Rethinking White Privilege and Altruism

Hi Friends,

Last time I wrote about the role of capitalism and class in systems of oppression. I’d like to connect our conversation to a more complex understanding of White privilege.

I had an awakening experience of what I have lost to white supremacy during a racially diverse discussion group earlier this year. We divided into self-identified White or BIPOC groups for breakout sessions to discuss what we like about our racial identity. In my White group, we expressed and experienced deep shame, guilt, and sadness about our racial identities. When the BIPOC group shared with the group about their discussion, they expressed joy, strength, and pride in their racial identities.

The difference in our racial identity perspective is not because BIPOC experience more oppression and hardship than White people (even though they do). The difference is that in general, BIPOC choose to create, maintain, and directly identify with deeply rooted cultural traditions and practices, whereas White people often do not, associating our “culture” with oppression, hatred, and violence against others. Our rich ancestral cultural traditions and pride and joy in that culture are part of what we have lost.

White supremacy and a capitalist economy have blinded us to what we have lost, have lured us away from solidarity with each other for human rights. White privilege has given White people the human rights that everyone deserves and has given additional advantages that no one deserves.

This approach to privilege is explained as the “Two Faces of Privilege” by David Kaib.

  • The first face “would include food, housing, clean water and air, the ability to move about the world freely, and health care.”
  • The second face “includes things that I would argue no one should ever have — the ability to rape, to sexually harass, or to shoot ‘suspicious’ people of color; the ability to dominate conversations, to pressure subordinates, or to demean or demand favors from employees, tenants, or students.”

I learned about this perspective on privilege in Jesse A. Myerson’s “White Anti-Racism Must Be Based in Solidarity, Not Altruism.” I have written before about my concerns about “society’s dependence upon charity and volunteers to meet the baseline needs of our community members who are hungry and/or without shelter” and that my “hope is for systemic change that addresses the root causes of suffering so that the charitable and volunteer work is no longer relied upon for survival.”

Myerson’s article made me think completely differently about anti-racist work because he identified that “The dominant liberal conception of white anti-racism emphasizes altruism. In this mode, white people must set aside our own self-interest in order to extend kindness to those less fortunate.”

Through my anti-racist work, I had internalized that “White people are encouraged to defer, shrink, and assist. It is not our fight, the white-altruism mode says, so we must strive to decenter ourselves and support black people’s ‘advancement’ as peripheral allies, doing what kindnesses we can to compensate them for the privileges we enjoy.”

In this way, much of our anti-racist work is tied up in White saviorism. “Without being anchored to a goal of redistributing power, altruism is often carried along by the prevailing currents of racist capitalism.” Our intent does not matter — our impact matters.

This leads us to solidarity. Myerson says “Time and again, white people acting as allies in other people’s ‘progress’ have not just failed to address racist power relations; they have entrenched white dominance. Altruism cannot be the basis for white anti-racist action. There’s only one thing that can: solidarity.” Further, “Only when white people come to see that our own liberation is bound up in the liberation of others can we achieve solidarity and have a basis for white anti-racism that does not produce the colonial outcomes generated by altruism.”

I will write more about solidarity and a baseline of human rights in my next update.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding ways to contribute to fundraising and philanthropy in an anti-racist way, check out Community Centric Fundraising (CCF). Their Slack channel is open to anyone, their newsletters are thought-provoking, and their “10 Principles” can be adapted to many kinds of organizations, even when fundraising is not your main focus. I would love to see these ideas applied to PTAs, for example (a girl can dream!).


Listen. Amplify. Follow. 

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