Here's a blatant understatement: Privilege can be a tricky subject. It's also one that we find ourselves more and more preoccupied with discussing — and largely, that's a good thing. But a problem arises when talking about privilege is all about identifying your own privilege. Self-awareness is wonderful, but only ultimately makes a real impact when it's accompanied by action aimed at solving institutional inequality.
That's one argument that Phoebe Maltz Bovy poses in her new book, The Perils of Privilege: Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage, which was released earlier this spring. Maltz Bovy digs into tangled territory across these pages; she poses questions about who is really participating in the privilege conversation, who it truly benefits, and why phrases like "check your privilege" and "your privilege is showing" can stunt the dialog instead of moving it along.
The result is a thoughtful, sometimes provocative book that wonders aloud at the limitations of privilege rhetoric by exploring how it intersects with other cultural contexts, including feminism, the trans movement, race, and beyond. We spoke with the author about what we talk about when we talk about privilege, and what we don't talk about but desperately need to be considering if we're ever going to level the proverbial playing field. Here's what she had to say about keeping things progressing in the right direction.
Other than for fairly obvious reasons: Why do we need a deep dive about privilege right now?
"Well, there's value in examining the phenomenon of privilege and how it’s discussed in the culture. I wrote the book before Trump was even the nominee; I wrote the afterward just after he’d been nominated. What I discuss in the afterward is how I think that Trumpism has its own privilege framework, which defines the least privileged person in the room as a white man who likes Trump, basically — that needs to be discussed more. But I also think it's worthwhile to talk about whether or not discussions concerning privilege are more or less relevant today, in terms of feminism and Hillary Clinton, as well as the place of privilege in the feminist discussion overall."
How did privilege theory move from the the scholastic realm into everyday cultural conversation?
"In my opinion, privilege entered the discourse through a range of different channels, but I can mainly speak to how I found it: offline in actual conversations, and then online, where I would see discussions of race, and even more so of class. For example: Someone on social media would say something about having bought kale; someone else would write, 'Your privilege is showing.' 'Finding out other people's privilege' was the dynamic I observed.
"But in terms of why the phenomenon really came on, there are a few reasons: People have always talked about injustice — that conversation was well underway before we were discussing it on the internet. The dialog really caught on, in the socioeconomic sense, during the recession, when people started to understand that there is class in America the same way there is class in Europe — that not everyone is the same. In that way, when you're discussing racism, the term 'privilege' can be more useful, because then you're using privilege to talk about whiteness, as a way of showing that the magnitude is the same as that of class."
Can you talk to me a little bit about the 'finding people out' point you made earlier? And how 'check your privilege' squares with that?
"The problem with the phrase 'your privilege is showing' is that it makes a conversation about a broader injustice one about the 'you' — as in, the singular person. I've thought a lot about that expression; when I first heard it, online probably around 2009, I saw the problem as being: If your privilege is showing, what do you do about that? What's the answer? Should you hide your privilege, because the problem is that it's showing? Does that mean a rich person should pretend they're not rich? Or a white person... Well, I don't want to get into that. But the point is, it's unclear what should be done.
"The 'your privilege is showing' approach refocuses the conversation onto that person's own inner life, and brings about a whole level of defensiveness that, sure, maybe is there anyway; but could be mitigated by being more specific and not speaking about something so abstract as whether or not privilege is showing. I think the goal of saying 'your privilege is showing' might just be to make a privileged person — privileged in whatever way — feel bad. It's certainly able to accomplish that.
"'Check your privilege,' as I understand it, means: Be thoughtful. Think about who you are in the world. As a goal, it's fine — good! — to be self-aware. But one of the main arguments of my book is that I don't think self-awareness can be brought about by someone else pointing something out to you; it has to come about through an individual understanding more about the world.
"So if someone is just venting — calling out racism, homophobia, bigotry of any kind — and 'check your privilege' is the phrase that comes to mind: fine. But, in general, I think specificity is helpful if you're talking about a specific incident where something was upsetting: If you see sexism, for example, it's worth specifically addressing that. Whereas 'check your privilege' suggests that a person really has reexamine their entire autobiography and figure out what's going on — it summons too much, and it gets too confusing. Ideally, the conversation should be about systemic injustice in the first place — not where the individual fits in."
Can you talk to me about the correlation between privilege discussions and the rise of identity politics in everyday dialog?
"I don't have an issue with identity politics. But what is so interesting, and troubling, about this privilege conversation, is that it's not really about identity politics in the first place. For example: The expression 'white feminism' — so frequently used by white feminists, white women, and sometimes white men who sometimes identify as feminists — is a case where somebody who belongs to a group is calling out that same group, ostensibly as a way to show that they're one of the 'good ones.'
"If it's coming from a woman of color, I listen — there's a conversation that needs to happen. Learning needs to take place. If I hear 'white feminism' from a white woman who is speaking out about the white feminism of another white woman, I'm generally a little more skeptical. Because, it's like: How does she know where that line falls? And why wouldn't she necessarily be part of that group?
"This came up a lot around the time of the Women's Strike, which followed up the Women's March. There were a bunch of oversimplified takes on the march, saying it was privileged feminism. But if you look at who was writing these articles, the voices were female journalists with some success, many of whom were white themselves. Another example: There was a review of Ariel Levy's new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, in The New Republic, in which the reviewer called the memoirist white, privileged, and oblivious — while identifying herself as white but also intimating that she, the reviewer, had reached some whole other level of self-awareness that clearly Levy had not. This is a phenomenon that happens a lot on social media, too."
It seems like you can interpret 'check your privilege' in two ways, really. There's the idea of turning the mirror on yourself and self-awareness. But you could also interpret the phrase more literally: As though, by acknowledging privilege — like a white feminist calling out white feminism — you can somehow literally check it, as in take it on and off.
"Just because you acknowledge privilege doesn’t mean you neutralize it, or that you shed the lens that comes along with the perspective. I wrote about these sorts of 'awareness disclaimers' that are found in feminist essays these days, especially ones by white women, though not necessarily exclusively by white women: There's this passage in each one of privilege acknowledgement. It's understandable, why it's there; for one thing, if that passage doesn't appear, it will be pointed out by the readers in the comments.
"But calling out your own privilege is a poor substitute for a system that should not be founded on individual, privileged writers acknowledging the role that privilege plays. There should be more diversity of who is published in the first place. Checking the 'we are aware of privilege' box... What does that really accomplish?
"This is a problem in feminism right now: that it doesn't solve the injustice that it's addressing. The impulse is right. But it also makes it seem as though the feminist complaint is that any woman who isn't incredibly oppressed in general doesn't count, or shouldn't be taken into account. Women are urged not to have imposter syndrome. But if every legitimate feminist grievance must be prefaced with 'but this doesn't really count because other people have it worse' — that feeds into the right wing take that, if you're not a woman in Saudi Arabia, you shouldn't be complaining in the first place."
So how do we solve for that?
"What needs to happen is that society needs to be structured in a way that doesn’t give people these unfair advantages and disadvantages. The problem is the focus on the individual; as if, somehow, rather than any sort of economic redistribution, every rich person needs to stand up and say: I acknowledge that I am rich.
"To give a concrete example: Recently there was some post about how Ivanka Trump's problem is that she doesn't acknowledge her privilege. But is that really the problem with Ivanka? I think she knows she's privileged; I think the problem is that she doesn't want a shift in society such that she would no longer be privileged. I don't think the solution is for Ivanka Trump to get up and say: 'I know that I am white privileged, thin privileged, rich privileged, beauty privileged.'
"What might be the answer is to shift away from this awareness-centric approach, and for anybody who experiences any sort of oppression to use that understanding to empathize with people who have it worse. So I think the proverbial white feminist — rather than writing out lists of her privileges — should do what Peggy McIntosh, the scholar who came up with the privilege checklist in the '80s, initially advised: connect the ways she has been oppressed as a woman to understand how people of color are oppressed. That doesn’t happen much with the privilege discourse these days, which is more, 'How dare you think of yourself as the victim when, really, other people are far more victimized?'
"The problem with that approach to privilege is that it leaves people who are, fundamentally, on the right side of things thinking: How dare I say anything? But it doesn't leave Donald Trump, or people of that ilk, feeling that way in the least. So what happens is that people who are sensitive and afraid to say the wrong thing are silent."
What do you think about the privilege checklists that seem to crop up and go viral every couple of months online? There's an old Buzzfeed one making the rounds right now.
"There's definitely value in understanding society — understanding its unfairness — and getting past the childish belief that everyone has an equal shot. And there's tremendous value in educating yourself, not just in a scholarly sense: of listening to people who have had a different experience than you. I don't mean grilling those people; I mean being aware of the world around you.
"A quiz like that is designed to be shared on social media. Something really important changes when a private self-assessment becomes this public performance of 'I am aware'... And I can’t help but wonder: Who is helped by a straight, white, wealthy, able-bodied man, for example, announcing his awareness of his own privilege? The world isn’t an equal place, and the most misunderstood thing about the privilege framework is that it gives more of a voice to people who are marginalized.
"What I’m trying to argue is: the reverse is actually true, that it's much easier to acknowledge privilege than to speak out about being marginalized. You see lots of privilege confessions, because it’s frankly easier to talk about being privileged than not being privileged.
"So, in terms of checklists and self-assessments: Being self-aware is fantastic. But there is something that shifts in the meaning of this exercise when it becomes [something you do] for public consumption. That's one of the big critiques of privilege discourse — that only privileged people are taking part in it."
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Perils of Privilege: Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage, by Phoebe Maltz Bovy, debuted March 14, 2017.