Privilege is about wealth, not whiteness
Moaning about white privilege will do nothing to lift black people out of poverty.
Privilege has become an inescapable term in today’s debate on inequality. From academic discussions to everyday conversations on the bus, privilege keeps popping up as a byword for much that is wrong with our world. But what exactly does privilege mean today? Who is privileged, why are they privileged and what can be done about this if it appears to be such a problem?
Derived from the Latin privilegium and the French privilège, the word entered the English language in the 12th century. Based on ecclesiastical law, it referred at the time to special rights or favours granted by popes. These special rights were only respected where Christianity was dominant and papal authority accepted. There was no universal guarantor of privilege in the medieval era.
According to today’s Oxford English Dictionary, privilege is ‘a right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by an individual, corporation of individuals, etc, beyond the usual rights or advantages of others’. It is also the ‘enjoyment of some benefit (as wealth, education, standard of living, etc) above the average or that deemed usual or necessary for a particular group’. This is a fairly neutral and useful definition.
Accordingly, privilege thus operates on two distinct levels: that enjoyed by individuals within groups and that enjoyed by groups vis-à-vis other groups. All human societies are organised into social hierarchies in which some individuals enjoy benefits and advantages over others. This applies everywhere, from Asia and Africa to Europe and North America. Hierarchies are explicit or implicit rankings based on what a society values. Our position within a hierarchy is our status. The social valuation system that determines status within particular hierarchies must be relevant to its environment. Deep knowledge of 19th-century English literature might offer you status in a university, but is unlikely to do so in a prison. Conversely, while physical aggression is valued in a prison setting, it’s unlikely to score you status points in a university.
Our status does not depend on how we see ourselves but on how others see us. As Margaret Thatcher famously observed, ‘If you have to tell people you are powerful, it means you aren’t’. Right from childhood, we are thrust into various competitions for status. Some children are elevated in their peer groups because they are seen as smarter, stronger, funnier, richer or in some other way better than others. They become privileged among their peers, are more closely listened to, more respected and more often imitated.
Psychology has identified two pathways to status among humans: domination and prestige. Domination involves gaining an advantaged position by inspiring fear, usually through violence or the threat of it – school bullies are the obvious examples here. Prestige, however, involves people believing you are worthier than others because you possess certain skills, knowledge, traits or material things others admire. So whereas domination is imposed, prestige is conferred.
People defer to those on whom prestige is conferred and want to be as close to them as possible. Evolutionary psychologists say this is because we want to learn from the prestigious, believing they clearly know something others don’t. Others simply want to be in proximity to prestige. It’s why former prime ministers or other high-profile people can charge hundreds of thousands of pounds to tell audiences things they usually already know. That’s privilege.
For better or worse, privilege and status are a fact of life. What we certainly (and understandably) do not want is to be disadvantaged in the pursuit of status due to our group affiliations, especially those based on things we can’t change, such as our skin colour. Which brings us to the issue of ‘white privilege’, famously described by the American feminist, Peggy McIntosh, as ‘an invisible package of unearned assets’.
Due to the cult of meritocracy, our era is generally fine with people enjoying ‘earned’ privileges. What we don’t like is people enjoying ‘unearned’ privileges. The privilege of the self-made millionaire, no matter how ruthless an individual, bothers us less than that of the wealthy aristocrat, no matter how nice. Many find ‘white privilege’ infuriating because it violates the meritocratic ideal of personally earned privileges being the only acceptable ones. Now, there is such a thing as white privilege. But there is much confusion about where this privilege derives from and what can be done about it.
The currently fashionable dissections of ‘whiteness’ and its purported worldviews betray a strong belief that the way to end white privilege is by changing how white people think about themselves and others. That white privilege can be lectured out of existence through moralising arguments. This is wishful thinking.
As I argue in my new book, It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth, money is the chief source of white privilege today. And that’s because it is the chief shaper of racial dynamics today. The main reason white people can be said to be privileged and black people (along with many other non-whites) not, is because white folk have accumulated way more collective wealth than any other racial group. Pointing out that they colonised, enslaved and exploited others along the way does nothing to change this fundamental reality.
The privileges conferred by medieval popes only carried weight in Christendom. There was no universal guarantor of privilege back then. Today there is, and that universal guarantor is money. Wave a $100 bill in a Zambian or Vietnamese village and people will understand what language you’re speaking. Money is what a capitalist world runs on, so there’s no escaping the role of wealth in human dynamics, including those involving race. Money shapes racial dynamics because there is a strong correlation between race and wealth in today’s world.
It is important to remember that while nations are made up of diverse groups, virtually all contain a clear racial majority. While we often emphasise the diversity of Western societies, Britain, probably the most diverse European country, is 82 per cent white. Nine-in-10 people who live in Europe are white. Africa is predominantly black.
Meanwhile, we live in a world in which single European states like Britain and Germany have larger economies than the entire continent of Africa, where 1.4 billion people and 90 per cent of the world’s black population live. Sweden, with 10million people, has a larger GDP than Nigeria, the largest black nation with over 214million people. As of 2022, tiny Ireland, with its five million citizens, generated a GDP of $520 billion. South Africa, the most industrialised black-majority nation with a population of 60 million, generated just $411 billion.
The differences are starkest in GDP per capita figures, which are crucial to gauging the average buying power of individual citizens. Sixteen of the 20 nations with the highest GDP per capita in the world are white-majority nations. At the other end of the scale, 18 of the 20 countries with the lowest GDP per capita are black-majority nations. Luxembourg has a GDP per capita 471 times that of Burundi – $125,923 compared with $267.
The difference is not just between black and white of course. Norway’s economy boasts a GDP of $505 billion, with a population of five million, against the $461 billion generated by Bangladesh, which has 170million citizens. Nine million Swiss citizens live in an $807 billion economy, more than twice the size of Pakistan’s $376 billion economy, despite the latter having a population of 235 million.
The wealth divide is even greater at the individual level. North American and European households together account for 57 per cent of the world’s total estimated household wealth – $464 trillion – despite containing just 17 per cent of the world’s adult population. In 2022, median household wealth per adult in the UK was estimated at $141,000, 83 times the figure in Nigeria, 41 times the figure in India, 38 times the figure in Brazil, 27 times the figure in South Africa and five times the figure in China.
These socioeconomic realities drive racial dynamics in key domains of our modern world, ranging from migration patterns, knowledge production, technology and media influence to group stereotypes, group prestige and international power. Take the world of academia. There are British universities with larger annual budgets than all the universities in a Global South nation put together. Oxford University’s budget for 2021-22 was £2.9 billion, which is higher than Nigeria’s education budget for the same period. Harvard University has more in its endowment fund than the Nigerian state has in foreign reserves.
With wealth like this, it’s no wonder Western universities lead global knowledge production, attracting some of the brightest minds in the world who produce some of the best research. The highest-ranked universities in the world that are not in the West are in the wealthiest East Asian nations, like Japan, Singapore and China. Money matters in academia like anywhere else.
That some think adding a few more black and brown authors to Western university reading lists in the name of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is going to change anything fundamental is quite incredible. The day Nigerian or Pakistani universities become go-to places for knowledge – places young people from all over the world want to go and get educated in – will be the day when something fundamental will change in the sphere of knowledge production.
Another delusionary element in today’s debate is the apparent belief that the race issue can be resolved in London or New York. What this parochial Anglo-American focus overlooks is that just three per cent of the world’s black population live in the UK and US combined, a figure that will shrink further as Africa, where 90 per cent of black people live today, is expected to double its population to 2.5 billion by 2050. There are already five times more Nigerians than African Americans. Likewise, only an infinitesimal proportion of the world’s other non-white populations live in Western societies. Demographic realities mean it is global dynamics that will shape the future of race relations, not their manifestations in particular Western societies.
Of course, when talking about ‘white wealth’, it’s obvious that not all or even nearly all white people enjoy wealth and privilege. But it’s also true that white folk are statistically more likely to enjoy wealth and the privileges it affords than members of any other racial group. What’s more, they will continue to enjoy the privileges material wealth brings whether anyone likes it or not, or whether this is fair or not. If black people were by far the wealthiest racial group around today, we’d be talking about a world of black privilege. That is, again, how a world run on money functions, for better or worse. From a global perspective, then, the biggest problem faced by black people today is not racism – it’s poverty. There are today nearly 500million Africans living on less than $2 a day, and virtually powerless as a result. This is the part of the race equation nobody is talking enough about.
Complaining about white privilege won’t make it go away. Nor will white folk navel-gazing about their privileges or engaging in masochistic virtue-signalling, all while doing nothing that could actually change the fundamentals of the status quo. Altering these dynamics will require serious strategising and action on the part of anyone who wants real change. There needs to be far less focus on meaningless symbolics or self-aggrandising gestures and far more on tackling hard material realities. A few more faces like mine in Western cultural spaces in of itself does nothing to help those 500million Africans.
The path to greater racial equality and an end to white privilege lies in economics, not in endless moral lectures and the constant rehashing of history. Without a change in the wealth equation, all we will be able to do about white privilege is continue to moan about it.
Remi Adekoya is a Polish-Nigerian writer and political scientist. His new book It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth: How the Economics of Race Really Work is published by Constable. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)
Pictures by: Getty.