- White Privilege by Shannon Sullivan
The aim of Shannon Sullivan’s recent text White Privilege is “to unsettle pat assumptions about white privilege, and these are assumptions held both by those who are ‘for’ and by those who are ‘against’ white privilege” (2). The book appears in Polity Press’s new series Little Books That Make You THINK, and each chapter is pitched as a sort of myth-busting response to common claims about white privilege. The modest length paired with the light and accessible prose make it clear that the book is pitched at a general audience and would work particularly well in undergraduate courses, or even in social-justice-themed book clubs or informal reading groups. That being said, there remains plenty of food for thought here for anyone interested in the topic, and specialists will not be left out in the proverbial cold.
The first chapter, titled “White Privilege Is Only about Race,” aims primarily to make the case that any adequate understanding of white privilege must take class into account as well. Rather than a narrow and exclusionary (or even reductionist) focus on race, Sullivan is keen to emphasize the ways in which white privilege impacts its beneficiaries differently across class lines. As she puts the point: “Many examples of white privilege are better understood as white class privilege (8).” Sullivan’s move here builds upon her earlier work in Good White People, emphasizing the ways in which poor whites and middle- or upper-class whites will [End Page 166] experience white privilege differently. This is an important intervention not only because it offers a more nuanced account of how white privilege functions, but also because it opens up a path to address the common response to the discourse of white privilege on the part of poor whites, who often simply do not recognize themselves as numbered among the “ privileged.” Race and class are intersectional in the sense that they mutually support and constitute each other, and so any adequate understanding of white privilege must, Sullivan argues, accept that white privilege is about more than just racial whiteness (25).
There is much to endorse in the basic claim that race and class (and, presumably, race and other “axes” of oppression like gender and ability, among others) are so deeply intermeshed that any effort to treat them as radically distinct will inevitably lead to misunderstanding. And it is certainly the case that many of the paradigmatic examples of white privilege very much have affluent whites in mind, and simply do not apply, or at least do not apply in the same way, to poor whites.1 Nevertheless, I confess that I am puzzled by Sullivan’s use of the term “white class privilege.” As much as it is a mistake to treat race and class as utterly distinct, it is also a mistake to collapse them into each other or to otherwise conflate them. If whiteness is not reducible to class, then what would “white class” privilege even be as a unitary concept?
Perhaps she means that it is the intersection or overlap of two concepts (white privilege and class privilege), so that we might say that some people experience or benefit from white/class privilege. For Sullivan, however, “white class privilege” seems to be a distinct concept that, rather than being the combination of class and race privileges, is in fact at the normative center of how both race and class function in the U.S. context. Sullivan is clear that class privilege on its own does not insulate or protect nonwhite people from the harms of racism (the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in his own home is a clear example), and poor whites still benefit to some degree from their whiteness, so to some extent, she is keen to keep the concepts distinct. Nevertheless, after giving several examples of the ways in which poor whites are marginalized, she writes:
Poor white people generally don’t count as standardbearers [sic] of society. That privilege is reserved for middle-to-upper-class white people...