilege’:
An Interview with Noel Ignatiev
by Kristian Williams
Noel Ignatiev worked in steel mills and factories for more than twenty years before teaching at Harvard, the Massachusetts College of Art, and the American University in Beirut. He is the author of How the Irish Became White, and a founding editor of the journal Race Traitor.
Ignatiev was one of the earliest theorists of “privilege” as a social science concept. In keeping with the County’s emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I presented him with a couple of questions about the idea.
KW: How did the concept of white privilege emerge, and what was your role in that?
Ignatiev: The concept of white privilege grew out of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America, which spoke of the “public and psychological wage” granted southern white laborers, in return for which they supported a system that oppressed black people and held them down as well.
But the term “white skin privilege” was first used in 1965 in a call to commemorate the antislavery hero John Brown drafted by historian/activist Theodore Allen. In 1967 Ted Allen and I wrote a pamphlet, “The White Blindspot,” which identified the struggle against white supremacy as the key to strategy for the entire working class. It listed the privileges of the white skin, including a monopoly of the skilled jobs, a cushion against the most severe shocks of the economic cycle, health and education facilities superior to those of the non-white population, the freedom to spend their money and leisure time without social restrictions, the opportunity on occasion to promote one of their number out of the ranks of the laboring class, and in general the material and psychological privileges befitting the white skin. That pamphlet significantly influenced the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other sectors of the New Left. On June 15, 1969, the New York Times reported that the National Office of SDS was calling “for an all-out fight against ‘white skin privileges.’”
It wasn’t until the ’90s that the notion gained prominence in the universities, thanks to David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness, Alex Saxton’s The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, Ted Allen’s two-volume Invention of the White Race, George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, and my own How the Irish Became White.
KW: Have you seen the concept change as it has become more mainstream?
Ignatiev: As with any concept that reaches a wide audience, white privilege meant different things to different people. Ted Allen and I always held that the privileges were not ultimately in the interests of white working-class people but served to subordinate them to the employing class; our aim was to challenge white supremacy in order to establish working-class solidarity. Others held that the privileges of whiteness made the white workers exploiters of the downtrodden people of the world.
As the concept of “privilege” entered the mainstream, “privilege politics” became a way of avoiding direct confrontations with the institutions that reproduce race. The focus shifted to an emphasis on scrutinizing every inter-personal encounter to unearth underlying racist attitudes and to guide people in “unlearning” them. This has developed into a tendency to strictly enforce the boundaries between the races—not only (as in the past) by white supremacists but by proponents of what might be considered black advancement.
In contrast, I have known people with the privileges of whiteness who feel that “white” does not adequately describe who they are. Often they do not have the words to express who they are. They feel themselves victims of this society and identify instinctively with other victims. I regard it as my task to seek out these people, let them know they are not alone and that they are potentially part of a community made of up of former whites and people who never were and never could be white, and that together they could bring to birth a new and better world.