The Perils of "Privilege."
Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage
By Phoebe Maltz Bovy
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2017 Phoebe Maltz Bovy
All rights reserved.
THE ONLINE YPIS WARS
MR. O'REILLY: Just remember, Mr. Fawlty, there's always someone worse off than yourself.
BASIL FAWLTY: Is there? Well I'd like to meet him. I could do with a laugh.
— FAWLTY TOWERS, "THE BUILDERS"
IN THE SUMMER after graduating from high school, Noah Phillips took a job at a Washington, DC, falafel shop. After this brief stint in the pulverized-chickpea trade, he went to college.
A nice little story. Interesting, perhaps, if you're related to Noah Phillips, or if you're someone interested in hiring Noah Phillips for your own falafel stand, since you now know he has previous experience in that area. Yet why, one might wonder, was the story published, in 2015, in The Washington Post? And how on earth did it wind up with over a thousand comments?
Let's try that again:
Noah Phillips, a privileged seventeen-year-old white boy, had had enough of his privilege. Eager to shed some of that privilege, and to leave the cashmere-draped, kale-infused caviar-canapé-stuffed life he'd led thus far, he decided to expose himself to the ways of the commoners by applying to work in a DC falafel shop. ("I'm hardly the first privileged young man to go looking for grit," he wrote, while offering George Orwell as an example of what he, in applying for this job, was going for.)
Yet even there, in the sordid underworld that is life behind the falafel counter, he was unable to shed his privilege. This became evident from the mere fact that was hired in the first place, for as we all know, falafel stores only ever hire people who come from the right families. It can't have been about his qualifications: His only previous work experience was "running high school bake sales," evidence not that he was, you know, seventeen, but that he came from immense, almost incalculable privilege. (All your clothes were probably made by someone in Bangladesh who by seventeen would, in a just world, get to retire.) But his white privilege, his fluent-English-speaker privilege, and his socioeconomic privilege not only got him hired, but landed him the privileged position of ... cashier.
An editorial note mentions that the Post contacted the falafel-shop management, presumably for fact-checking purposes, and it seems as if everyone, even the Latino colleagues Phillips found so terribly exotic, also worked the register. However, once the privileged self-flagellation has begun, its momentum is too great for it to stop over such trivialities. Everything about the falafel-salesman experience must be viewed through the lens of privilege. The fact that this would be a privilege essay was announced in what was, let's admit, a pretty great headline: "I Tried to Escape My Privilege with Low-Wage Work. Instead I Came Face to Face with It." But what really brought out the commenters may have been the inadvertently hilarious subhead: "The Advantages of Race and Class Are Not Easily Shed, Even in a Falafel Shop."
If what Phillips was looking for was further confirmation that he is, in fact, an oblivious soft, rich kid, he was in luck. Sample comment: "Writing a story about your summer job, and then getting to have it published in the Washington Post. That's an example of white privilege. I have a suspicion that it's the product of other types of privilege." Others pointed out that hipster falafel shops are not the scrappiest work environments around, and reminisced about their own, far scrappier youthful employment. Others pointed out — redundantly, it might seem, since this was Phillips's very point — that most people work because they need to, and not because they're trying to learn about "blue-collar" life.
The issue for readers wasn't Phillips's privilege, exactly. It was that he presented his falafel-store experience not as a summer job, but as a play at being working class. Had the angle been different, the response might have gone otherwise. After all, here's a rich kid who opted out of unpaid internships or voluntourism (that is, the trips well-off Westerners take to developing countries, ostensibly to help, but also to have some fun in the sun), and who avoided that classic rich-person fate of being one of those people who's never worked in food service and who treats servers atrociously. Instead, he wove the experience into a "privilege" narrative. In one sense, he didn't have to do this. Yet a bait-free, "privilege"-free version of the tale wouldn't have been published.
It's a truism, at this point, that where there is privilege, it ought to be checked. Thus the discussions that take place in comment threads, where participants order one another to check their privilege, or announce that someone's privilege is visible (as in, YPIS). The route to being a decent person — and, maybe, to making the world a better place — begins with a frank and candid assessment of one's own unearned advantages.
And yet. In his essay, Phillips is copiously, cringe-inducingly privilege aware, just not self-aware. But that's it's own quality, one disconnected from social-justice commitment. It's more about having a sense of humor, I suppose, which would explain why Louis C.K.'s self-deprecating privilege riffs are so often held up as the epitome of awareness. What Phillips suffers from isn't underexamined privilege, but overexamined privilege, which ends up amounting to the same thing.
THE "BEHOLD, MY PRIVILEGE" CONFESSIONAL ESSAY: A SAMPLING
PHILLIPS WAS BY no means the first young adult to beat himself up over privilege in front of an online audience, and to wind up flaunting his privilege in the process. By the time his appeared, the confessional privilege essay had already become a well-established form. Online publications regularly publish reflections from people examining their own unearned advantages. Thought Catalog, a site that falls somewhere between social media and a publication, is more or less a privilege-confession generator: "Confronting My Privilege," "With Great Privilege Comes Great Responsibility," "The Uncomfortable Privilege of Being Catcalled." A site-wide search for "privilege" brings up over a thousand items, many but not all of them introspective.
The earnest self-privilege check might seem a painful read, but more squirms still come from another branch of this subgenre: essays and blog posts by people sick of being faulted for their privilege. Months before Tal Fortgang's privilege-denial essay went viral, Kate Menendez, the woman behind "Being Privileged Is Not a Choice, So Stop Hating Me for It" got the Gawker treatment: "Brave Privileged Person Speaks Out Against Anti-Privilege Privilege." And way back in 2011, Jezebel reposted a hand-wringing Advocate essay by Zack Rosen, "a white, cisgender gay man," who couldn't help but wonder: "Can a nontrans, white gay man ever truly leave the comforts of his own identity without having to make frequent and loud apologies for the crimes of his ilk?" Oddly enough, writing a defensive essay about one's own privilege never seems to have the intended effect.
If Rosen had had enough of being alerted to his privilege, perhaps offering up his navel-gazing to Jezebel wasn't the best idea: "Thank you, sir, for that perfect demonstration of exactly WHY privileged people get called out for their privilege," wrote one commenter. Another: "Oh my God, a white dude made other people's identity issues ALL ABOUT HIM? Alert the media, I'm shocked. Snark over, here's the deal; this article REEKS of privilege." There were plenty more along those lines. Anyone looking for concrete examples of the phenomenon Rosen was describing could simply go to the comments and take their pick.
Yet the tone-deaf privilege-confession essay probably hit its peak with a massively viral xoJane one, whose title went as follows: "There Are No Black People in My Yoga Classes and I'm Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable with It: I Was Completely Unable to Focus on My Practice, Instead Feeling Hyper-aware of My Skinny White Girl Body." Actually, that wasn't quite the whole thing. Technically the headline began with the series name, "It Happened to Me," one that, in context, made it seem as if the arrival of "a young, fairly heavy black woman" in the author's yoga class was something the author felt had happened to her. After all, merely seeing a fat black woman do yoga apparently caused the author to cry.
In all fairness, the point of the essay, as best as I can tell, was that seeing a heavyset black woman doing yoga (and, in the author's opinion, struggling) set forth, in the author, a stream of consciousness about yoga as cultural appropriation; the unfair advantages of being thin and flexible; and the systemic injustices revealed by the fact that her particular yoga studio doesn't have a lot of black customers. It was this moment of self-righteous awakening that her black classmate inspired — and not the fact of having a black classmate — that caused the tears to flow: "I got home from that class and promptly broke down crying. Yoga, a beloved safe space that has helped me through many dark moments in over six years of practice, suddenly felt deeply suspect." The tears were for a lost innocence. Whichever seal had thus far sheltered the author to life's unfairness had been broken.
Apart from the striking absence of the word "privilege," the essay had all the elements of a privilege confession, most notably, an attempt at demonstrating awareness gone massively awry. The entire Internet weighed in on the author's obliviousness. (Over three thousand comments to the post itself, and enough outraged and mocking responses from other sites to merit a "5 best responses" roundup.)
If the yoga and falafel examples teach us one thing, it's this: Examination of one's own privilege, unless done really deftly, reads as conceited — conceited, and presumptuous. When, exactly, had the black student in the author's yoga class asked for her sympathy? Privilege awareness asks that a white, skinny woman enumerate the unearned advantages that these qualities provide her with (i.e., white privilege, thin privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc.). This articulation of one's own advantages is, at its very essence, the point of the privilege project — that where there is privilege, it should be owned. Yet when that articulation actually takes place, it ends up reading as an unsolicited pity-fest directed at someone whose life probably isn't as tragic as all that. Writer Teju Cole points out the "false" and "condescending" aspects of that self-deprecating reflex in a takedown of the "first world problems" meme, noting that Nigerians, too, fuss about cellphones, and adding, "All the silly stuff of life doesn't disappear just because you're black and live in a poorer country." The line between admirable self-awareness of advantage and oblivious exaggeration of others' disadvantage is thinner than a self-flagellating white girl in a yoga class. Even if in theory, or in private, it's good to contemplate your privilege, in practice, in public, it's not.
If, however, these essays get to teach us two things, the second would be that "privilege" sells. It can't be terribly expensive — even by personal-essay standards — to publish navel-gazing musings of young people who, by their own admission, aren't hard up for cash. (Since universities ask for such essays in their applications, every privileged young person has one hanging around.) And the payback is huge. The more tone-deaf a piece is, the more viral (and virulent) the response. Yet because "privilege awareness" is this supposedly noble goal, publications get to churn these out in good conscience, and to pretend surprise when, time and again, an author of one of these essays attracts a pile-on.
Granted, not all privilege introspection is quite so painful to read. However, even the professional version of this genre gets called out in much the same terms. In a 2015 New York Times Magazine piece, "White Debt: Reckoning with What Is Owed — And What Can Never Be Repaid — For Racial Privilege," the writer Eula Biss explored her own white privilege with sentences such as, "Our police, like Nietzsche's creditors, act out their power on black bodies." Reflecting on a time when, as a college student, she'd failed to get in more serious trouble for illicit poster distribution, she writes:
The word "privilege," composed of the Latin words for private and law, describes a legal system in which not everyone is equally bound, a system in which the law that makes graffiti a felony does not apply to a white college student. Even as the police spread photos of my handiwork in front of me, I could tell by the way they pronounced "tagging" that it wasn't a crime invented for me.
Writing in The Daily Beast months prior to Biss's essay, the linguist and commentator John McWhorter expressed doubts about this sort of exercise: "Nominally, this acknowledgment of White Privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is treated as the main meal." More recently, in The Washington Post's "Post Everything" section, writer Freddie deBoer offered similar disillusionment with the model: "[I]t's unclear what asking people to identify their racism or white privilege actually accomplishes. Presumably, acknowledging white privilege comes before some substantively anti-racist action, but specific definitions of such action remain elusive."
Indeed, as with the other, more obviously silly privilege essays, it's never spelled out what Biss has done, or will do, thanks to her awareness of her own privilege. She acknowledges that giving up white privilege is functionally impossible, sharing multiple anecdotes demonstrating just that notion. One Times commenter responded, not unfairly, "As a black guy, this ain't doing anything for me. Her existential hand-wringing is her own, it doesn't uplift anyone else really." Another commenter calls out Biss's privilege, if indirectly: "This obsession with 'white privilege' seems to be confined to elite universities and tiny wealthy portions of major cities. In the real world, none of us are privileged enough to feel guilty about it."
Biss's essay reads like an eloquent version of the "criming while white" hashtag, which involved white people flagging instances of police giving them a pass. The idea was for white people to demonstrate their awareness of racial bias in policing, and in doing so, to model that awareness for others. In practice, as the feminist writer Jessica Valenti explained in The Guardian, it didn't sit right:
White people acknowledging white privilege is important, but in the midst of national tragedies, tweeting about how you got away with criminal acts feel[s] like a performance of awareness that you are privileged rather than what we really need — a dismantling of the power obtained through that privilege.
Given the steady stream of news about horrific deaths of black Americans at the hands of police, there isn't all that much lag between "national tragedies" of this sort. There's no particularly good moment to weigh in along these lines.
To her credit, Biss lays out — perhaps a bit too persuasively — the problems with the introspective approach to anti-racism:
Guilty white people try to save other people who don't want or need to be saved, they make grandiose, empty gestures, they sling blame, they police the speech of other white people and they dedicate themselves to the fruitless project of their own exoneration.
True. Then she goes on: "But I'm not sure any of that is worse than what white people do in denial. Especially when that denial depends on a constant erasure of both the past and the present." Her case for white guilt — and for the privilege framework — isn't a promise that self-flagellation will lead to activism, but rather a claim that it might: "[W]hy not imagine guilt as a prod, a goad, an impetus to action? Isn't guilt an essential cog in the machinery of the conscience?" The "essential" bit is key. Across contemporary progressive rhetoric — in Biss's analysis, and even in Valenti's takedown of "criming while white" — there's a pervasive sense that personal enlightenment must precede efforts to improve the world. There's also a dangerous ignorance of the ways the ritual can make things worse.
THE HUMBLEBRAG OF THE PRIVILEGE NONCONFESSION
PRIVILEGE CONFESSION HAS now become, paradoxically, the default way to speak about one's own disadvantage. That sort of essay is the self-awareness sweet spot. It's a way of discreetly announcing the obstacles you've endured, while not seeming self-pitying or like you're trying to win at Oppression Olympics. Or, to put it more generously, it's the natural self-expression of the sensitive. In a Slate piece called "I'm a Butch Woman. Do I Have Cis Privilege?" writer Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart lays out why she'd resisted the idea that she did —"Heck, I'm a butch lesbian living in Tennessee, for goodness' sake" — only to conclude that yes, as someone who can readily correct those who call her "young man," she is in fact cis-privileged. Along the same lines, in a massively viral piece, "Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person," Huffington Post contributor Gina Crosley-Corcoran explains that as someone who "came from the kind of poor that people don't want to believe still exists in this country," the sort that involves "making ramen noodles in a coffee maker with water you fetched from a public bathroom," she'd initially balked when called "privileged" online, only to learn about intersectionality and see the light: "I know now that I am privileged in many ways. I am privileged as a natural-born white citizen. I am privileged as a cisgender woman. I am privileged as an able-bodied person." This pops up in the political realm as well. There was that time when Marco Rubio explained that he came "from extraordinary privilege" because he had a loving childhood, albeit, you know, not a wealthy one. If you're going to confess to privilege, his is the way to do it. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Perils of "Privilege." by Phoebe Maltz Bovy. Copyright © 2017 Phoebe Maltz Bovy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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