The Perils of “Privilege”

by cominsitu

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 Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage

Phoebe Maltz Bovy / St. Martin’s Press

INTRODUCTION: THE “PRIVILEGE” TURN

“[A] HORRIBLE PERSON”

In a freezing-cold flat in Berlin, I’m standing under the shower with the water turned up as high and hot as it will go. I’m trying to boil away the shame of having said something stupid on the internet. The shower is the one place it’s still impossible to check Twitter. This is a mercy. For as long as the hot water lasts I won’t be able to read the new accusations of bigotry, racism and unchecked privilege. I didn’t mean it. I don’t understand what I did wrong but I’m trying to understand.

*   *   *

THE ABOVE RECOLLECTIONS, from a 2015 article in the New Statesman by the writer Laurie Penny, are where I wish to begin because they make up the most wrenching, but accurate, description that I’ve come across of what it can feel like to be called out online. The phenomenon she describes—the privilege call-out—is a new, if increasingly familiar, experience. Penny’s reaction—“I’ve spent very dark days, following social media pile-ons, convinced that I was a horrible person who didn’t deserve to draw breath”—may have been extreme, but such interactions aren’t the high point of anyone’s week. While I’ve never experienced quite that spiral, I know what it’s like to see a new blog comment or Twitter notification, and then another … followed, predictably, by the heart-racing realization that the Internet (and it always feels, in the moment, like the entire Internet) has found me out.

The outright hateful comments are, as Penny notes, easier to handle, in a way. As unpleasant as it was the week when neo-Nazi Twitter made me its Jewess-du-jour, and as frightened as I was during the weeks when pro-gun Twitter made it known what it thought about my anti-gun stance, there’s something more viscerally draining about an “unchecked privilege” accusation. What’s so useful about Penny’s description is that she hones in on two of the key reasons why that’s the case. One is, as she spells out, that the accusation manages to tap into the accused’s worst fears about her value as a person. The other, which she does not, is the lack of specificity. Unlike earlier generations of bigotry accusation, the privilege call-out is intentionally vague, while also, at times, hyperspecific. Either your privilege is showing, and you’re not entirely sure which form of privilege (let alone how to appropriately respond), or you’ve suddenly learned that you’re wrong because surely you’ve never worked in food service, something about which your interlocutor, a stranger on the Internet, is remarkably certain.

A privilege accusation prompts the accused to contemplate his or her unearned advantages, and—all too often—to publicly self-flagellate for the same. The less saintly among us, though, will soon remember (and, all too often, reply) that we haven’t had it quite as easy as our accusers imply. And sometimes the specific privilege accusation will have been inaccurate. Regardless of how, exactly, all of this plays out, one thing’s for sure: The conversation will have switched from one about some broader issue to the ultimately trivial question of our privilege.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. What is this thing, “privilege,” and why is getting accused of possessing it so fraught?

FROM PRIVILEGE TO “PRIVILEGE”

PRIVILEGE ISN’T SO much a concept as it as a worldview. It has a simple definition—unearned advantage, likely having to do with wealth—but implies so much more. The approach originated in academia and progressive activism, but its reach now expands to cultural commentary and mainstream (even conservative) politics. It made its cultural debut primarily through two personalities. The first is Girls creator Lena Dunham, noted for being the first-ever entertainment professional who grew up wealthy in New York. Or so it would seem: From 2012 on, a good chunk of the Internet has consisted of critics calling out her (often overstated) privilege. Prior to Dunham-privilegegate (which, as I type, continues; Dunham had recently expressed her privilege by threatening to move to Canada should Donald Trump get elected), online commenters had been accusing one another of unchecked privilege for years. Yet there weren’t really opinion pieces about whether X is privileged and what it all means. Whereas today, that pretty much describes cultural criticism and opinion journalism.

The second is Tal Fortgang, another New York–area-reared millennial. A then-Princeton freshman, Fortgang’s 2014 essay, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in a right-leaning student publication, was quickly reissued in Time magazine with the provocative headline, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” Just about every publication in the English-speaking world (including The Atlantic, with a piece by yours truly) used the Fortgang episode as a starting point for a broader debate about what the “privilege” discussed on college campuses refers to, and what checking it entails.

While “privilege” plays an enormous role in the online shaming culture, both of these are examples of people who’ve parlayed privilege accusation into celebrity. Dunham remains in the public eye, and has incorporated the image the culture has of her into her own work, effectively copyrighting the “millennial brat” persona. Fortgang, though not a celebrity of Dunham’s stratosphere, is making a name for himself as a young conservative journalist on the “privilege” beat. A 2015 essay of his, “38 Ways College Students Enjoy ‘Left-wing Privilege’ on Campus,” appeared on The College Fix. The two faces of privilege are doing all right. The critics of privilege shaming may take some comfort in knowing that these two, at least, have not been shamed into silence.

The political conversation about “privilege,” meanwhile, has its own overlapping timeline. The concept is well suited to politics. Long before privilege awareness became fashionable, candidates (often from quite privileged backgrounds) would try to portray themselves as self-made (born in, as Bill Clinton would have it, log cabins of their own creation), and their opponents as out-of-touch elitists. In the 2008 presidential campaign, John Edwards offered up regular reminders of his mill-worker heritage, while Sarah Palin railed against coastal elites. Yet populism well predates the explicitly “privilege” approach. That would only come a bit later, in the years after the term had made its cultural debut: in the run-up to the 2012 elections, candidates and their supporters began framing their cases more explicitly in terms of privilege. President Barack Obama had spoken about unearned advantage and the myth of the self-made man, which led the GOP to make “We Built It” its national convention refrain. The line from “We Built It” to Fortgang thinking his grandparents’ struggles meant he couldn’t be privileged is easy enough to trace. To be a conservative then was to reject identity politics.

It was only in 2016 that politics went full privilege turn. The Democratic contest was all about “privilege,” with Bernie Sanders’s and Hillary Clinton’s supporters incessantly accusing the other side of supporting their candidate because of their (that is, the supporters’) unearned advantages. Privilege accusation, however, is by no means limited to intra-left battles. Conservatives regularly accuse liberals of unchecked privilege, and they have been doing so for years. The old “limousine liberal” cliché became the ideological underpinning of intellectual conservatism. In 2010, political scientist (and controversial The Bell Curve coauthor) Charles Murray wrote in The Washington Post that “the New Elite spend school with people who are mostly just like them—which might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege.” This insight led him, two years later, to produce a “bubble” quiz, which if anything anticipated the viral privilege-checklist phenomenon. It asked (and asks; a reissue appeared in 2016) well-educated white liberals to admit they had no idea what NASCAR was, and that they thus were too out of touch to know what’s good for the country. The implication was that if white liberals left their bubble, they’d start voting Republican. Same year, same idea, from political commentator and journalist David Brooks:

The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites. Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else.… If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed.

It isn’t clear to me meritocracy would lead to a less privilege-aware elite is a convoluted argument. If anything, having parents who may have grown up less well-off (not that there’s all that much social mobility in America) may make someone more plugged in to the actually “precarious” nature of privilege. All that much-derided upper middle-class fussing about grades and extracurriculars speaks less to privileged entitlement than to very real fears of downward mobility. Yet as a cultural critique of the hypocrisy of the left, it was spot-on. Brooks was addressing the proverbial person who grew up in a Brooklyn brownstone and pleads authentic outer-borough (as in, Queens or Bronx) scrappiness.

The notion that insufficient privilege awareness is what causes elites to lean left has only gotten more entrenched on the right. Consider journalist Irin Carmon’s accurate (if tongue-in-cheek) summary of Justice Antonin Scalia’s defense of capital punishment, and why his fellow judges—living, as they do, “in placid suburbia or [in] high-rise co-ops with guards at the door,” wouldn’t grasp its necessity: “And then it hit me that all Scalia was trying to do was to get the justices to check their privilege.” And he was! Conservatives and progressives alike have taken to arguing points on the basis of identity and personal experience.

“PRIVILEGE”: THE BASICS

“DEAR WHITE PEOPLE: no one is saying your life can’t be hard if you’re white but it’s not hard because you’re white.” This perhaps overly earnest profundity comes from an August 2015 tweet, shared by thousands, by Twitter user Austin (@kvxll), that somehow made its way to my own Twitter feed. (Which is to say, someone I follow shared it.) Austin’s tweets just before (“Dear straight people: no one is saying your life can’t be hard if you’re straight but it’s not hard because you’re straight”) and after (“Dear cis people: no one is saying your life can’t be hard if you’re cis but it’s not hard because you’re cis”) hone in on the same idea: Privilege is about all-things-being-equal advantage. It isn’t personal.

The contemporary use of “privilege” emerged to address an absence in the language for discussing systemic inequality in general. In scholarship, a “privilege” focus means looking at oppression not only in terms of the oppressed, but also of the oppressor. It means studying systems of marginalization by looking not only at the marginalized, but also at the nonmarginalized. Like all new (or repurposed) buzzwords and concepts, it fills a need. Inequality does exist across a wide range of intersecting axes, and the “haves” in each area really are oblivious. We probably did need a word to convey the multifaceted nature of luck, as well as the naïveté and entitlement that so reliably accompany unearned good fortune.

THE PANACEA THAT WASN’T

IT’S WHEN YOU get into the realm of privilege theory and application that things get more dicey. The central idea behind “privilege” is that it shifts a discussion of discrimination away from the assumption that an advantaged position is the “normal” one. Rather than assuming “a person” is a forty-year-old upper-middle-class white man, unless otherwise specified, “privilege” reminds that whiteness, maleness, and so forth are traits, and not just the default human condition. This much makes sense. However, it also implies shifting away from the notion of rights. In a New York Times Opinionator interview, philosophy professor Naomi Zack offers the following criticism of “privilege” as a term for discussing racism:

The term “white privilege” is misleading. A privilege is special treatment that goes beyond a right. It’s not so much that being white confers privilege but that not being white means being without rights in many cases. Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right.

This is the biggest theoretical challenge to the privilege turn: An approach that’s ostensibly about achieving social justice winds up suggesting, or seeming to suggest, that everyone should be miserable.

A further flaw: “Privilege” is based on an analogy, namely that other forms of unearned advantage are similar to, and as important as, wealth. Wellesley scholar Peggy McIntosh, the thinker responsible for the current understanding of “privilege,” has compared white privilege to a bottomless bank account. “Privileged” used to mean “rich,” and to some degree, still does. (When I’ve told friends and acquaintances that I’m writing a book about privilege, they’ve sometimes assumed I’d be researching the super rich.) At most, it would be a way of specifying that a rich person was also posh, or old money, versus self-made or otherwise nouveau. The word “privilege” might be used to soften a crudely financial assessment, but it might also imply wealth that was a bit more entrenched. (A lottery winner might be rich but not “privileged.”)

The conflation of all forms of relative advantage with the financial form thereof has doubtless helped some people conceptualize racism, sexism, and more. Yet it also leads to confusion, and brings about defensiveness in people who are (say) white, and thus “white-privileged,” but not necessarily both white and, in the old sense of the term, privileged. The bank-account metaphor makes it easier for people who are both white and socioeconomically privileged to have that aha moment. After all, their experience of whiteness is wrapped up with those of wealth and status. The concept is less effective at getting the point across to, say, the white working class and the white poor.

One further problem with the privilege framework (don’t worry, more will come up later) is that it leads to making far too much of minor problems, and far too little of the big ones. It’s about putting sensitivities ahead of on-the-ground realities. Or not even. It’s about putting theoretical sensitivities—symbolic concerns that someone, somewhere, could find something triggering or problematic—ahead of things that demonstrably cause emotional distress in actual people. It’s about prioritizing “awareness,” which is essentially a kind of ever-vigilant performance.

“LIKE A PRAYER”: A BRIEF BUT SINCERE CASE IN FAVOR OF USING THE TERM

THE CONCEPT OF “privilege” as we know it today comes from Peggy McIntosh’s famous 1988 paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” In it, McIntosh explains, in accessible terms, a simple, obvious-in-retrospect parallel. Just as men often seem, to her, oblivious to their advantages as men, she has surely been unaware of her own leg up as a white person:

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.

The best-known part of the paper is the ur-privilege checklist. McIntosh lists forty-six unearned advantages that she “think[s] in [her] case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined.” The list is a mix of subtly brilliant insights (“I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect upon my race.”); prescient observations (“I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.”); and a few entirely idiosyncratic advantages that say more about Peggy McIntosh than about life for white people generally (“If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”).

In the 1988 paper, McIntosh at various points gestures toward the need for more than just privilege enumeration: “As we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, ‘Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?’” But the ultimate outcome is, in a sense, beside the point. In a 2014 interview with New Yorker writer Joshua Rothman, she describes coming up with her forty-six forms of white privilege as follows: “I asked myself, On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer.” She insists that it’s very important to acknowledge privilege, but she admits that doing so may not lead anywhere. Nor does she rule out that listing one’s privileges will make someone that much more inclined to hang onto them.

To their credit, scholarly proponents of privilege theory agree that simply acknowledging privilege isn’t sufficient to accomplish anything. In his 2003 introduction to a reader in which McIntosh’s essay appears, sociologist Michael Kimmel emphasizes that privilege awareness is only a first step: “Eliminating inequalities involves more than changing everyone’s attitudes.” As for the next step, Kimmel isn’t especially precise: “Examining our privilege may be uncomfortable at first, but it can also be energizing, motivating, and engaging.” The only concrete aim of the privilege-awareness project might well be that it inspires more privilege workshops and for-credit privilege coursework, aimed mainly at privileged students.

Yet the project has other, more abstract goals, and those shouldn’t be overlooked entirely. The expression “count your blessings” well predates the modern privilege checklist, but is a similar exercise. And as dreadful as the phrase is when used to dismiss, say, clinical depression, it’s a useful response to minor unpleasantness. If you find yourself in one of those everyday slumps where it seems like the world is against you (They’re out of blueberry muffins?!), perspective can’t hurt. McIntosh included this key point in her knapsack essay: “At the very least, obliviousness of one’s privileged state can make a person or group irritating to be with.” While the self-promoting declarations of self-awareness are annoying in their own right, it’s hard to make a case against being self-aware.

Rebecca Solnit, the writer famed for popularizing the notion of “mansplaining,” wrote in a 2015 essay that she’d “coined a term a while ago, privelobliviousness, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t.” While “mansplaining” gave a name to an existing but unnamed phenomenon, “privelobliviousness” seems a bit redundant. “Privilege” implies obliviousness. Solnit adds that this sort of cluelessness “is a form of loss in its own way,” which gets at another thing “privilege” contributes: it stigmatizes good luck. It doesn’t just remind that others have it worse, but raises the possibility that an unfair system hurts even those at the top.

However, this—the obliviousness angle—seems key to why “privilege” caught on. It can function in a subversive way, by saying that sure, this other person has everything, but you understand things that this idiot never will. So it’s not just that “privilege” is descriptive. It’s also—when used internally, among have-nots in whichever area, rather than as an accusation—a way of conveying the sheer annoyance of life’s systemic injustices.

There’s also plenty of (legitimate) frustration, in progressive circles, with a tendency for the left to consider only economic inequality, to the exclusion of other forms of injustice. While “privilege” has failed miserably as a tool for discussing sexism (see chapter 4), it’s shown more promise as an approach, if not necessarily to diminishing racism, then at least to explaining the phenomenon. In an excellent New York Times Magazine piece called “How ‘Privilege’ Became a Provocation,” literary critic Parul Sehgal initially notes that she has qualms with the term, but then pivots to its defense. It’s clear, however, from the examples she gives, that she’s only talking about white privilege, not “privilege” in the broader, ever-expanding definition it currently holds. She mentions “a new meme on Twitter, white men have been posting photographs of themselves lying facedown on the ground, with the hashtag #takeusdown, in mock apology for their white privilege.” “Privilege,” she explains, is “still the most powerful shorthand we have to explain the grotesque contrast between the brutal police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the treatment extended to Dylann Roof, charged with murdering nine black people last month in a church in Charleston, S.C.—captured alive, treated to a meal by the arresting officers, assigned a judge who expressed concern for his family.”

While there are problems with that approach to addressing injustice—specifically, with its implication, which is that the solution to racism is for everyone (as versus no one) to experience police brutality—on a conceptual level, she has a point.

To the extent that it does work, the use of “privilege” to discuss racism is productive because the analogy holds up: Being white in America is vastly easier than being black, in much the same way as being rich is easier than being poor. (The same couldn’t necessarily be said about the magnitude of the benefits of being a size 4 over being a size 12, at least for those of us who are not pursuing careers as fashion models. Thus my wariness of the term “thin privilege” in many contexts.) The most persuasive use of “privilege” I’ve seen comes from a post about racism, by journalist Jamelle Bouie. In “What Does It Mean to Be ‘Privileged’?” Bouie recounts having sold his TV, and coming to the realization that simply walking down the street in DC at night carrying it might lead to getting stopped by police, under suspicion of having stolen the set. A white man, he suspects, wouldn’t have had the same concern:

I have no idea what would have happened if I decided to walk a nice TV three blocks down the street. It’s entirely possible that the police would have left me alone. But I couldn’t count on that.… What does it mean to be privileged? It means not having to think about any of this, ever.

What makes Bouie’s post so effective is that we’re not hearing the musings of an outside observer on what a black person might feel in a particular situation, complete with melodramatic posturing. We’re hearing what he, a black man—not to mention a writer who has at times expressed skepticism about “privilege” rhetoric—actually experiences. It’s painful to read, because systemic racism is painful to hear about, but it doesn’t sting, exactly, because it’s not an accusation. This post remains the best example I’ve come across of “privilege” functioning as it should: as an empathy-promoting first step toward systemic changes. Someone who’d never quite gotten why racial profiling is a problem could conceivably read Bouie’s post, experience some kind of realization about the burden the suspicion of criminality places on young black men, and feel moved to advocate against such policies.

Sehgal’s ultimate defense of the term—“It’s easier to find a word wanting, rather than ourselves”—echoes Laurie Penny’s intervention from two years prior:

New words and phrases tend to make powerful people angry not because they are new, but because what they describe is modern and threatening. Repeatedly claiming that you cannot understand simple ideas like “privilege checking” and “intersectionality” … often means that you don’t want to understand. Some find it easier to argue “we don’t need this word” when what they actually want to say is “we don’t want this thing.”

Penny—among the term’s most ardent defenders—does not restrict her discussion to white privilege (“It just means any structural social advantage that you have by virtue of birth, or position—such as being white, being wealthy, or being a man”), and goes to defend privilege accusation as well:

“Check your privilege” means “consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.” That’s it. That’s all. Being made aware of your privilege can feel a lot like being attacked, or called a bad person, and when that happens you sometimes get the urge to stamp your feet and scream.

Penny then links to a piece critical of the expression, before adding, “This is the point where it’s useful to take deep breaths and remember it’s not all about you.”

Of course, the expression “your privilege is showing” (YPIS) is “about you.” The subject at hand is, after all, “your privilege.” It would be inaccurate to dismiss that interpretation as a misunderstanding.

THE EMERGENCE OF “PRIVILEGE” IN ITS NEW MEANING

IT’S DIFFICULT TO pin down exactly when, between McIntosh’s first theorizing and Fortgang’s lament, the contemporary idea of privilege seeped into the public consciousness. Guardian writer Hadley Freeman has dated the first privilege-checking request to “2006, on the social justice site shrub.com, when a blogger calmly wrote about how everyone to a certain extent speaks from a position of privilege and they should take into account that others are not as privileged as them.”

It seems to have entered the social-justice vernacular a bit earlier than that. The first online instance I’ve found was from a Portland-Oregon-based thread about an incident in which police had apparently pepper-sprayed protestors, including children. In August 2002, someone named Monica wrote a comment entitled, “Ken, your privilege is showing.” Ken, the previous poster to the thread, had asked why the parents brought the kids in the first place. To which Monica responded, “How shall I leave my kids at home? They’re not old enough to stay alone and I can’t afford a babysitter. Or were you only talking to those parents able to AFFORD to protest?” While it’s possible that Monica was the first to use the expression, it seems unlikely. A 1997 Amazon book reviewer credited a character in a novel about seafaring, of all things, with being “aware of his privilege.”

My own first encounter with the social justice use of “privilege,” according to the spotty personal archive that is my blog (What Would Phoebe Do), was in 2004, when a fellow University of Chicago undergrad wrote in the school paper that the members of the University community were “living in the warm folds of privilege.” I first began seeing accusations of privilege floating around online in the years that followed, only to realize, somewhere along the line, that “privilege” had become ubiquitous.

WHY NOW?

A CONFLUENCE OF factors has made “privilege” the word and concept of our age. The 2008 recession led to increased awareness of income inequality, and of the ways some young adults’ families, but not others, could discreetly help them out. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have both, in different ways, made it more difficult to pretend that America is a casteless society. Social media has also played a role—it’s now possible to be clueless, and to call out cluelessness, on a far larger scale than ever before. The Internet has also made it more difficult both to assume everyone in a conversation shares one’s own advantages, and to know much about the identities of the people with whom one is conversing. That immediate (if not always accurate) sense we have in offline life of which caste someone belongs to is absent, and the absence of all those cues opens up the possibility for abstract and often highly misleading discussions of who, according to some not-so-scientifically weighted checklist, fits where. And for all that’s said about overshare, about self-pitying online confessions, the dominant pressure on social media is to present the best version of oneself possible. This means sharing only the positive. An atmosphere where boasting is ubiquitous, and where hardships go unstated, makes everyone look a notch more privileged than they really are. This makes the you-have-it-easy call-out that much more tempting, as well as that much less likely to be justified.

There are also more subtle reasons for its current appeal. Yes, rich-person obliviousness has been around since at least Marie Antoinette, and elites have been presenting their own ways as inherently superior since one ape was classier than another. Unfortunately, in an era of tremendous financial inequality, combined with one of veneration for voluntary minimalism, has led to unprecedented insufferability in this area. The anti-stuff movement (which somehow always ends up coming down hardest on cheap clothes, when the high-end chains also sell factory-made goods from impoverished countries) allows the rich to feel as if their luxury consumption is really just a matter of labor or environmental concerns. There’s the annual Black Friday ritual, where a certain number of Facebook friends and think-piece writers will make a point in announcing that they’re not going bargain hunting.

This tendency of today’s richer-than-ever rich to present themselves as the true bearers of humility and anti-consumerism can be more irritating than unapologetic ostentatiousness.

On the blog Jezebel, the writer Jia Tolentino offered a classic portrait of exactly this dynamic:

One of my least favorite things in the world is hearing a young person whose parents pay their cell phone/buy them plane tickets home for every holiday/give them thousand-dollar gift checks say something like, “I’ve never gotten any help from my parents, but I’ve managed to save some money.” Not because it’s bad to get any of those things, but because it’s bad not to recognize: Informal help is help.

The secrecy that Tolentino (accurately) describes—“the hesitation to admit informal advantage tends to come hand-in-hand with that informal advantage”—can be infuriating. “Privilege” evokes that sense that someone just doesn’t get it. The “it” isn’t necessarily something all that important, in the grand scheme of things, although it can be. Part of the problem with an unjust society is that small slights add up. Without “privilege,” there wasn’t really a language for conveying the way that bigotry can manifest itself not just through encounters with overt racists, but also through individually minor, but repeated, slights from those who may even identify as progressive.

The privilege turn is about more than the insertion of the word “privilege” into articles and social-media posts on an ever-wider range of topics, to describe an ever-broader set of unfair advantages. It’s a new conceptual framework, as well as a new way of interacting with others, of understanding society, and of critiquing arts and entertainment. Depending whom you ask, it’s either an essential term that only the willfully obtuse (and excessively privileged) would object to, or a conversation stopper up there with Godwin’s Law (that is, comparing your detractor in a comment thread to Hitler).

The privilege turn has been widely misunderstood. It’s not a politically correct new order where white men, or the otherwise advantaged, lose out. It’s not about the prize going to the greatest victim. The old order hasn’t gone anywhere. It hasn’t actually gotten easy (let alone too easy) to call out wrongdoing. Rather, a veneer of hypersensitivity gives the impression that times have changed, and does so just enough to stir resentment.

YPIS

SO ON THE one hand there’s “privilege,” a framework for understanding society, and on the other, the privilege call-out. This might be “check your privilege,” although a “your privilege is showing” (from here on, YPIS) may sting that much more, with its evocation of a grooming mishap that someone has only just now told you about. Mostly, though, these accusations sting because the recipient has correctly assessed that he or she is being insulted. “Privileged” functions both as a neutral descriptor and as a synonym for “entitled and willfully oblivious.” One might even go so far as to say that it’s our era’s number one insult. So you may be technically right in pointing out that someone is privileged, but in pointing this out, you’re also telling this person off. Conversely, someone who balks at a privilege accusation might be denying having unearned advantage. Yet he or she could just as well be denying horrible person-ness.

For this reason, even supporters of using privilege as a framework will often draw the line at “check your privilege.” McIntosh has called that phrase “a flip, get-with-it kind of statement.” Sehgal supports use of the term “privilege,” but argued in a New York Times Magazine piece that “the shine has come off this hardy, once-helpful word. It looks a little worn, a bit blunted, as if it has been taken to too many fights.” She attributes this shift partly to the term’s online manifestations: “On the Internet, it makes for trusty kindling, and in the popular imagination, a cudgel: When people think of ‘privilege’ being used, it’s almost always as an epithet, to shame.” And in a Salon piece otherwise favorable to the concept of privilege, Mary Elizabeth Williams referred to the privilege-checking phrase itself as “the ‘Is there gluten in this?’ of public discourse, an expression so promiscuously deployed it’s bound to incite a few eyerolls along the way.”

Privilege-in-theory and YPIS-in-practice can’t be so neatly disentangled. Individual accusations of privilege often go hand in hand with abstract discussions of what the term means and why it’s so necessary. And at the root of probably every anti-“privilege” essay was its author’s experience as the recipient of one YPIS too many.

The term “privilege” is a magic potion that turns otherwise dreary ideological debates into pile-ons. It’s no coincidence that Exhibit A in author Jon Ronson’s popular study of public shaming, the one that got excerpted in The New York Times Magazine and that stemmed from publicist Justine Sacco’s Twitter joke about AIDS and Africa, was a pile-on rooted in a privilege controversy. In explaining why a tone-deaf joke—“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”—went viral, Ronson wrote, “[I]t was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people.” So it was.

Also not a coincidence: Sacco seems to have meant for the joke to be, as Ronson put it, “a reflexive critique of white privilege—on our tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors.” Online privilege controversies frequently stem from poorly worded or otherwise naïve attempts at challenging privilege. The oblivious white anti-racist or male feminist—or in social-justice terms, the ally who wants a cookie—is often the person who inspires the most YPIS rage. It’s not that straightforward bigots or, in more neutral terms, people outside the ally framework don’t get called out at all, but when they do, it seems futile. It’s clear (see chapter 2) that there was little to be gained by telling the young white woman who brought an anti-affirmative action case to the Supreme Court that she was exhibiting white privilege. Not because she wasn’t doing this—good grief, she was—but because if there’s anyone in the world who isn’t going to be moved by a YPIS, it’s a white person making a literal federal case about “reverse racism.”

“Privilege,” thanks to its ambiguity, is able to push all sorts of different buttons for agendas and identities of all kinds. It’s not only that the phrase manages to simultaneously make one think about race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, and other categories that may have been added since the time of my writing this sentence. It’s also that it includes built-in hyperbole. It ramps up every form of advantage to that of society’s haves versus its have-nots, tsars versus serfs.

Central to the privilege turn is the question of whether people—be they celebrities, ordinary people whose gaffes have gone viral, your interlocutor in a Twitter war, or the proverbial conservative Thanksgiving uncle—get it. There’s some further ambiguity here: Does getting it mean getting that the world is an unfair place, or does it mean getting why one must use “privilege” to convey this? Either way, the privilege-explainer social-media post is a genre in its own right, and is often designed to go viral.

A BuzzFeed video from Daysha Edewi, called “What Is Privilege?,” shows an ethnically diverse group of young, good-looking men and women taking steps forward or backward according to how they answer thirty-five different privilege-related questions, and also being asked, along the way, about how the exercise is making them feel. An unnamed (and perhaps mythical) high school teacher’s privilege-education demonstration, which apparently involved students trying to throw crumpled-up pieces of paper into the recycling bin, went viral, receiving millions of views. It illustrated that those sitting closer to the front of the room, where the bin was located, had an easier time making the basket.

Also a hit: a comic by Toby Morris that “makes privilege incredibly easy to understand.” The comic traces two people’s lives and disparate opportunities up to adulthood, the final image depicting the man, in a tux, saying, “No one ever handed me anything on a plate,” as he obliviously takes an oyster from a plate being held up by the woman, who’s working as a server at the reception that is, of course, celebrating the man.

Other awareness raisers begin by acknowledging that “privilege” puts people off. Christian blogger Jeremy Dowsett, aiming to “help some white people understand privilege talk without feeling like they’re having their character attacked,” offers a transportation analogy: “I can imagine that for people of color life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.” These musings received over a thousand comments and over ten thousand Facebook shares.

Writer John Scalzi, meanwhile, in search “of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word ‘privilege,’ to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon,” rephrases “privilege” in terms of video game difficulty settings: “All things being equal, and even when they are not, if the computer—or life—assigns you the ‘Straight White Male’ difficulty setting, then brother, you’ve caught a break.” This post, too, was Facebook-shared over ten thousand times. The “privilege” gospel keeps being preached, if primarily to the converted.

Yet the more interesting aspect of the privilege turn is the emphasis switch from society to individuals. Or, rather, “privilege” is about society, but its adherents insist upon defining individuals as the sum of their identifiable, systemic advantages and disadvantages. It’s intensely feelings-focused—if a celebrity or someone in a comments thread has done something that offended you, or that you have every right to be offended by, or that you’d imagine a member of the marginalized group in question would find offensive, the thing to do is to call out the privilege of the person who’s caused offense. And you do so by hurling a YPIS.

The interaction I’m describing is part of a broader phenomenon: call-out culture. That said, not all call-outs fall under this umbrella. Straightforwardly bigoted, hateful remarks by public figures—open ones as well as those of the didn’t-know-the-mic-was-on variety—may be called out without “privilege” in this new sense entering into it. And if a politician is criticized for, say, starting a war, this criticism may take place on social media, but it’s a far cry from call-out culture. What makes call-out culture in the “privilege” sense distinct isn’t that it’s about speech rather than action, nor that it’s “politically correct” (after all, it’s also politically correct to demand that politicians not spew racist obscenities), it’s about alerting people to wrongs they didn’t know they’d committed. Yet if YPIS is intended to be educational, it’s education with some judgment attached. Consider this definition, retweeted and favorited hundreds of times, from the @LOLGOP Twitter account: “Privilege—n. when a whole class of people get a right they were denied and you immediately invent hypotheticals how this might hurt you.”

Once a YPIS has been hurled, the conversation switches from one about a broader issue to being about your interlocutor and his or her own inner life. Has this person properly reckoned with his or her privilege? Does this person get it? And does their exiting the thread before successfully demonstrating to you that they get it mean that they don’t? Or is it possible—after all, anything’s possible—that they had to get to school or work? Could it be that they were off meeting obligations to people other than their wrong-on-the-Internet companions?

As things actually play out, recipients of YPIS tend not to exit quite so gracefully. Whether or not they have somewhere to be, they’re more likely to get flustered and defensive, and to stick around for a while, only to dig themselves into deeper holes. While it’s never fun to be reminded of your unearned advantages, there’s something curious about the psychology of YPIS receipt. Even if you lack the privilege you’ve been accused of having, the charge stings.

PRIVILEGE AND THE CULTURE OF MANDATORY OVERSHARE

A PRIVILEGE ACCUSATION—or even just a privilege-awareness-raising exercise—is a demand for personal information. The framework leaves no space for discretion. Consider, again, that BuzzFeed “What Is Privilege?” video exercise, intended, it seems, as a model for others. (Thus the extended checklist provided in the post.) Some of the questions are just variants of asking about race and gender, which are typically visible. Others—those about religion, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation—would require disclosing things not everyone is open about in all contexts. It’s a fair bet that if you’re in a privilege-awareness workshop, you’re not about to hide the fact that you’re a working-class Muslim lesbian. Yet if this information’s going anywhere googleable, maybe you would?

Still other questions, though, are deeply personal: “If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.” Unless you are actually wheeling yourself backward (the “step” requirement seems, in the context, rather ableist), your fellow exercise participants are bound to be curious what, exactly, you’ve been diagnosed with. And is everyone in this day and age really prepared to state publicly, or even just in a classroom, whether they feel as if they “came from a supportive family environment”? Isn’t it starting to get a little personal about other people if you have to start saying whether your parents have ever been laid off? It shouldn’t be taken as evidence that those who resist having a privilege conversation are doing so in order to avoid discussing their own copious privilege. It could also be that they have lacks thereof that they’re not keen to talk about.

While these extra questions do help paint a more accurate portrait of the obstacles someone has faced (not a given with such checklists), the further you go from those broad, sweeping categories, the more likely you are to veer off into the realm of things people often don’t wish to talk about. Indeed, feeling unable or unwilling to speak up about given obstacles can itself be a manifestation of one’s lack of privilege. This limitation of the privilege approach is especially relevant when it comes to writing a college-admissions essay, or, once an undergrad, advocating for oneself in the classroom. Any system that offers points for disadvantage, but that places the burden on the disadvantaged to identify themselves, runs into these concerns.

EXAMINING THE ALREADY OVEREXAMINED

THE “PRIVILEGE” TURN encourages a focus on the privileged. This emphasis is ostensibly a feature, not a bug, of the approach. As theorized by Peggy McIntosh and others, studying oppression through not just the oppressed but also the oppressor addresses a gap in oppression scholarship, and gives a broader understanding of how society operates. This kind of makes sense, until one considers that all of such scholarship until approximately five minutes ago focused on elites. The stated reason for the focus may be diametrically opposed, but the outcome amounts to the same. In the apt words of Jezebel commenter ShoeFlyBunsenBurner, responding to a post about a forthcoming MTV film about whiteness: “Documentary on white privledge [sic] … Isn’t that just the history channel?” Through complex means it may take a sociology doctorate (or just a cynicism deficit) to grasp, getting a bunch of privileged people together to talk about their privilege is supposed to somehow reduce, and not reinforce, that privilege.

And yet, of course the privilege conversation reinforces privilege. When people self-identify (reasonably or not) as posh and advantaged, a part of each of them is going to feel good about these qualities, and that much more inclined to cling to them. Tuning into one’s own advantages is a route to feeling grateful for those advantages, not to rejecting them. There’s a tweet from journalist Jamelle Bouie that sums this up nicely: “*whispers* I kind of think the excessive focus on privilege among young liberal-ish elites is a kind of political narcissism.” Why “whispers”? Because “privilege” has become such an unquestioned buzzword that anyone challenging it—even a left-leaning African American journalist known for his coverage of racism past and present—risks being accused of cluelessness and … privilege. To question its use is to invite accusations of “tone policing”—the social-justice world crime of having criticized the language or emotion level of someone’s argument, and thus derailing the conversation away from their oppression.

Yet it’s worth risking a tone-policing charge, because so much of the privilege conversation really is fancy people contemplating their own fanciness. In the past few years—thanks in no small part to the privilege turn—writing that examines privilege (as in, wealth and influence) with a critical-ish edge has gotten absorbed into the quasi-social-justice fold. In June 2015, The New York Times introduced “a new beat: an interdisciplinary look at … the richest of the rich,” which would be “part of The Times’s deepening focus on economic inequality in America.” In her defense of this beat, public editor Margaret Sullivan reproduced some of the backlash tweets the announcement had inspired, and addressed the concerns head-on: “To some, it seems counterintuitive to cover the problems of economic inequality in America with a greater focus on the doings of the superrich. After all, this is not a set that’s starved for media attention.” Sullivan discreetly alluded to the fact that the rich beat’s author, Alessandra Stanley, had been under fire for racial insensitivity while covering culture; from the Twitter response, it’s clear that this fact entered into the skepticism the beat inspired. Sullivan then quoted Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, who’d given the new beat the green light: “The beat will not be ‘isn’t it cool to be rich,’ he emphasized, but will look at the outsize role of the superrich in areas including philanthropy, art, and politics. It will be, he said, ‘an anthropological approach.’”

That word—“anthropological”—brought to mind an op-ed that had recently run in the paper, a teaser by Wednesday Martin for her memoir, Primates of Park Avenue. In it, Martin—a literature PhD (no shame in that!), but not an anthropologist—described her commentary on her fellow Upper East Side moms as if it had been a serious investigation undertaken by an outsider: “A social researcher works where she lands and resists the notion that any group is inherently more or less worthy of study than another.” That she’d landed from the West Village, another posh Manhattan neighborhood, was the first clue that the project was maybe a bit less academic than it first seemed. An initially positive response (largely from female professionals horrified by the idea of a “wife bonus”), turned sour. However, that’s neither here nor there. The point is that rich people’s upward-directed class resentments now pass for social protest.

In such contexts, “anthropological” seems to be code for, now we’re going to talk about rich people in a way that seems celebratory, but that we’d prefer you to interpret as subversive. Coming full circle, here’s Alessandra Stanley herself, commenting on Primates in a review of a TV series also about an upper-middle-class Manhattan woman who feels out of place among the very rich: “Someday there will be an anthropological study of that other exotic tribe: privileged people who devote their lives to exposing their even more fortunate neighbors.” Investigating the super rich from the skeptical perspective of the merely privileged would seem to be precisely Stanley’s new beat.

Well, not entirely new. The New York Times has long covered the rich, and has long done so from an envy-snark standpoint. As writer Jacqui Shine has pointed out in an Awl essay about the paper’s lifestyle section, “Styles participates in producing and exposing public narratives about wealth and power with far more transparency and a more critical gaze than any other section of the paper does.” The part-critical, part-envious, but also part-self-congratulatory response that lifestyle journalism evokes has been with us since before the privilege turn, and before the 2008 recession, in stories like this gem from 2007, about the plight of people who live in Manhattan townhouses that simply have too many floors: “To ameliorate the strain, they installed diaper changing stations on every floor and doubled up on kitchens, laundry rooms and espresso machines.” What’s new, then, is the surprisingly widely accepted belief that a focus on the privileged is a necessary first step toward dismantling privilege. These days, a book or article examining the habits of the rich can pass as revolutionary.

THE REACH OF “PRIVILEGE”

THE PRIVILEGE TURN, I’ve come to believe, isn’t a radical force that upends the social order and leads those in positions of power to shake in their well-heeled boots. Rather, it manages, in a variety of ways, to reinforce the status quo. The Perils of “Privilege” explores exactly how the framework accomplishes the opposite of its ostensible aims.

In chapter 1, I plunge into the online privilege conversation, and I use “plunge” intentionally. I present the unwieldy mess that is the privilege-awareness online essay—not just white privilege, but all the many privileges—and the intense debates that form among journalists and Internet commenters over whose privilege, precisely, is showing. In Internet-commenter parlance, once “privilege” enters the thread, it’s time for someone to post a popcorn gif; the show’s about to begin. (Add “privilege” to the headline, and a story about how shoes were fastened in the Middle Ages could go viral.) I give examples of what I call “YPIS cycles”—privilege accusations leveled at articles or posts that are themselves critiques of privilege, and show how privilege (the term) is used to silence interlocutors in the threads of progressive blogs.

A sort of privilege fatigue has set in, with Gawker hosting a satirical privilege-checking tournament in 2013, and the expression “check your [mammalian, etc.] privilege” turning into a popular online joke. There’s also an anti-YPIS reaction emerging on the left and center left, including New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait’s 2015 article about political correctness, and the “2014: The Year of Outrage” feature in Slate. I explain where the backlash has ended up repeating the mistakes of that which it’s critiquing. Yet YPIS’s opponents have made several key points. Most crucially, privilege awareness has become a status symbol—one that, by definition, requires having privilege about which one can be aware.

Nowhere is that more dramatic than in education. As I discuss in chapter 2, American high schools and universities now regularly host privilege-awareness workshops. Privilege Studies is not a satirical invention of a conservative journalist, but a burgeoning academic field. Conversations about “privilege” dominate both student-activist rhetoric and that of their detractors. I discuss the paradox of today’s college-admissions process, in which it helps as much as it ever did to come from a wealthy family, but applicants are assessed on the basis of self-awareness. The now-standard advice for college admissions essays is to avoid coming across as privileged. That “privilege” was conceived by someone who once taught at Brearley, one of the more posh of the Manhattan all-girls private schools, is, upon reflection, about what one would expect.

Those wondering if perhaps YPIS is confined to seminar rooms and other spaces of ideological debate, will want to check out chapter 3, which is about the far-reaching impact privilege theory has had on the arts and on cultural criticism. Books, movies, and TV shows are now evaluated in terms of privilege, to the exclusion of all other observations or reactions. Rather than focusing on expanding opportunities for members of underrepresented groups, critics either dismiss a work because of the artist’s privilege, or offer a disclaimer about how, despite the artist’s privilege or the privileged milieu in which the work takes place, it’s worth reading or watching. The privilege critique is ultimately less about opening doors than about insisting that when the usual suspects (rich, white, well-connected) put their work before an audience, the work in question should be privilege aware. The self-awareness requirement makes it more difficult for flawed characters to be depicted. Further contributing to this problem are two interrelated phenomena: personal essays and memoirs have largely taken the place of fiction, yet even fictional works are read as autobiographical. As the author-character distinction disappears, so, too, does the space for representing flawed (that is, privilege-oblivious) characters.

In chapter 4, I turn from culture to politics, and examine the way ostensibly progressive “privilege” rhetoric converges with reactionary ideas. The right has lapped up from-the-left critiques of feminism, readily agreeing that the white, cisgender, straight (or heteroflexible), well-educated, professional woman or (left-leaning, CSA-belonging, qualms-having) stay-at-home mom is the enemy. The far left sees this woman as the face of privilege because of her obliviousness to intersectionality, that is, to the fact that there are women who are discriminated against for more than their gender. The right, meanwhile, has never been especially fond of feminists, but now gets to call out liberal, white feminists for their racism, as a cover for calling them out for their feminism. The far left and far right agree that progressive, white women are entitled and somewhat ridiculous.

In chapter 5, I expand on the extent to which the far right has made “privilege” its own. The plight of the straight, white, middle-class male—so terribly oppressed by the new order that recognizes others as humans, too—gets cast in “privilege” terms. Meanwhile, the extreme right now also plays the “privilege” game, and has its own blog posts and think pieces about “black privilege,” “female privilege,” “Jewish privilege,” and more. I explain why the “privilege” conceptualization so readily lends itself to causes and ideologies diametrically opposed to the ones it’s purportedly there to address.

The Perils of “Privilege” is an attempt at taking a step back and asking whether the privilege-awareness project is a valuable one. And it’s my sense—with some caveats—that it’s been a disaster. Given the subject matter, though, I need to be very clear about what this book is not about. I’m definitely not arguing—as some others have been of late—that the shaming of bigotry has become as dangerous as bigotry itself. This book is not an attempt to silence or stifle activism, social-media or otherwise. I’m not interested in telling people who’ve experienced discrimination that their belief that they’ve been oppressed is surely in their heads, or in dismissing arguments simply because they’ve been expressed in privilege-theory terms. There are times when “privilege” is effective; those tend to be when the term is used by people whose own identities actually match up with the one they’re advocating for, and who are using “privilege” to illustrate their experience. It tends to be less effective, if not all-out detrimental, when used on behalf of theoretical marginalized people, who get invented as a way of winning a point in some argument.

Copyright © 2017 by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

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