Privilege is real, and we need to stop talking about it so much.

Louis C.K. shows up several times in Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of Privilege — not as villain exactly, but as an undeserving beneficiary: A white man who, through, through self-awareness and linguistic finesse, reaps admiration from a culture that values performative “privilege checking.”  Her choice of example aged almost unbelievably well; six months after the book was published, Louis C.K.’s wokeness was revealed to be not just a profitable performance, but a facade for a serial dick-whipper-outter.

Bovy’s critique of privilege comes from the political left; she has no doubt that the kinds of inequalities described as “privilege” exist; rather, she believes the concept of “privilege” is a counterproductive way to describe and analyze those inequalities. And while I imagine Bovy takes no joy in what Louis C.K. turned out to be, it does put her in a great position to say “I told you so.”

(Because Bovy writes from the left, her book probably won’t be of much interest to conservatives, except for the schadenfreude of dozens of examples of liberals own-goaling themselves and treating each other horribly.  If you don’t believe there is much unfair, group-based inequality in the United States today, but you still want to follow along with my reasoning, feel free to imagine you’re reading this in 1964 or 1862.)

 

The Framework

The sense of the word “privilege” Bovy writes about was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in her 1989 paper “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack”, which is a shorter version of her earlier paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege”.  The idea is simple, almost a tautology:  Some things in life are competitive, and in a competition, any inequality between two groups can be seen either as an unfair disadvantage for members of one group or as an unfair advantage for members of the other group.

McIntosh calls these unfair advantages “privilege”, and observes that members of advantaged groups are often oblivious or resistant to seeing things this way.  Hence the “invisibility” of the knapsack.  Note that McIntosh does not think this is merely a question of semantics; she believes it’s important for advantaged people to to see inequality in this way. Put a pin in that for the moment.

The Perils of Privilege notes that, since the publication of McIntosh’s essays and especially during the age of social media, “privilege” and the “checking” thereof has become one of the most common ways — arguably the dominant way — that both social justice activists and popular culture think and talk about inequality.  It was this environment that made Louis C. K. — whose humor was built on acute awareness of his own privilege — seem like a laudable figure; whatever his faults, he clearly spends a lot of time contemplating his own knapsack.

 

The Problems

Bovy calls the new emphasis on privilege “the Privilege Turn.”  She argues by collecting and selecting examples; her reasoning is not always explicit or even well organized, so I will try to compile and summarize the main threads of reasoning that run through her book.  She seems to see two main analytical weaknesses in the privilege framework:

  1. The privilege framework focuses attention on the self-awareness of advantaged groups, which is usually the wrong place to focus.  The framework assumes, with little or no evidence, that self-awareness is a necessary and valuable first step toward righting wrongs.
  2. The privilege framework doesn’t always do a good job modeling the world.  It assumes a society with clear and monotonic¹ — albeit overlapping — divisions between privileged and oppressed groups.  This is not always how oppression works, so focusing exclusively on privilege prevents us from recognizing many forms of injustice.  For that matter, the idea of privilege collapses together many different kinds of unjust inequalities, obscuring important differences.  And in some cases it’s simply more coherent to focus on disadvantage rather than advantage.  To borrow an example McIntosh herself mentions, it’s more natural to think of “not being harassed by store detectives” as a right, not a privilege.

From these analytical problems stem a variety of practical failures:

  • The Louis C. K. problem: “Checking one’s privilege” can easily become a public performance that rewards education and self-awareness, rather than real virtue.  It’s all talk and no action.
  • The “Sarah Silverman has to apologize about Louis C. K. for some reason” problem: For a variety of reasons that I’m not sure I could explicate, the burden of privilege callouts falls disproportionately on women
  • The “rich parents can hire tutors to help their kids write admissions essays that don’t make them sound privileged” problem: Awareness of privilege, and especially of the socially acceptable ways to talk about privilege, is largely a matter of education and thus…well…privilege.
  • Trying to analyze Jews, Asian Americans, or other “model minorities” using the privilege framework will quickly tie you in logical knots.  Likewise, intersectional models of privilege simply don’t work when you’re trying to explain why gay men face more homophobic violence than gay women do.
  • Social justice activists usually want to shift peoples’ attention from individuals to systematic issues, and this is was in fact one of McIntosh’s explicit goals for the privilege framework; however, self-awareness is inherently an individual issue.
  • In some real sense, a rural, white high school dropout has racial privilege relative to Kanye West or Barack Obama, but saying so makes you look like both a bonehead and an asshole.  In that same sense, the white high school dropout shares racial privilege with Bill Gates, and again, pointing this out doesn’t reflect well on you.
  • Because economic status lacks the discrete boundaries that define race and gender, the privilege framework tends to downplay economic privilege — ironically so, given that it encourages to think in terms of unearned “assets” and “wages.”
  • Accusations of privilege lend themselves to Bulverism and ad hominem attacks.

There are other potential problems with the privilege framework, beyond those Bovy mentions.  For example, talking about “unearned” advantages and disadvantages begs the question of exactly what it means to earn something.  Men are about three times as likely to be murdered as women; I suspect that this has a lot to do with differing rates of alcohol and drug use, belligerence, involvement in crime, and so on.  There’s no obvious way to decide whether this counts as women having “not-getting-murdered” privilege.  And of course, in many cases we simply don’t know what causes inequality between groups; anyone who claims to know whether sex differences in thing-people orientation have biological roots…doesn’t.

For the sake of brevity, I’m focusing now only on things Bovy explicitly mentions.

 

Why Privilege?

It’s not clear whether every one of the issues Bovy talks about is A Big Problem, and some of them might arguably not even be true.  Forget the specifics for a moment and accept simply that Bovy has accumulated a list of plausible reasons to question whether the Privilege Turn is a good thing.  What of it?

It’s common to dismiss these kinds of arguments as semantic, or sometimes even to accuse the arguer of bad faith — of quibbling over the meanings of words in order to distract from injustice.  But let’s return to what we pinned earlier: In 1989, Peggy McIntosh believed it was very important to start using the word “privilege”, and to think about inequality in terms of unearned advantages.  She says people have told her the concept of privilege “changed their lives.” Believing the term “privilege” is a neutral matter of semantics puts you at odds as much with McIntosh as with Bovy.  The very existence of the privilege framework is based on the idea that terminology matters.

Why does McIntosh believe that we should think about privilege?  It’s not completely explicit, but think it’s fair to summarize like so: Meritocracy² is a harmful myth that protects unjust institutions.  Recognizing that certain groups are disadvantaged helps weaken the myth’s hold, but it’s only when we also recognize the converse — that our own group is unfairly advantaged, and our own relative success is unearned — that we can fully give up belief in meritocracy.

“To redesign social systems, we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions,” says McIntosh, though it’s clearly not necessary in a strict sense.  Lincoln and L.B.J., for example, managed to dismantle some serious structures of oppression despite being deeply unwoke about their white, male privilege.  And McIntosh notes that after recognizing privilege, “it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken invisible privilege systems and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base” — so it’s not sufficient, either.

But even something that’s neither necessary nor sufficient could still at least be useful.  For example, it’s clear that obliviousness to advantage is sometimes annoying to members of disadvantaged groups.  And I’m assuming the people who told McIntosh that recognition of privilege changed their lives are real.  At very least, it seems like having the privilege framework available as an analytical tool — to be able to see inequality in terms of advantage as well as disadvantage, when the circumstances call for it — should be valuable.

 

Evaluation

The question of whether and when the privilege framework is an effective way to change peoples’ minds has received more empirical research than you might expect.  For example, this study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that learning about white privilege makes white liberals less sympathetic to poor whites without increasing their sympathy for poor blacks (and apparently it pisses off conservatives so much that they increase their sympathy for poor whites, still with no effect on attitudes toward blacks.)

In contrast (sort of), this study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that white subjects prompted with questions focused on white advantage rather than black disadvantage got lower scores on a “modern racism” scale.  And another study in the same journal found that “self-focused” and “other-focused” beliefs in racial inequality predicted support for different kinds of affirmative action policies, which just makes it sound like maybe they p-hacked comparisons until they found something publishable.  This one finds that education about white privilege simply leads white people to think of reasons they as individuals are not privileged, but you can get around that using something called “self-affirmation.”

My sense is that even a very thorough literature review wouldn’t settle much; the questions are poorly specified and the methodologies vary tremendously from study to study.  It’s probably impossible, in the near future, to reach any kind of certainty as to exactly whether and when the privilege framework is effective.

However, a narrower critique of the Privilege Turn may find more agreement.

What went wrong?

Even most reviews of Bovy’s book that defend the concept of “privilege” agree that there’s something deeply rotten³ in the culture of checking and calling out privilege online.  In this setting, recognizing “privilege” often ceases to be a tool for understanding inequality and becomes an excuse for evading basic standards of empathy and decency.

I suspect Peggy McIntosh might agree.  Her essays are notable for their stern copyright warnings and the extensive notes that accompany them; she was clearly concerned about the risk of her ideas being misinterpreted.  For example:

“My work is not about blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a “nice person.” It’s about observing, realizing, thinking systemically and personally. It is about seeing privilege, the “up-side” of oppression and discrimination. It is about unearned advantage, which can also be described as exemption from discrimination.”

McIntosh is an educator, and her recommendations for how to talk about privilege are geared almost exclusively toward educational settings.  It’s not clear that she intended that privilege ever be publicly “checked” or “called out.”  And yet, despite her disclaimers and warnings, people focus on individual rather than institutions.  “Blame, shame, and guilt” seem to be an intractable feature of the Privilege Turn, at last as it plays out on the internet.

And so, while I cannot say for certain how broadly useful the privilege framework is, I do have a suggestion: Let’s taboo talking about personalized privilege in public.  If the purpose of the privilege framework is to undermine belief in meritocracy, then use it for that and only for that.  Don’t wax introspective about your own privilege, don’t attack others for theirs, and unapologetically refuse to include disclaimers about your privilege when you speak and write.

 

Notes

¹Apologies for math jargon; I couldn’t think of a concise way to express the concept using everyday language.  In practice, intersectional theory always assumes that the effects of two overlapping kinds of oppression combined are as bad or worse than the sum of their parts.  This is untrue in many cases; for example, the incarceration rate for black women is higher than the incarceration rate for white women, but not by nearly the amount that the incarceration rate for black men exceeds that for white men.

²Any time I mention “meritocracy” in this post, I’m using the word the way McIntosh used it — to refer to the descriptive belief that society really does reward merit.  It’s unclear what McIntosh thinks about prescriptive meritocracy — the belief that society should reward merit.

³Notice that the author of the linked article spectacularly misses Bovy’s point about Jews and privilege.  Putting aside the strangeness of referring to “Jewish voices” — as opposed to “Israeli voices” — being privileged in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Bovy is clearly not arguing that American Jews aren’t advantaged over anyone, anywhere in the world; she’s arguing that even the relationship between American Jews and the relevant majority group — American gentiles — is too complex to be described in terms of privilege.

6 comments on “Privilege is real, and we need to stop talking about it so much.

  1. inhumandecency says:

    I originally learned that intersectionality refers to qualitative differences in peoples’ experience that can’t be predicted from the sum of the oppressions applied to their individual traits, taken in isolation. I believe that’s how it was originally used as a legal concept, too. So I’m always surprised when people use it to mean that a person’s experience of oppression _is_ the sum of their different oppressed identities. I mean, yes, the idea is usually going to be invoked when a person’s experiences are worse than you would naively expect and not better, but suggesting that you should just be able to add things up seems very precisely wrong.

  2. inhumandecency says:

    This is an interesting set of ideas! I’m reluctant to say that we should stop talking about privilege on an individual level, because I can see so many simple ways it’s immediately useful. It seems appropriate to use it as a form of epistemic uncertainty — by noting your privilege you’re saying that you aren’t familiar with the full context of what other people experience, so you may be getting some things wrong. I like it less when it’s used as an a disclaimer on one’s own experiences (“I had a really nice walk last night, but before I talk about it I should acknowledge that not everyone has the privilege of walking around at night without being threatened by the police”), but there are enough people who blithely dispense advice or criticize others with no recognition of their differing circumstances that maybe we’re better off with the practice than without it. Finally, I agree that there’s a toxic culture around shutting people down by accusing them of being privileged, but there are certainly also cases where people do say stupid, harmful things that show a shocking unawareness of context (“when the police stop me I comply with them and they’re perfectly polite to me; those black guys who get killed must have been doing something wrong.”) and privilege seems like the right concept to explain why they need to STFU.

    Well, maybe that’s not true. It’s the right concept to explain why they’re saying stupid things in the first place, but telling them they’re privileged probably isn’t an effective way to accomplish much.

    In any case, I also agree that there’s a problem with treating awareness of privilege as an end goal. Like any kind of knowledge, it’s impressive to have but it’s not really worth anything unless you use it to make better predictions or take more effective action. On the other hand, if privilege-checking takes the form of expressing your ideas while being aware that other people sometimes have to deal with stuff that you don’t, and thereby not being an oblivious dick, I’d call that an effective action by itself.

    • WRT the police stop thing, exactly. “Calling out privilege” in that case commits the logical fallacy of Bulverism, derailing the argument from the actual topic to the irrelevant side issue of why one of the parties to the argument believes what they do (“irrelevant” in this case means irrelevant to the truth of the claim; establishing that X believes Y because of privilege does not prove that Y is false.)

      • inhumandecency says:

        The way I interpret it, the speaker’s decision is based on weighing at least two pieces of evidence: their personal experience on one side; data or anecdotes about police violence on PoC on the other. They think that the first outweighs the second, so they decide people who get shot by the police must have done something wrong. Invoking privilege is a way of claiming that the first piece of evidence is not highly applicable to the question — their personal experience doesn’t generalize to others in the ways they believe it does. This should shift their beliefs away from their initial position, but it doesn’t require you to assume they’re wrong.

      • I guess I was reading “when the police stop me” as a rhetorical flourish rather than an offering of evidence, but the appeal to privilege makes a bit more sense if it’s the latter. Not a whole lot of sense, though – the claim “black people are treated worse by police” is still much more important than the claim “privilege is the reason you don’t realize that black people are treated worse by police”, and it’s unclear why you would ever choose to focus on the latter. It’s not even clear that that privilege-related claim is *true*; for example, maybe the person has read studies that seem to show that police treat blacks and whites similarly. Those certainly exist, as mentioned here:

        https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-018-0110-z

        In that case, the person hasn’t been blinded by privilege at all; if they’ve been blinded, it’s by misleading studies. Their reasoning is as follows:

        1) My experience shows that cooperating with the police is sufficient to prevent violence.

        2) Studies that I believe are valid show that police treat black people similarly to how they treat me.

        3) Therefore, black people who get shot by police must not have cooperated.

      • inhumandecency says:

        You’re giving our imaginary person more credit than I was. I meant to suggest that they were unreflectively generalizing from their personal experience with no other evidence. I agree that if an interlocutor is citing any kind of evidence in even approximately good faith, you should engage with that evidence instead of talking about privilege. But I believe that in many cases, people are weighting their experience quite heavily, and also using it as a basis to accept or reject other evidence (sometimes explicitly, sometimes just through availability heuristics). That makes it hard to get anywhere without introducing the idea that the world is different for members of certain groups in ways that make the speaker’s experience inapplicable.

        I’m open to the idea that the term “privelege” and the ways it’s usualy attributed to people aren’t the best way to introduce this idea, but I think it’s necessary in some form.

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