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The Perils of “Privilege”

Privilege is best understood not as a real trait, but a construction: Anyone can be “privileged” if it suits someone else’s argument.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

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 PERILS OF “PRIVILEGE” by Phoebe Maltz Bovy
St. Martin’s Press, 336 pp., $26.99

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.

The question rarely asked about “privilege,” which is also really the only one worth asking, goes as follows: Has it helped? Has the introduction of this framework brought about a more just society?

It’s only once the framework gets examined from that angle that the flaws become self-evident. The privilege approach is, practically speaking, about raising awareness of the minutiae of injustice. While gaps remain, huge swaths of awareness have certainly been raised. And? Let’s set aside (briefly) the question of whether we’d think this would lead anywhere. Has it done so?

Jia Tolentino gets at the flaws of the awareness fixation in a brilliant December 2015 Jezebel post about the relationship between “offense” and online journalism:

Contemporary life means being hyper-aware and worse off than ever; we are increasingly shut out of the mechanisms of representational democracy and simultaneously being forced to know more and more and more. We know many rape kits are backlogged in all the big cities, how many black teenagers have been shot by the police this year, how shamelessly the NRA pulls its levers, how corporate campaign finance ensures that the wealth gap is here to stay. And we can’t change any of it—or at the very least, not very easily, not when it’s so much easier to sit around and get very precisely insightful online.

Tolentino’s point was especially striking given the context. Left- and youth-leaning media generally, and Jezebel especially, has devoted itself to awareness-raising and witty-but-sensitive online observations for years. What does it say that members of the media are themselves (ourselves) tiring of this? We have, in the one corner, journalists producing intricate articles parsing exactly what was the teensiest bit racist or sexist in the (out-of-context) speech of whichever actress or male scientist, and, in the other, fairly blatant, out-there online abuse getting directed at (among others) these same journalists. It can seem—whether or not there’s any truth to this impression—that there are some forest-for-the-trees issues at play. The blame lies not just with the privilege framework in the abstract, but also with a media landscape that—for reasons that have as much to do with what readers want as with production costs—favors the churning out of “privilege” content (celebrity gaffes, navel-gazing from the ordinary-but-privileged) over, say, war reporting. (If the two pay the same, which is to say, nothing or not much...?)

Honing in on YPIS specifically, Berkeley senior Efe Atli offers the following damning critique, in a Daily Cal op-ed (“Checking privilege serves to reinforce it”) from January 2016:

The number[s] don’t lie. Three decades of checking privilege directly correlate with an astronomical rise in income inequality. The more inequality we have, the more privilege gets checked by more privileged people, and the more the privileged feel pleasure (and power) in being aware of their privilege and so, grow in power.

That seems about right, although it hasn’t been quite “Three decades of checking privilege”—more like, at the time of Atli’s writing, eight years. Still, the culture was already neck-deep in privilege awareness when the 2016 all-white Oscars lineup rolled around. The term “microaggression” had entered the lexicon when Donald Trump started winning primaries with a platform based almost exclusively on hurling the macro variety. It goes without saying that privilege awareness didn’t bring about a revolution on the ground. (While quite prepared to call out Hillary Clinton for bourgeois feminism, Bernie Sanders’s supporters tend to lean anti-“privilege,” and to view Clinton as the embodiment of style-over-substance liberalism.) Yet even when it comes to pop culture, to the more superficial concerns, even there, not much has changed since the early 2000s, at least not for the better.

There’s a limit, though, to what we can conclude from the apparent inefficacy of the “privilege” approach. Is leftist infighting (and I’m including hyperbolic criticism coming from the center left) distracting progressives from the real issues? Probably, if not necessarily in terms of individual commitment, then at least as far as media coverage is concerned. And can we root Trump’s popularity (especially because, as journalist Matt Taibbi has written, so much of it is private popularity) in widespread fears of saying the wrong thing on social media and getting fired? Here’s a guy whose thing is saying outrageous things publicly—maybe that’s only appealing in a climate where saying a slightly wrong thing (or a thing that was intentionally misinterpreted as offensive, to get clicks) is such a social crime?

Maybe. Or maybe not—there was plenty of outspoken racism, sexism, and xenophobia before the privilege turn. The causation case is there, but is tougher to demonstrate than—as Atli subtly mentions—the correlation one. Yet correlation alone should be reason enough for concern. Even setting aside the many ways “privilege” seems to have backfired, we have to consider its failure to bring about a kinder society, let alone a more just one. If “privilege” hasn’t worked—and it hasn’t—then it’s time to stop assuming that people who reject the framework necessarily do so for defensive or reactionary reasons. It’s time, more to the point, to step away from the question of individual motivation altogether, and to approach questions of injustice from more productive angles.

I’ve never quite sorted out by what mechanism awareness of privilege is meant to inspire a desire to shed oneself of it. Back in the good old days, when elites knew exactly who they were, were they eager to redistribute their wealth? No—if you’ll excuse my historical oversimplification—they were not. While there’s certainly something irritating about the elites of today who mistakenly think they’re scrappy or “normal,” what happens differently when unearned advantage is out in the open? Children of politicians are presumably aware of the unearned advantages that their name-recognition inspires, yet Bushes and Kennedys (not to mention Windsors!) don’t seem too worried about it, and even get to claim that actually, it was harder for them, what with all the expectations. What’s to make the average schmo turn down a job gotten through connections? Where’s the gorgeous person who, however much he or she disapproves of beauty standards in the abstract, would like to be uglier, or for society to make no distinctions on the basis of appearance?

The privilege framework promises a neat, as-the-world-should-be relationship between background and character, which results in the surely-you’ve-never framing of so many privilege accusations. For example, rather than tell someone that he’s being an asshole to the waitress, you have to make a pronouncement about how he’s surely never worked in food service. It is an interesting way the world might work, but I’ve seen little evidence, out in the world, that it does. And there’s research backing this up: Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno presented his and some other studies in The New York Times, concluding, “Living through hardship doesn’t either warm hearts or harden them; it does both.” Research, in this case, lines up with common sense: Life experience has some impact on empathy, but not a direct and simple one. It’s not always—as the privilege framework would have it—that insensitivity stems from a lack of personal experience with things that don’t involve falling ass-backward into good luck.

“Privilege” is best understood not as a real trait, but as a construction. Anyone can be “privileged” if it suits someone else’s argument. There’s no wealth or income threshold for “privileged.” It doesn’t require membership in the One Percent, or even the top 50 percent. And anyone can, with proper rhetorical flourish, play the role of the implicitly underprivileged. To call out another person’s white privilege, you yourself can be white. And to call out class privilege, you don’t need to demonstrate that you yourself aren’t a J.Crew-wearing Whole Foods shopper. The trick is simply to announce that this other person is those things, and to do so in a tone that suggests that you go around in a potato sack and subsist on lentils (or better yet—because lentils suggest cultural capital—McDonald’s). YPIS is about constructing an underdog stance. It’s about making as if you’re craning your neck to look (and punch) up, regardless of where you’re actually situated.

“Privileged” is part of a family of terms used for euphemistically describing the not-destitute (or the “middle class,” or—for a double whammy of socialism and Francophilia—the “bourgeoisie”). Like the others, “privileged” is ambiguous and can refer to everyone from unambiguous elites to people who simply have some advantages—a college diploma, say, or a childhood spent in a two-parent household. However, “middle class” and “bourgeois” allow, at least rhetorically, for the existence of an upper class, an aristocracy. They’re not just word-variance synonyms for “rich”; whereas there’s nothing above privilege, no implied higher rung. Referring to everyone who isn’t desperately poor as “privileged” may be inaccurate as well as off-putting. Yet it’s a shortcut to always seeming self-aware.

From its inception, proponents of the privilege framework have warned against leaving it at that. Awareness, they remind in unison, isn’t enough. Critics of the framework, who insist that it’s all talk and no action, aren’t always being fair to proponents, who do—at least if we’re talking about scholars and activists, and not fourteen-year-olds on Tumblr—acknowledge this. Yet it’s never entirely clear, not merely how progress would follow from privilege awareness, but why it would, and, moreover, why the reverse wouldn’t be the case. Why, precisely, would rendering all hierarchies transparent lead to these hierarchies’ disappearance? Why, indeed, wouldn’t it just lead to those at the bottom of each despairing, while encouraging those at the top to view their unearned advantages as that much more precious? This implicit, but implausible, step after the awareness epiphany is, at its essence, my issue with “privilege.” Constantly reminding everyone of where they fall . . . why would such candor lead to empathy? Why wouldn’t a society where systemic injustices are front and center in everyone’s mind at all times only serve make interactions between men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor, that much more fraught, inhibiting the development of everyday social and professional bonds?

​​From The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage by Phoebe Maltz Bovy. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.