You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Who’s Afraid of Yale Student Privilege?

How the right has adopted the left’s language of privilege.

Arnold Gold/AP

Ah, those halls of Ivy. The glorious places where the most glorious people spend the most glorious years of their lives. Given the amount of bitterness the sheer existence of Ivy League college students inspires, it’s not all that surprising that a meme has emerged that the student protesters at Yale—and, depending the columnist’s mood, left-leaning American college students generally—are “privileged.” 

You know that thing on the left, where people dismiss arguments on the basis of the identity of the arguer? Where shouting “privilege” ends a debate? That was so successful that the right was like, hey, that works! And so, rather than sticking with their points about “free speech,” conservative commentators have honed in on the “privilege” of merely being at Yale. Heather MacDonald of City Journal sneers at “Yale’s privileged minority students,” while David French, in the National Review Online, refers to elite universities, in full privilege-check terminology, as “[p]ossessing every possible advantage.” At the Daily Caller, meanwhile, Blake Neff offers a thorough privilege-check of the most publicly visible among them, the Yale student shown in a viral video speaking out at a Yale professor, holding forth, not all that persuasively, about the young woman’s “privileged background”:

Besides the obvious privilege inherent in being able to attend Yale, one of the world’s most elite (and expensive) universities, [she] also hails from the wealthy, low-crime city of Fairfield, Connecticut. Her family home isn’t luxurious but has an appraised value of more than $760,000.

The idea being, it would seem, that a student can’t have a grievance with an administrator unless she comes from a rough enough area, or is at a school with a low enough tuition. 

Neff also digs up evidence that this student has been out of the country and has a stated wish “to visit at least 3/4 of the world’s countries, a hobby that’s hardly available to the impoverished.” To even imagine seeing the world is privilege!

MacDonald, however, may win this round, given her apparent confusion of not just Yale but also the University of Missouri with the sort of place where David Brooks might take a $120,000 vacation: 

There is no evidence that the University of Missouri denies equal opportunity to its black students; those black students, like every other student on campus, are surrounded by lavish educational resources, available to them for the asking on a color-blind basis. [….] Thousands of Chinese students would undoubtedly do anything for the chance to be ‘systemically oppressed’ by the University of Missouri’s stupendous laboratories and research funding.

The dodge MacDonald uses, in other words, is that the University of Missouri’s black students can’t possibly be dealing with racism because there are, on this planet, situations more dire than being a student at a state school in Missouri. Which, sure—this is something everyone but a clichéd Manhattan helicopter parent with a child who’s about to apply to college would accept. It’s unclear where these theoretical Chinese applicants, who are unlikely to meet with anti-black racism upon their theoretical matriculation, enter into it. As for the “lavish resources” and “stupendous laboratories,” I suppose the point, rhetorically, is to round up Mizzou’s schmanciness, so as to dismiss any and all complaints coming from its students as “first-world problems.”

So: The right has discovered privilege checking, and it isn’t any more useful this time around. That Yale students are generally from wealthier families than the general population doesn’t make their intellectual arguments incorrect. Nor does it somehow inoculate students from marginalized backgrounds against discrimination.

But let’s ask a bigger question: Are Yale students, all of them, privileged? Is that really the best term to describe the benefits that come with attending, and then being a graduate of, a top-three Ivy? Even the protestors’ supporters echo that refrain. Writes Yale professor Zareena Grewal, “Students realize that it’s an enormous privilege to be at a world-class university, but they also know that a dorm with two Steinways is worthless if you don’t feel welcome there.” And from Yale grad Perrye Proctor, along the same lines: “Yes, students at Yale are privileged but that doesn’t mean they need to keep their mouths shut.” 

Students who make it to a place like Yale despite not being from the Bush dynasty or similar aren’t privileged, because “privilege” is about entrenched inequality, not a mix of hard work and good luck. It’s now acceptable to use “privilege” to describe even the state of being not quite as disadvantaged as someone else, and to do so even of the “someone else” being evoked is entirely theoretical. This is an unfortunate development, because it detracts from the very thing “privilege” is meant to convey: a state of general have-ish-ness. If you succeed despite a lack of privilege, your ensuing success isn’t privilege.

That said, it does say something meaningful that even the people who have most other things going for them are still marginalized. This is true when it comes to the eternal (and eye-roll-inspiring) question of female CEOs and—as with Hillary Clinton—would-be presidents, and it’s also true of wealthy black students at Yale. Is there greater racism than that faced by a microaggressed black Yale student? Yes, there is, just as there’s greater sexism than that which any woman who’s ever earnestly used the expression “lean in” has experienced.

But the fact that even those who tick every other box will still experience racism, sexism, and so forth is actually quite persuasive evidence that these forms of bigotry remain a problem. Moreover, if we’re going to reserve protest for those who suffer across every possible axis—who tend not to have much of a platform—all this does is encourage complacency. Which is what it’s intended to do: To silence legitimate complaint. 

But here’s what gets really to me with the Yale-students-as-privileged argument: It’s the implied you-should-be-grateful. Should black students at Yale feel grateful? I mean, people of all races, at all universities and beyond, should feel however they feel, and there’s something to be said for blessing-counting and all that. But the notion that black students at elite schools should feel grateful for the same amenities and cultural cachet that white students at those same schools take for granted. It’s what’s implied—wasn’t-letting-you-people-attend-enough?—that I can’t stand.