White privilege and “the music of my race”

The idea of “white privilege” is apparently a key concept in these racially charged times. Much of the credit—or blame—for that goes to Peggy McIntosh, the author of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. She has provided a handy list of 50 examples that should make us white folks understand just how and how much we’re privileged. But on reading them, I was surprised at how odd or even downright absurd many of them seem. And troubled by the fact that she seems to be implying that white people stand to gain personally from acting like racists. I prefer to think that not being a racist benefits everyone including myself.

The use of white privilege to explain current events is dubious even in principle:

Rarely does a single explanatory variable account for a complex phenomenon. Instead, complex outcomes are best explained by a confluence of factors. In the case of white privilege, there are a number of variables which, together, better explain differences in group outcomes. Moreover, there is a bevy of countervailing evidence that calls its validity into question.

Here, though, I’m focusing on McIntosh’s list of examples. Toby Young points out that many of them actually represent economic class privilege, citing examples like her #2: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.” And pointing out that there are groups that do better than whites

[W]hites trail behind many other ethnic groups, so even if they do fare better than blacks that doesn’t make them the most privileged group. Given the success of Indians across the Anglosphere, it would make more sense to talk about “brown privilege”. (Indian pupils are, on average, 14.2 months ahead of white pupils in England’s schools by the time they reach the age of 16.)

But most of the items on the list seem to be about something even less spectacular than class privilege: “majority privilege”. It is true that if you are part of a majority group—in your country, community, or neighborhood—your membership in that majority is unlikely to make you seem peculiar or suspicious. It may also be more practical when looking for products and services. This is always the case whether or not the majority sees itself as superior to the minority, and whether the difference has to do with race, culture or something else. No one will wonder about you if you say your hobbies are reading and working out, rather than samurai sword collection. That does not imply that samurai sword collectors are an oppressed or marginalized group.

Worse, McIntosh seems to subscribe to the sinister notion that it’s best for people to be with others of their own race:

I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

I’m not sure why I want to do that. Since I’m white and living in a predominantly white neighborhood, I don’t even have to arrange it. But what is she implying here? It’s supposedly a privilege, so it should be advantageous for me. As a white person, I am somehow better off because I can avoid people of other races? How does spending time with black or brown people threaten my well-being?

These are ideas I would not want my children to be exposed to.

Also, isn’t this particular “privilege” shared by black people living in a predominantly black neighborhood as well? If you really want to make sure everyone has an equal amount of this alleged advantage, why not go for full racial segregation?

Then there’s the point about how being white is so convenient. #12 is about this. Ostensibly, white people can purchase anything we want in any shop anywhere:

I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

More on “the music of my race” later. But also notice how she says “the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions”. What staple foods? In European and American cities, staple foods from all over the world are available in most places; at worst you have to travel to the other side of town to get something like galangal. Maybe there are Asians who are slightly inconvenienced by that. But where I live, in Oslo, Norway, a white person from an Eastern European country looking for buckwheat would be similarly challenged. It’s all about cultural traditions, not race, as in fact she indicates, so what does it have to do with white privilege?

Black music and “race records”

But most absurd of all is this: “I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented”. This is wrong in so many ways. If I hadn’t known better, I would probably have taken for granted that that sentence was written by a white supremacist.

The cover of race records catalogue of Victor Talking Machine Company

For access to “the music of my race” to be an expression of white privilege, it would have to be unavailable to people of other races. This is ludicrous to anyone who knows what’s going on in popular music. (Peggy McIntosh may be sufficiently out of touch to believe there is a dearth of black musicians in popular music. She could have laid that idea to rest by a glance at Rolling Stone’s Artists 500.)

Furthermore, African-Americans have had access to “the music of their race” for at least 100 years. “Race records” were produced from the 1920s to the 1940s especially for African-Americans, but “use of the term faded as white audiences were also exposed to blues and jazz and began to appreciate black performers and to seek out and purchase their recordings.”

Peggy McIntosh is 85 years old, born in 1934. So maybe she’s not fully up to date even though her ideas are currently fashionable. But it’s not new. Racially integrated jazz bands started to enter the mainstream when she was a little girl. She should have had plenty of time to absorb these facts.

But what is “white music”?

What is the music that somehow belongs to white people then? This is where it gets still murkier. Does “white” music mean music performed by white musicians? And if so, if the same style of music is performed by a white and a black musician, should we white folks want to choose the white one over the black one? Hopefully not. It would be hard to find a clearer example of racism.

No, let’s assume that’s not what she means by “the music of my race”. I suppose, then, it would have to mean a genre of music that was developed by white people or has “white” roots. So…European classical music, I guess. And a lot of European folk music.

Bavarian singers

Does country music count as “white”, even though it’s been influenced by the blues, an undeniably African-American musical tradition? I don’t know, and I have no need to know, but it’s a logical question given McIntosh’s list item.

Further along the scale towards “blackness”, most popular music nowadays has at least some African-American roots. This is true of rock in particular, which would not exist without the blues and was originally created by black musicians, although it has been dominated by whites later. This means that most white people today don’t particularly prefer “the music of their race”. If “the music of my race” were really a thing, at least white supremacists should be obsessed with it, and they should call the rest of us race traitors for not being strictly “white” in our tastes. But do they? The original Nazis did. But today’s Neo-Nazis even have their own rock genre. Maybe for them, the fact that it’s performed by white people is good enough. But not for anyone who is not a blatant racist.

Music has played an important role in African-American history. You would think a celebrated “anti-racist” like McIntosh should have at least some insight into it. And I can’t help wondering if her fans even read her list or just glance at it and are impressed by the number of examples. If they do read it, they must be doing their best to avoid thinking critically about it.

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