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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

The Cudgel of ‘White Privilege’

‘I’m not interested in negotiating with racists,’ an Ivy League historian told me.

‘White people need to be checked, Zach. End of discussion.”

I was talking with an Ivy League historian, a fellow African-American, about “white privilege.” I asked if his goal was to antagonize or to promote dialogue.

“Do you know who I am?” he demanded. “I’ve been helping black people longer than you’ve been alive. I’m telling you what I know: Lecturing these white kids is only the beginning.”

Is it really necessary to be so aggressive?

“Listen, I don’t give a damn. I’m not interested in negotiating with racists.”

I tried to close the conversation cordially, saying I’d have to reflect on the issue. But when I extended my hand, he looked at it, looked up at me, and then walked away.

Does white privilege exist? Sure. If you’re white and you excel at academic or other cognitively demanding endeavors, for example, the light of your success is never dimmed by speculation about whether you benefited from affirmative action.

White privilege has become the target of many initiatives in higher education. The goal, advocates say, is to fight racism and promote justice. Yet the practice often doesn’t seem constructive. In my college career, I’ve spoken to many peers and professors who insist adamantly that any conversation about race in America should begin and end with the accusation of white privilege. The aim seems to be to establish guilt, not build understanding.

As I see it, the main goal of discussing white privilege should be to promote a more complex and nuanced view of the world so that, for example, it would be difficult for one of my white peers to drive through the Washington neighborhood where I grew up and say: “What’s wrong with those people?” People of all races should aim to understand the range of attitudes and perspectives on race that make the issue a difficult one.

Often that’s not how activists approach it. “I’m not interested in talking to white people who aren’t woke,” one student told me. When I asked him to clarify, he said: “Ain’t no white person earning my trust unless they admit to being racist and apologize on behalf of their ancestors.”

Although I strongly disagree with this view, I have some sympathy for it. For many African-Americans, focusing on white privilege allows them to assuage a damaged self-image that is the legacy of centuries of racial subjugation. That feeling should be taken seriously, not dismissed.

But the way to bring people of different races and viewpoints to the table is not by belaboring the unconscionable demand that white people confess their guilt for social problems that no individual could have created. To build understanding around issues of race, we instead should try to engage others in good faith, especially when doing so can be difficult.

Mr. Wood, a senior at Williams College, is a former Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal.