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Criming While White

Okay, I’m going to regret this…

What’s a “Motte and Bailey doctrine?” The term was coined by Nicholas Shackel. It describes a position in which somebody defines a term in narrow and well-defined terms in contexts of likely dispute and/or rigorous scrutiny, only to adopt a much broader and less rigorous approach to the same topic in practice (e.g. when speaking to a very friendly audience). The language comes from a medieval system of defense in which a tower (usually built on a mound) is surrounded by a stretch of desirable land. The tower on its mound (i.e. the Motte) is where the people of the community go for defense when attacked. The bailey is where people actually live and make their living. So, the concept here is really one of equivocation wherein people employ a strict definition of their stance when pressed only to get sloppy with it whenever opportunity tempts them to less than precise applications.



Is “white privilege” a Motte and Bailey doctrine?

Well it certainly can be.


What’s the Motte version of “white privilege?”

As I understand it, the rigorous approach to “white privilege” is defined something like this; It is a range of unearned benefits conferred upon those perceived as white. [Alternatively, it is the lack of unearned debits conferred on countless underprivileged peoples as a result of their own (non-white) identity.] To say that this pattern has parallels to gender, sexual orientation, and range of other indices of social stratification is obvious.

What makes this the motte, as far as I see it anyway, is the lack of any direct assertions about the significance of this privilege relative to other issues. A white guy may have less to fear from the police during a traffic stop, for example, but he might still have grown up poor. He might still face discrimination if he speaks with a distinct regional accent. He could possess a disability, grow up with abusive parents, etc. Conversely, someone from an underprivileged minority group might still be wealthy, might still be connected, might still enjoy a range of benefits not available to all whites. In other words, the Motte version of this concept recognizes that white privilege does not automatically amount to getting the upper hand all across the board of social stratification. It is a ascribed status benefit enjoyed by white people. How that benefit stacks up against other such status benefits and detriments is another question.

What’s the bailey?

Well just ask critics of the concept!

How many times has a white guy told you he grew up in a trailer park or a crowded shack in response to comments about white privilege, or otherwise commented on countless travails of her or his early life in an effort to demonstrate that he or she did not have it easy? These arguments wouldn’t work against the motte version of this concept. They only work if ‘white privilege’ clearly entails an easier life for all white people, or at least the vast majority of them. As the possibility that other indices of social stratification would come into play is already built into the motte-version of ‘white privilege,’ all of these arguments fall well short of disproving that concept.

They really do.

So, why aren’t these points just straw man arguments?

They aren’t straw man arguments, because proponents of white privilege don’t always stay in the motte. Sometimes, those employing the notion really do seem to think (or at least say) that whites are uniformly better off. I have personally been told in no uncertain terms that I have had an easier life than they have because I am white, and I have certainly heard the sweeping comparisons from others invoking the notion of white privilege. Additionally, the practice of dismissing anything a white person says on the subject of race, racial privilege, or other social justice themes by reminding us that we speak from a position of privilege tends at least to erase the narrow definitions of the motte and nudge us all closer to a broad generalization about the overall status of white people relative to on-whites. Sometimes, people using this concept really do seem to be painting a simple picture of privilege that squashes a number of other measures of privilege and oppression under the weight of race. All-too-often the notion of white privilege, defined narrowly when scrutiny is likely, becomes in practice a categorical assumption that all white people have it better than all any-other-kinda people.

So, if it is tempting to dismiss the critics of white privilege for attacking a straw man, that temptation must be tempered by the awareness that at least some proponents of the notion actually embody that straw man, at least when they are on a roll.


And here is where the whole metaphor begins to fail us. Do people shift back and forth between strict and loose definitions of ‘white privilege.’ Yes, they do. They also do this with debates about the existence (and nature) of God, support for law and order, use of terms like ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism,” or the love of rock and roll.

Wiggle room happens!

While we might want to encourage people to stick to a single definition of the key terms they use (or even to hold opponents in a debate responsible for doing so whether they want to or not), it is somewhat of a distortion to suggest that this is unusual. It is also a distortion to suggest that it takes the form of two clearly defined variations. Often the slippage is more subtle than that.

And of course it doesn’t help that nobody seems to trust anybody enough to anybody enough to grant them the benefit of the doubt on this topic. To hear some people talk, the very notion of white privilege will bring about the downfall of America, taking Europe with us, and fairly clipping the wings of half the angels in heaven. They can’t even address the motte version of the concept, and they certainly won’t concede it. Others will assume the only reason for expressing skepticism on this concept is a clear dedication (Whether conscious or not) to the support of white privilege. The principle of charity, long advocated by introductory logic teachers all across the land, just isn’t welcome in social justice debates of the modern world. When we acknowledge doubt at all, we tend not to give the other guy the benefit of it, and since nobody is getting any of this benefit themselves, we are that much more stingy about giving it to others.

Dammit all anyhow!

…and of course one of the benefits some of us do enjoy here is the privilege of experiencing this as a largely theoretical subject. For some folks the problem is a lot more urgent than others.


In this case, in particular, the middle ground is critical, not because all things moderate are great and wonderful, but because there is a critical question here, one that falls squarely on the boundaries between the motte and the bailey of this particular notion.

Relative to other indices of ascribed social status, just how important is ‘white privilege?” In the life of any given person, or the prospect for a positive outcome in any critical situation, just how likely is white privilege to make the difference? I can well understand that a black man might enjoy the secondary benefits of wealth or that a white man might face discrimination for being poor, but how does wealth (or the display of it) really stack up in comparison to race?

In attempting to answer this question, we do so haunted by the specter of confirmation bias.

White folks like myself typically underestimate the pervasiveness of our privilege. This was once brought home to me quite vividly when driving with my gal, Moni, in the passenger seat. Seeing a police officer race up beside us on the highway only to motion at me to slow down, she was shocked to see how easily I got away with driving over the speed limit. (In my defense, I wasn’t going that fast. Honest!) This is an event she now commemorates by taking pictures of me ‘criming while white’ whenever she gets the chance. Of course, I haven’t always gotten a break from cops in such situations, but after talking to her, I have come to realize that my own ideas about how a traffic stop is likely to go vary considerably with her own, and yes, I do put the difference down to race.

Of course, some in the social justice camp may be a little too quick too assume that racial identity has made the difference in this or that situation, but of course, not all biases are equal. If I was to bet on this, I would put my money on the likelihood that those of us enjoying white privilege miss its effect in our lives far more than those who lack this privilege see it when it isn’t there. In any event, the answer to how much weight white privilege gets in comparison to other indices of social status is going to be heavily skewed by the impact of this very phenonomenon (along with other all the other variables that skew the way that humans experience and treat each other).

The notion of ‘white privilege’ isn’t sufficiently robust without accounting for its relative weight. If we just say, “yes, that’s a benefit, one of many,” then all we are doing is acknowledging that race is one of many things that could trigger prejudice, and that when this happens white people are likely to benefit from the effect of that prejudice.

That takes ‘meh’ all the way to 5!

Simply saying that whiteness is just one index of unearned privilege among many others invites us all to shrug our shoulders and go back to whatever else we were doing. Perhaps we will notice when it matters; perhaps we will not. That position is not just a motte; it’s a meh. We can do better than that.

If on the other hand, we say that white privilege trumps all other considerations in all imaginable contexts, then, well, that just isn’t true. There are at least some contexts in which class, regional dialect, age, health, sexual orientation, personal connections, or any range of considerations could trump race. That white privilege skews the likelihood of positive privilege in some of these areas (e.g. class) more likely is certainly true, but at least some of the time, being white may not matter as being something else.

Some of the time.

In the end, the concept of ‘white privilege’ isn’t significant until we assign it some weight relative to other things that can skew the way that people treat one another.

As I write this, I am envisioning a much-needed trip through the relevant statistical research, but for now I mean to wrap this up by simply framing the position that most sense to me. It is the notion that white privilege, at least in the modern United States, is the most critical index of social status, at least when you account for both the likelihood that it will come up and the impact it will have. There may be less-severe sources of social bias which are more prevalent, and there may be less common sources of bias with more substantial impact when they do occur, but in the long run, white privilege is more likely to make a difference in a critical situation than class, region, age, etc. Do I believe this? Yes, though I am quite open to reconsideration and/or modification of the position.


So where does this leave us, or me at any rate?

I reckon us (me), somewhere in the transition from motte to bailey. I am grumble when I see the easy assumption that white people just have it better than others. I grumble more when I talk to white people who can’t even grasp the possibility that their whiteness might have given them an edge in life, at least some of the time. I reckon, the most appropriate thing to do here is to think of this in terms of priorities. As far as social ills go, this is at (or damned near) the top of the hierarchy. It isn’t the be-all and end-all of social justice, but I’d be hard pressed to think of anything more critical to address than racial disparities. That’s not a blank check written for anyone who wants to cash in on the claim to fighting for social justice. A certain amount of mere noise attaches itself to every signal, and shameless opportunists find their way into every cause. Still, I do think this problem is real, and I want more folks who enjoy white privilege would take the notion seriously.


It occurs to me that I may have just taken ‘meh’ all the way to 6, but it really does seem to me that the issue only gets interesting when you start asking how important white privilege is relative to other sources of social status. In suggesting that white privilege is more important than other variables, I am certainly picking a fight with anyone who seeks to deny that white privilege exists altogether, and also with those who see it as just one variable drowning in a see of other claims on our social conscience. To say that any other variables of social status could even be weighed against race and white privilege in any manner puts me at odds with quite a few of the proponents of the notion. I may have staked out a position on the middle ground, but in this instance, I doubt this will prove convenient.