Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

The Transubstantiation of White Privilege

The United States is the world’s first and oldest living white supremacist project. It has historically maintained itself by creating a community of interest, known as the “white race,” between working white people and the ruling class as against workers of color. This begs the question: what interest does this section of the working class have in the domination of fellow laborers? People must be conditioned to hate, let alone to act on their hatred. This conditioning has taken the form of the system of white privilege, a term which is surely recognized—but perhaps not in the sense that it was first intended. A more familiar understanding of white privilege involves white people’s personal attitudes towards race and racism, rather than the relationship between class and social control in American society. Feminist writer and activist Peggy McIntosh may be credited for popularizing the former.

In 1989, McIntosh published her seminal article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, which has since become a foundational text in “whiteness studies.” In it, she discusses a variety of ways by which individual white people benefit from white privilege, such as “5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented,” and “14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” McIntosh provides other examples familiar to many non-white people. Thirty-two years later, everyone has heard of white privilege, and everyone on the political ‘left’ agrees that it exists. However, the white privilege which we know and which McIntosh describes bears little resemblance to the white privilege as it was originally defined and understood. For one, it was not a largely psychological framework which encouraged misguided guilt about American society—it was a tool for revolution.

When it was first coined, the term “white privilege” was known as “the system of white-skin privileges,” and it was steeped in a radical Marxist tradition. Its inventors understood it as a system of class-collaboration and of social control, not as the accidental result of many individual prejudices summed together. WEB DuBois was the first theorist of white privilege, discussing it, though not yet naming it, in his magisterial Black Reconstruction, published in 1935:

"The theory of laboring class unity rests upon the assumption that laborers, despite internal class jealousies, will unite because of their opposition to exploitation by the capitalists. […] Most persons do not realize how far this failed to work in the South, and it failed to work because the theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest. It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage." [Emphasis ours.]

Theodore W. Allen, author of The Invention of the White Race, would take up the mantle over thirty years later. He was the first to use the exact phrase “system of white-skin privileges” while writing for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In a series of essays (which eventually formed the basis for his above-mentioned book) published during the 1960s, Allen attempted to answer a question which had long puzzled American communists: why is the American working class so politically backwards, having failed to produce even its own reformist labor party like the Labour Party in Britain? Taking a cue from DuBois, Allen’s answer was simple: the system of white supremacy had split off a large section of the working class (those of European ancestry), labeled them “white,” and welded them as collaborators to the white bourgeoisie—their own rulers—in the exploitation of their fellow workers. In exchange for a set of privileges, they will subserviently obey the rules of whiteness, thus chaining themselves to “their” so-called race. In his 1967 article “White Blindspot,” Noel Ignatiev (another pioneer of white privilege) put it this way:

 "The U.S. ruling class has made a deal with the mis-leaders of American labor, and through them with the masses of white workers [emphasis his]. The terms of the deal, worked out over the three hundred year history of the development of capitalism in our country, are these: you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with a monopoly of skilled jobs, we will cushion you against the most severe shocks of the economic cycle, […] and in general confer on you the material and spiritual privileges befitting your white skin."

This pact, although appealing, was in fact detrimental to white workers and their interests as members of the laboring community which one day will revolt and build a genuinely free society. Indeed, Allen called white privilege ‘poison bait.’ Implicit here is that the “white race” and race itself are social constructions—that is to say, although they have very real (often deadly and sometimes genocidal) consequences, they have no basis in biological fact. We belong to a race because someone says we do. Moreover, if the white race can be created, then it can be destroyed. This latter possibility preoccupied Ignatiev’s career in radical labor struggles, eventually inspiring him to found Race Traitor magazine and to write the book How the Irish Became White. Distinct but still in the same vein as DuBois, Allen, and Ignatiev was Japanese-American radical J. Sakai. In his 1983 book Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, he provided an in-depth political analysis of the white working class, responding and adding on to previous theorists. Sakai added two critical pieces to understanding white privilege and white supremacy, namely settler-colonialism and national oppression. Taking after anti-imperialist radicals from the middle 20th century, he argues that white workers are their own distinct and elevated class, called “settlers,” and that they constitute an oppressor nation. Sincerely anti-racist white people, Sakai asserts, must confront this reality to destroy all systems of oppression. He puts it in these blunt terms: 

"A continent that was at the dawn of the 19th Century primarily populated by the various oppressed nations [referring to Black people, the Indigenous, and Chicanos] was at the end of the 19th Century the semi-sterilized home of a “New Europe”. And in this cruel, bloody transformation, history forced everyone to choose, and thus to complete the realization of their class identity. Class is not like a brass badge or a diploma, which can be carried from Old Europe and hung up on a wall, dusty but still intact. Class consciousness lives in the revolutionary struggles of the oppressed—or dies in the poisonous little privileges so eagerly sought by the settler servants of the bourgeoisie."

It is in this last dilemma that Sakai, Ignatiev, DuBois, and Allen all saw the fierce tensions of the system of white privilege. Would the white working class perpetuate their privileges—thereby destroying their ability to wage emancipatory revolution—or would they refuse and actively fight their privileged status as members of an oppressor nation, thus freeing not only peoples of color, but also themselves from the constricts of whiteness? Ignatiev, in particular, argued that it was in making the latter choice that white workers would become a genuinely revolutionary community. His principal argument of “what could have been” had this choice been made was centered on the Irish in 19th century America.

Published in 1995, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White is a PhD thesis-turned-book which explores the social functions of whiteness and white privilege by examining its titular subject. In his words: “The outcome [of Irish whiteness] was not the inevitable consequence of blind historic forces, still less of biology, but the result of choices made, by the Irish and others, from among available alternatives. To enter the white race was a strategy to secure an advantage in a competitive society. […] In viewing entry into the white race as something the Irish did ‘on’ (though not by) themselves, this book seeks to make them the actors in their own history.”

Ignatiev begins with a shocking account of when Irish-Americans (many of whom newly-arrived) refused to abide by an abolitionist petition signed by 70,000 of their compatriots in Ireland. This petition was organized by the popular Irish nationalist movement and even had the full endorsement of the beloved revolutionary Daniel O’Connell. For the rest of the chapter, Ignatiev discusses how slavery came to be supported by the vast majority of ordinary Irish-Americans (hint: it has to do with white supremacy). This transitions into a broader analysis of how the Irish eventually abandoned their closest native-born counterparts—Black Americans—despite striking similarities in treatment, occupations, communities, and social life. 

In examining these parallels across a variety of settings (from the inner workings of an early Philadelphia prison to the effect of anti-Black rioting on the Irish themselves), Ignatiev argues that it was in engaging in rabid anti-Blackness that granted the Irish a set of privileges that “made” them white. This is the fundamental fact of whiteness: to participate in racial privileges is to be white, not the other way around. Moreover, this “promotion” into whiteness came at deep personal cost to Irish-American workers. They divorced themselves from a community of people with whom they had far more in common than they did with other white people in America. This divorce meant painfully giving up the vibrant society and culture which they had built with Black people. They found themselves desperately trying to recreate and copy both this culture and Black culture proper while paradoxically perpetuating white supremacy at the same time. Indeed, in “Notes on [Sakai’s] Settlers,” Ignatiev writes: “their [white workers’] embrace of the white whale has led them to abandon their dreams, not realize them, and that they are not happy [emphasis his].” It is to this last part that Race Traitor devoted so many of its pages.

Published irregularly from 1993 to 2005, Race Traitor magazine boldly claimed: “Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity!” This subtitle summarizes the entire editorial line. The editors, Ignatiev and Allen among them, did not consider ‘white’ to be just another cultural identity. They regarded it as the living symbol of racial oppression. They argued it was impossible to have a society in which the concept of race exists without also having racial supremacism. It was therefore necessary to abolish the ideology of race entirely, starting with its most oppressive form—whiteness. The first article to Race Traitor 1, titled “Abolish the white race—by any means necessary,” is worth quoting at length:

"The white race is a historically constructed social formation - historically constructed because (like royalty) it is a product of some people's responses to historical circumstances; a social formation because it is a fact of society corresponding to no classification recognized by natural science. […]

The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share, in certain respects, a status higher than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to the system that degrades them.

The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race. Until that task is accomplished, there can be no universal reform, and even partial reform will prove elusive, because white influence permeates every issue in U.S. society, whether domestic or foreign. […]

The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse."

It should go without saying that ‘white privilege’ as espoused by the likes of Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility) is at best useless and at worst actively harmful to radical efforts to build a better society. It serves to affirm the concept of whiteness and race in general. More alarmingly, it suggests that it is impossible for white people, by a course of conscious action, to refuse their privileged positions under white supremacy, and thereby destroy the system which simultaneously benefits and imprisons them. Indeed, last year, millions of working white people made these choices when they filled the streets of countless American cities and fought the police in outrage at the barbaric murder of George Floyd. It is in movements like these that we find hope to destroy white supremacy. We must remember that despite their high visibility, the far-right January 6 rioters were vastly outnumbered by those whites who stood up for Black lives. Put another way, John Brown has finally returned.


Note: For further reading, refer to the longer texts mentioned in the body of this piece. Here is a list for convenience (including an additional book on the formation of race):

Settlers - J. Sakai

Invention of the White Race - Theodore Allen

How the Irish Became White - Noel Ignatiev

Black Reconstruction - WEB DuBois

Traces of History - Patrick Wolfe