APRIL 16, 2017
IT BEGAN, as do so many a dark night of the millennial soul, with the comments section. Nearly a decade ago, an anonymous swipe left on one of her blog posts about labor exploitation in unpaid internships, accusing her of being “a poor little rich girl,” sent a young graduate student named Phoebe Maltz Bovy into a tailspin. As yet unaware that she was participating in a common confessional ritual, Bovy followed up with an apologetic post defending herself for having had part-time jobs in college, even though she “grew up in a posh part of Manhattan, and I benefit from the privilege that comes with being pale and from that locale.”
Later, Bovy came to understand that she had been on the receiving end of a “privilege call-out,” a practice in which individuals are accused of ignorance of their own advantages in life and, in turn, expected to react with appropriate expressions of guilt and shame. Its adepts claim that privilege call-outs help bring about a more just society by raising awareness. Its most common expressions seemed to be “check your privilege” or, more sanctimoniously, “your privilege is showing.” By 2011, it seemed to Bovy that the YPIS, as she calls it, while cloaked in pretensions to online activism, was little more than an exercise in posturing deliberately meant to wound. She became an armchair anthropologist of the privilege call-out, first on her blog (graduate students have peculiar hobbies) and then as a freelance journalist. Now she has produced a book, The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage, which is both chronicle of the Privilege Wars and their latest salvo. Real social change, Bovy argues, requires doing away with the word “privilege” altogether.
The Perils of “Privilege” is timely, arriving on the crest of an extended public debate over how we talk and think about oppression and injustice at all levels of American society. While this conversation has played out in many forums, from classrooms to op-ed pages, it has been heavily shaped by the enormous growth of social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. In the last decade, the terms of an anti-oppression discourse once native to grassroots organizers and the more liberal corners of academia — “trigger warnings,” “cultural appropriation,” “intersectionality,” “microaggressions,” and, yes, “privilege” — have become more broadly colloquial and, in turn, more vigorously contested. Conservatives like Andrew Sullivan, Charles Murray, and Tom Nichols position this jargon as the decadent symptom of moral decline, evidence of identity politics run amok. Meanwhile, on the left there is a growing sense that such discourse has become an endless feedback loop that inhibits real social change and does little to help oppressed or marginalized people — and, worse, abets the worst elements on the right. Liberals and leftists taking this line include Jonathan Chait, Jia Tolentino, Connor Kilpatrick, Rebecca Solnit, Conor Friedersdorf, Corey Robin, and Meghan O’Rourke. It’s to this audience — a “conservative-to-center-left coalition,” as she puts it, of writers and critics who agree that all this privilege business has gone too far, even if their reasons differ — that Bovy is speaking, and for whom she claims to speak. In The Perils of “Privilege”, Bovy positions herself as a sensible, measured critic of both the Left’s rhetorical excesses and the Right’s reactionary refusal to acknowledge, much less address, the profound structural inequalities in American society, and she has plenty of evidence to demonstrate the hazards and absurdities of both sides.
Whatever else it does, The Perils of “Privilege” certainly captures a larger zeitgeist. Bovy touches on the 2016 Democratic primary, campus protests, mass shootings, the Serial podcast, Lena Dunham, the popularity of kale, and the persistence of blackface in college-student Halloween costumes. But the book is less about these phenomena and what they mean than it is about the online commentary around them. Most of the key incidents Bovy narrates happen on the internet: Twitter pile-ons, smarmy Privilege Olympics parodies, reviews of movies followed by critiques of the reviews and the reviewers, bitter battles waged in comment sections, et cetera. In 34 pages of endnotes, Bovy makes exactly two references to offline material: everything else is a web citation (though in some cases she cites online versions of print stories). These episodes typically include lots of Byzantine details that involve slighted feelings expressed in endless responses, and they usually take longer to explain than it takes to read the original essay or tweet or Facebook post. For example, a post on Jezebel suggests that a young woman who had recently died in a tragic car crash shortly after achieving viral fame with a moving essay she’d written for the Yale Daily News was venerated for her promise and talent in part because she was white and well off ignites a lengthy comment thread berating the author of the Jezebel post. Or a white woman is blasted for an innocuous “Day in the Life of a Feminist Writer/Activist” piece because “some other people have much longer workdays, many more dreary responsibilities, or, conversely, not enough work to pay the bills.”
Read as a critique of internet discourse, The Perils of “Privilege” is a useful book: sharp, thoughtful, and funny. The online phenomena Bovy observes are both real and troubling. (One of my marginal notes was “God, the internet is annoying.”) But unfortunately that’s not the book Bovy says she’s written. Rather, she declares it to be “an argument against using the concept of privilege to understand and fight against injustice.” Bovy has staked her authority on an assessment of the privilege framework so erroneous that her larger claim — that privilege discourse obstructs social activism, and should be abandoned outright in favor of “real solutions” — verges on incoherence.
It’s true that strangers on the internet viciously taking each other to task for acknowledging the circumstances of their lives without the requisite show of shame probably isn’t a great way to combat injustice. But to call this particular phenomenon “the ‘privilege’ framework” is to ignore the history of the concept of privilege. It dismisses its actual uses in academic and activist circles, and neglects an enormous body of empirical research that studies the problems and effects of privileges on parity and justice in a variety of settings (including workplaces, hospitals, and schools). With a quick disclaimer, Bovy acknowledges, but doesn’t explore, how the framework is useful for “people whose own identities actually match up with the one they’re advocating for, and who are using ‘privilege’ to illustrate their experience” — which raises the question of whether “privilege” is really the problem. What could have been a valuable book about the perils of getting mad online is hamstrung by its ambitions to be something grander.
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I have participated in the diversity exercise known as the “privilege walk.” I have written an essay in defense of trigger warnings that appeared on a website best known for confessional personal essays. I once kept a blog devoted to cataloging instances of privilege. (I carelessly let the domain lapse, and it has been taken over by customer testimonials for a nutritional supplement called “Breast Actives.”) At the gym, I sometimes wear a T-shirt emblazoned with Jenny Holzer’s truism ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE. I even believe there is such a thing as “rhetorical violence.” I’ve spent many years doing work that I understand as part of a larger commitment to anti-racism in principle and practice. I’m proud of that work, even if it sometimes seems trivial. (I also make a lot of mistakes and probably always will.) So: Maybe I’m kind of a chump, on Bovy’s terms. I’m fine with that.
But I’m also a historian, and as such I have to object to the narrative Bovy puts forward in The Perils of “Privilege”. The foundation of that narrative rests on two ideas: first, that the meaning of the word “privilege” has only recently changed; and, second, that this semantic drift can be traced to the work of the feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh. Both of these ideas are incorrect. The former is predicated on a peculiar assumption about how language works in society. The word “privilege,” Bovy argues, once signaled “that a rich person was also posh, or old money, versus self-made or otherwise nouveau”: the Astor descendant, not last week’s Powerball winner. But once it was attached to an anti-oppression pedagogy invented in feminist academia, she continues, “privilege” came to mean any kind of unearned advantage, from a winning lottery ticket to above-average height. With this genealogy, Bovy tacitly suggests that the word “privilege” has a real meaning (“a way of specifying that a rich person was also posh, or old money”) and a false one (“all forms of relative advantage”). But this ignores the fact that the meanings of words change over time, not by imperial order of the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary, but through colloquial use. These evolving meanings typically accumulate and overlap, rather than succeed or replace one another. The definitions of abstract nouns like “privilege” are not typically either/or, in other words; more often, they’re both/and.
But Bovy’s argument requires a fall from grace, a moment at which people go from using the word “privilege” correctly (whatever that might mean) to misusing it. The serpent in the garden, in Bovy’s story, is Peggy McIntosh, who she describes as “the thinker responsible for the current understanding of ‘privilege.’” But the term has a history reaching back much further. The phrase “white privileges” first appeared in discussions of colonial policy in the British empire shortly after the crown seized the formerly independent South African Republic (Transvaal) in the Second Boer War; in 1904, colonial administrator Alfred Milner, charged with establishing crown colony government, used the term in correspondence with the Colonial Office in London. (He may in fact have coined it.) In the following decades, it was used to describe the political order of colonial South Africa and Afrikaner racism and, eventually, apartheid. (The cultural and social dimensions of the concept were present elsewhere. In 1935, W. E. B. DuBois described the concept of the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness, a psychic structure used to perpetuate labor exploitation in the postwar South; “privilege” now describes something similar.) As a descriptor of the political conditions of American life, the term first appeared in 1945 in the American Journal of Sociology. In all of these cases, the white privilege(s) in question were something like basic civil rights. In 1967, for example, the journalist and political scientist Harold Isaacs wrote in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, that “[w]hat is clear now is that it will not again be possible — certainly not in the American society — to maintain white privilege by denying non-whites their share of the common rights of all.” In the 1970s, black feminist and womanist critics like Alice Walker, Barbara Smith, and members of the Combahee River Collective all used the concept of racial privilege in their writing. (Several examples are collected in Smith’s landmark 1982 anthology But Some of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men.) By 1988, the year McIntosh’s “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” was published, “privilege” was already standard argot in sociology, educational psychology, political economy, and legal theory, among other fields.
McIntosh’s original piece was a working paper published by the Center for Research on Women — addressed, that is, to her professional peers, and distributed on a scale even smaller than that of a typical scholarly periodical. In the paper, McIntosh relates how, in working with male colleagues to bring women’s work and voices into the humanities curriculum, she noticed the degree to which they refused to acknowledge that they might be “over-privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged.” This experience, McIntosh writes, taught her to consider how the maintenance of any given privilege system might rely on the denial of its effects. Just as men are taught not to acknowledge their unearned advantages, McIntosh, as a white person, “had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage,” but “not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” Over time, she compiled a list of observations about “what it is like to have white privilege,” which she describes 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.” Forty-six of these unearned assets are described in the paper, including “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time,” “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented,” and “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”
McIntosh did indeed find a publisher, and an influential one. In 1992, Patricia Hill Collins and Margaret L. Anderson included the paper in their textbook Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, thus helping to make it a staple of undergraduate women’s studies classes. The version most people have read, however, is an abridgment retitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which appeared in the pages of Peace and Freedom, a pacifist magazine, in 1989. (You’ll know you’re reading this version if the privilege checklist has only 26, rather than 46, items.) This version was also republished in dozens of undergraduate textbooks, including the latest edition of Race, Class, and Gender. It has since been used extensively activists and organizers — among them liberal church groups and the Junior League — as well as institutional and corporate diversity trainers, whose ambit had widened from ensuring civil rights compliance to fostering tolerance and inclusion in workplaces.
Knowing, perhaps, that presenting pieces of the work without their full context would dilute the ideas beyond usefulness, McIntosh made strenuous efforts to enforce her copyrights, insisting that both paper and article were to be distributed in print and unabridged; she charged use fees for groups of more than 35 people, which she donated to the Wellesley Centers for Women. It is one of the few pieces in Race, Class, and Gender that has a copyright notice appended to it. But by the time the first edition of Collins and Anderson’s textbook was published, the phrase had already jumped to Usenet, one of the earliest digital communication networks available to civilian users. Despite McIntosh’s wishes, abridgments and fragments of her paper — particularly the checklist — proliferated online. The advent of social networking sites that encourage the exponential distribution of information while degrading its sourcing made the problem worse.
Without the context of McIntosh’s ideas, the privilege checklist has distorted what was once more or less understood to be a systemic critique into an intense personal inventory that appears to have no meaningful connection to anti-oppression work. Bovy herself reveals how badly she misunderstands McIntosh’s work when she compares the privilege check with the practice of counting one’s blessings — dreadful “[when] the phrase is […] used to dismiss, say, clinical depression,” but “a useful response to minor unpleasantness.” She also thinks that privilege has more to do with minority resentment than with unearned power that self-replicates across generations. But there is far more to it than this. It is crucial, McIntosh writes, to distinguish “between unearned advantage and conferred dominance”: to understand the problem of privilege in terms of its cumulative power. In fact, the paper incorporates a critique of the term “privilege,” which McIntosh regards as useful but flawed; she even touches on some of the same concerns Bovy voices about the word’s wiggliness. “The word ‘privilege’ carries the connotation of being something everyone must want,” she writes:
Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance, gives permission to control, because of one’s race or sex. The kind of privilege which gives license to some people to be, at best, thoughtless, and at worst, murderous, should not continue to be referred to as a desirable attribute.
It’s unfair to suggest that McIntosh thinks that individual self-awareness is the whole point of the privilege checklist exercise: it was always meant to point back to structural conditions. And it’s not that conversations around the concept didn’t sometimes devolve into a self-obsessed whirlpool of feelings before McIntosh’s work jumped the track. When she’s spoken publicly about privilege work, she herself has tended to talk about it largely as a personal or small group practice, a kind of proto-therapeutic process that, as she told The New Yorker in 2014, “let[s] people testify to their own experience.” In this, privilege work — and, arguably, the larger pedagogy of white anti-racist education — has fallen victim to some of the same structural problems that plagued feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s. An early understanding that consciousness-raising was the first stage in a bigger structural process was downplayed and ignored, perhaps because many of the second-wave texts were, like McIntosh’s paper, circulated in fragments. Indeed, without a programmatic effort to connect the individual emotional inventory to its implications for larger sociopolitical work, what results is a lot of narcissistic “awareness” but little else.
But throughout The Perils of “Privilege”, Bovy mistakes a critique of the online mobilization of the rhetoric of privilege for a refutation of the privilege framework in its entirety, both as a theoretical concept and as a consciousness-raising strategy in anti-oppression work. She also ignores enormous swaths of social science literature — education, psychology, educational psychology, sociology, public health — that utilize the privilege framework in ways that have been consequential in combating a number of forms of discrimination. Considerable work in these fields focuses on the problem of implicit bias, the references and aversions that lay just out of our conscious reach but heavily shape our interactions and decisions. Reflecting on personal experiences and cultivating empathy are both crucially important to challenging the subconscious beliefs that materially enact structural discrimination. We know, for example, that job candidates with names that aren’t perceived as white and/or American receive far fewer interview requests than similarly qualified candidates. We know that white physicians are more likely to ignore acute symptoms in black patients. The privilege framework developed by McIntosh and others can be an incredibly powerful tool in helping people unpack their implicit biases, which can, in turn, change their behavior. (Can, of course, is the keyword here: praxis is only as useful as its practitioners.)
Bovy’s focus on elite academic contexts also leaves readers with the impression that “the ‘privilege’ framework” is only set decoration in a narcissistic ivory tower tableau. “The ‘privilege’ wars all seem to stem, in one way or another, from the campus,” Bovy writes. But her assumption that “the scholarly examination of inequality” is best summed up as “seminar classes por[ing] over theories of power imbalance and symbolic ‘violence’” is bizarre. Whether or not such work has utility (and I think it does), academic inquiry on this subject is multidisciplinary and often undertaken with the hope of providing concrete solutions to real-world problems. What’s more, the elite academic population Bovy identifies as the key constituency for YPIS (i.e., people with privilege lambasting others with privilege) is often a powerful one. Many of those elite college students will outgrow attacking one another’s backgrounds and come to occupy positions of real authority in medicine, in law, and in business; they will ultimately help to set hiring practices, standards of care, and legal precedents. Bovy is certainly right that awareness presages, but does not guarantee, action. But we can’t predict what consequences an increase in sensitivity can have over the long term. Privilege critiques can feel petty and personal, but they’re meant to point to the general level of structural inequality in society, even if this isn’t always clear in the moment they’re delivered. Sometimes this understanding comes later. More than a decade after we graduated from college, my Token Republican Friend, a lobbyist and lawyer in DC, now talks about the concept of privilege to her friends, who are policymakers and political operatives. I’m not saying that this will fix anything on Capitol Hill. (Any optimism on this front is misguided these days.) But it is a flicker of hope in the dark, at least.
To be clear, I don’t think that the privilege framework is above criticism. It’s certainly worth asking, for instance, why one of the most popular contemporary tools for justice work places all of the focus on the privileged. (Bovy has observed how this plays out online, but the terms she sets for the book preclude serious engagement with this question.) But its flaws, even if they’re categorical, are symptoms of a larger problem, one that probably can’t be solved just by using different words to talk about it. Peggy McIntosh’s theory was based in the observation that people with power — in her case, the men she worked with — generally don’t like to give it up. This fear of losing power has factored into the most violent episodes in this country’s history, it has shaped our governing structures, and it has perpetuated a hateful discourse of exclusion. The kind of prescription Bovy offers — among her suggestions is “[j]ust don’t be overtly racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory” — is either facile or wildly optimistic.
While I fundamentally disagree with Bovy about the origins of the discourse of privilege and its ongoing efficacy in social justice work, broadly defined, I do agree with many of her conclusions about how the privilege framework operates in online discourse. Like Bovy, I’ve been one acquainted with the night, by which I mean “all this internet bullshit,” and I too have seen how privilege work, however well intentioned, can become an ascetic, even dogmatic effort to regulate our internal lives and their external performative expressions that doesn’t do anyone much good. I agree that the concept can be used as a cudgel that stifles criticism. The prerequisite policing of a commentator’s oppression bona fides has gotten exhausting; Bovy’s observation that it’s a demand that is most often placed on women, who are expected to present each and every thought we have as a confession, is especially astute. I also think offline anti-oppression education models replicate some of these patterns; I’ve never been to a white anti-racism training that doesn’t involve a certain hairshirt sensibility. I just don’t think it’s “privilege” that’s the problem.