White People Are Acknowledging Their Privilege on Twitter. But for What Purpose?

A hand holding an iPhone 5c above a table. The phone is open to a blue Twitter login screen.
Acknowledging the way privilege operates in your life is great! But it can’t be the endpoint of advocacy. on Unsplash

Prompt Twitter is back at it again. On Saturday, Twitter user @freeyourmindkid asked white people to share “the most outrageous thing that you’ve gotten away with as a white person that you know damn well a black or brown person would have never gotten away with?” and asked respondents to tag their stories with #MyWhitePrivilege. The tweet went viral, trending over the weekend and garnering almost 10,000 replies as of this writing. A fair amount of the replies were of the conservative troll variety: “Faking a hate crime on the national stage to frame 63 million people of being racist. …oh, wait #JussieSmollette #MyWhitePrivilege is to be accused of crimes I didn’t commit & hatred I do not possess, to have my wages decreased by mass immigration while I pay all the bills.” But most seem to be sincere acknowledgments of the various benefits afforded to white people. A particularly large subset of the tweets involved some sort of encounter with the criminal justice system where, as most encounters with the police should go, no one was hurt or assumed guilty by virtue of existing. Some touched on the disparities in the health care system, where black patients’ pain is taken less seriously than their white counterparts’. All were infuriating in that very specific way that structural racism always is.

And yet as I scrolled through the hashtag, all I could think was the same thing I think whenever presented with earnest admissions of white privilege: Who is this exercise for? The question is not to undermine the fact that thousands of white people apparently recognize the ways in which privilege operates in their day-to-day lives. That is, unfortunately, no small feat. At its best, this sort of acknowledgment by the privileged can do more than, say, a black person explaining ad nauseum why saying there are a “few bad apples” in the police force is reductive. At its worst, though, it can feel like a performance of self-flagellation in an effort to get ~ good ally ~ points from people of color.

The difference, ultimately, comes down to whom these stories are being told, and on Twitter, that’s hard to parse. It’s possible that the responses indexed under #MyWhitePrivilege are of the former variety, the digital equivalent of the conversations these white people are having with the other white people in their life about structural inequality, in which case, kudos. Not being privy to those conversations myself (for good reason), I can say that when I encounter these sort of admissions in real life, they are mostly in the latter category. And there is little more irritating than being on the receiving end of a story of how a self-avowed liberal white person got away with shoplifting or speeding or what have you. What am I to gain by knowing this? These stories, unprompted and told in person, feel more often like self-congratulatory disclosures designed to signal that the white person telling it is down for the anti-racist cause. Or an effort to get me to absolve them of their white guilt because they’re one of the “good ones.”

Both are annoying in their own special way, but the latter motivation grates in particular, because neither white guilt nor self-flagellation are ultimately very productive. Neither can be the endpoint of being “woke” or whatever the kids are calling it these days—“it” being treating all people with human decency and rectifying a system that has historically not done so. The problem here is that acknowledging the way privilege operates in our lives often does end up being the endpoint. And it’s easy to see why. It is difficult to bridge the gap between acknowledging that vast inequality exists in the world, that you are a direct benefactor of that inequality, and then to doing something about it. Guilt is the natural emotion.

But after recognition must come action. Whether it’s challenging a friend or family member on their casually racist views, or donating to immigration legal funds, or acting as a de-escalation witness to interactions between police and people of color, or making sure that your co-workers of color aren’t spoken over in meetings, or encouraging your local school district to actually do the work of integration, there are hundreds of ways to show up and do what the knowledge of inequality demands that we do. To be clear, I’m not saying that the thousands of white people who participated in #MyWhitePrivilege are not doing these things. But we all know that tweeting about white privilege takes a lot less effort than doing the work of leveraging it for anti-racist ends. If that kind of action went as viral offline as @freeyourmindkid’s prompt did on Twitter, (think of it as an anti-racist Ice Bucket Challenge!) we would be living in a much different world.