The Privilege Predicament

Yes, advantage exists, but has the promiscuous casting of blame enhanced the work of understanding?

Kevin Chodzinski/Flickr
Kevin Chodzinski/Flickr

In my freshman year at Queens College, I had a strange awakening—strange in that the attendant, overmastering emotion was a combination of humiliation and pleasure. My English professor had called me to his desk and handed me the A+ paper I had written on Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and suggested that I make an appointment to see him. This was no ordinary suggestion at the City University of New York, where professors never scheduled regular office hours and only rarely invited students to private conferences.

I was uneasy about the meeting, though I imagined that Professor Stone wished simply to congratulate me further, perhaps even to recommend that I join the staff of the college literary magazine, or to enlist my assistance as a tutor. Delusions of grandeur. Modest grandeur.

Professor Stone’s office had been carved out of a warren of rooms in the fourth-floor attic of the English Department building, where I was greeted with a warm handshake and a “delighted you could come.” Though the encounter took place almost 60 years ago, I remember everything about it—the few books scattered on a small wooden table, the neatly combed silver hair on the professor’s head, his amiable, ironic eyes. Most clearly I remember the surprising moment when another professor named Magalaner was called in and stood next to Professor Stone, both men smiling and looming ominously over me. It was then that I was asked to describe—in a few sentences, or more, don’t hesitate—the paper I’d written on Orwell.

Which of course I did, picking up steam after the first few sentences of diffident preamble, until Professor Stone asked me to stop, that’s quite enough, and then turned to his colleague with the words “see what I mean?” and Magalaner assented. The two men only now pulled over two chairs and sat down, close enough that our knees almost touched, and seemed to look me over, as if taking my measure. Both of them were smiling, so that again I speculated that I was to be offered a prize, a summer job, or who knew what else.

“I’ve a feeling,” Professor Stone said, “that you may be the first person in your family to go to college.”

“It’s true,” I replied.

“You write very well,” he offered.

“Very well,” said Magalaner, who had apparently also read my paper.

“But you know,” Stone went on, edging his chair just a bit closer to mine, “I didn’t call you here to congratulate you, but to tell you something you need to hear, and of course I trust that you’ll listen carefully—with Professor Magalaner here to back me up—when I tell you, very plainly, that though you are a bright and gifted young fellow, your speech, I mean the sounds you make when you speak, are such that no one will ever take you seriously. I repeat, no one will ever take you seriously, if you don’t at once do something about this. Do you understand me?”

I’ve told this story over the years, starting on that very first night with my teenage sister, explaining what I understood: namely, that a man I admired, who had reason to admire me, thought that when I opened my mouth I sounded like someone by no means admirable. It was easy to accept that no one close to me would have mentioned this before, given that, presumably, we all shared this grave disability, and failed to think it a disability at all. Professor Stone didn’t sound like anyone in our family, we may have thought, simply because, after all, he was an educated man and was not supposed to sound or think like us.

In any event, my teacher moved at once to extract from me a promise that I would enroll in remedial speech courses for as long as I was in college, and not “so much as consider giving them up, not even if you find them tedious.” The proposal left me feeling oddly consoled, if also somewhat ashamed. Consoled by the thought that there might be a cure for my coarse Brooklynese, as my teacher referred to it, and that the prescription was indisputably necessary. Unsure whether to thank my interlocutors or just stand up and slink ignominiously away, I agreed to enroll immediately in one of those speech courses, ending the meeting with an awkward, “Is that all?”

A former student, hearing my story a few years ago at our dinner table, after telling her own tale of a recent humiliation, asked, “Who the fuck did that guy think he was?” and added that he was “lucky you didn’t just kick his teeth out.” She was concerned, clearly, that even after so many years, my sense of self might still be at risk, the injury still alive within me. And yet, though I’ve often played out the whole encounter in my head, I had decided within hours of my escape that I had been offered a gift. An insult as well, to be sure, but delivered not with an intention to hurt but to save and uplift. It would have been easy to be offended by the attempt to impress upon someone so young the idea that he would undoubtedly want to become the sort of person whose class origins would henceforth be undetectable. But I had not been programmed to be offended, and was, in my innocent way, ambitious to be taken seriously, and though I rapidly came to loathe the speech exercises to which I was soon subjected, I thought it my duty and my privilege to be subjected to them. Night after night, standing before the mirror in my parents’ bathroom, I shaped the sounds I was taught to shape, and I imagined that one day Professor Stone would beam with satisfaction at the impeccably beautiful grace notes I would produce.

A long story, perhaps, for opening an essay on privilege. But the idea of privilege has moved many people to say things both nonsensical and appalling, and it is worth pointing out what is often ignored or willfully obscured: that privilege is by no means easy to describe or understand. Say, if you like, that privilege is an advantage, earned or unearned, and you will be apt to ask several important questions. Earned according to whom? Unearned signifying shameful or immoral? The advantage to be renounced or held onto? To what end? Whose? Privilege, the name of an endowment without which we would all be miraculously released from what exactly? Is there evidence, anywhere, that the attention directed at privilege in recent years has resulted in a reduction in inequality or a more generous public discourse? Say privilege and you may well believe you have said something meaningful, leveled a resounding charge, when perhaps you have not begun to think about what is entailed in so loaded a term. What may once have been an elementary descriptor—“he has the privilege of studying the violin with a first-rate music instructor”—is at present promiscuously and often punitively deployed to imply a wide range of advantages or deficits against which no one can be adequately defended.

Is privilege at the root of the story I have told about my freshman-year adventure? Consider that Professor Stone was himself the beneficiary of the privilege, so-called, that allowed him to deliver a potentially devastating message to a boy he barely knew, and with little fear of contradiction. The protocols lately associated with what the writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy, author of The Perils of  “Privilege,” calls the “privilege turn” in contemporary culture would demand that the professor acknowledge his privilege and proceed with greater sensitivity to the feelings of his student. If he had been challenged at the time, the professor would have noted that his action reflected his concern for his student, and he would not have felt that any special privilege had been involved in the exercise of his authority. That our positions were unequal would have seemed to him natural but in no way problematic—in the very nature of the teacher-student relationship—reflecting, moreover, only a temporary arrangement, requiring of me no permanent resignation to my fate as a subordinate, consigned for all time to yield to the whims of a master.

In short, the very notion of privilege in his case would have seemed to him—quite as it seems to me now—of little or no importance. Of course, if I were so inclined, I might now level the charge at my teacher, retroactively, as it were. After all, inequality is today often regarded as unjust or intolerable, even criminal, even though in most situations we have no particular reason to feel aggrieved. During a brief period when I saw a psychotherapist, I noted the inequality built into our situation. I know nothing at all about the emotions of my palely imperturbable therapist, I thought, whereas he is forever asking me personal questions and drawing astounding conclusions about my so-called motives. Our ritual meetings were designed to make me feel that our relations were anything but reciprocal, and he had the privilege of treating everything I said as suspect, or symptomatic, whereas I was required to treat the few things he said as mature and reliable. The inequality was built into the situation, and there was nothing for me to do but nurture my resentment or accept that I enjoyed the very different privilege of placing myself in the hands of someone who might help me.

Privilege, then, like inequality, is not usually a simple matter. Not in the past, not at present, not even in the domain of male privilege, with all that particular species of entitlement and inequality entails. I suppose it fair to say that I know as much, and as little, about my own exercise of male privilege as most men who have enjoyed its benefits without sufficiently acknowledging them. But I suppose, as well, what it is also fair to say: namely, that the exercise of privilege among men is no unitary thing. My own working-class father had the privilege, after all, of working, through the best years of his adult life, in a Brooklyn dry goods store for six days each week, from 8 A.M. to 9 P.M., 50 weeks each year. Would he have agreed, if alerted to the fact, that he was also the beneficiary of male privilege? I like to think that I could have persuaded him to accept that this was so, much though the two of us would have gone on to reflect that his “advantage,” in that respect as in many others, was almost comically limited.


Certainly it is not a simple matter to speak of privilege in the domain of race relations. A few years ago, I found myself embroiled in an argument at a symposium, where one speaker had referred to “white privilege” as a self-evident phenomenon. Was it really necessary, I asked, to point out that there is privilege and privilege, whiteness and whiteness? If my white colleague felt that she had a great deal to apologize for, and thought a public symposium a suitable occasion for a display of soul searching, that was well and good, so long as she did not also suggest that we must all follow her lead and all feel about our own so-called privilege exactly what she felt. Was it reasonable to suppose that whiteness confers, on everyone who claims it, comparable experiences and privileges? Was my own background as a working-class Jewish boy, growing up in a predominantly black community, remotely similar to the background or disposition of a white colleague who had never known privation, or had no contact at all with black children? Did it matter, thinking of ourselves simply as possessors of white privilege, that one of us had written extensively on race while the other had devoted herself to scholarly research on metaphysical poetry? Was it not the case, I asked, that what Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda call in The Racial Imaginary “the boundaries” of our “imaginative sympathy” had been drawn in drastically different ways? How could whiteness, or blackness, signify to us the same things?

To consider either of us primarily as white people, deliberately consigning to irrelevance everything that made us different from each other—and different from the kinds of white people who regard their whiteness as an endowment to be proud of—was to deny what was clearly most important about each of us. Rankine and Loffreda rightly challenge those who “argue that the imagination is or can be somehow free of race,” and they mock white writers “who make a prize of transcendence,” supposing that the imagination can be “ahistorical” or “postracial.” But to insist that elementary distinctions be made, as between one experience of race and another, would seem indispensable to a serious discussion of privilege.

Though whiteness was not an active or obvious factor in my encounter with Professor Stone, it is possible that, had I been a black student in his class, he might have resisted the impulse to call me in and inform me, in effect, that my speech seemed to him low or disreputable. In this sense, the fact of my whiteness would have conferred upon me the inestimable advantage of having been chosen for the insult he directed at me. A peculiar advantage, to be sure. When I told my story to a half-dozen student assistants recently, the two black students at our dinner table showered me with sympathy and asserted that they would have found the professor’s admonition offensive and perhaps “done something about it.” Though I attempted then to explain my own sense of the privilege afforded me, my students were by no means persuaded, and the white students were sure only that things are different now, that today “respect” would happily ensure that no professor would dare to do what my teacher had done.

A good many of my students, white and black, are in thrall to the idea that they are required to portray themselves as beautiful souls. Even those with little feeling for polemic or posturing are ever at the ready to declare—like their academic instructors—their good conscience and their attachment to the indisputably correct virtues. Thus they find in the idea of privilege an ideal vehicle. It seems at least to provide, to anyone who climbs on board, an opportunity to arrive at a sort of moral high ground that costs nothing. The students at our table were at one in feeling superior to my old teacher. He had, they felt, been oblivious to his privilege, and they were secure in their conviction that they would never be as oblivious as that. Their comfort lay in their unambivalent commitment to a species of one-upmanship. Theirs was the empty affirmation of an ideal they had no need to articulate with any precision, but which amounted to the certainty that, above all things, we are required to be and to remain perfectly guiltless. Nor did they recognize—not so that I could tell—that their immurement in good conscience was itself a privilege that could only be secured by finding others guilty, in one degree or another, of privilege.

During a panel discussion on political fiction convened at the New York State Summer Writers Institute two years ago, a graduate student in the audience said that she associated works in this genre mainly with male writers. In response, I suggested that much of the best political fiction was in fact written by women, and I named Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Ingeborg Bachmann, Pat Barker, Anita Desai, Joyce Carol Oates, and others about whom I had written in books and essays. At that, another graduate student raised her hand and, quivering with indignation, asked me whether I was aware of the privilege I had exercised in addressing the question. Privilege in what sense exactly? I asked. Your authority, she said, your presumption, the sense of entitlement that permits you to feel that you can pronounce on any question put to you. Not any question, I said. Only a question about which I actually have something potentially useful to say. But then of course, I added, I want, like you, to be alert to my own power, when I have any, and to be able to acknowledge that each of us, in a civilized setting like this one, is the beneficiary of several different kinds of privilege.

Though no further fireworks then erupted, it was clear to pretty much everyone present on that occasion that privilege had been invoked as a noise word intended to distract all of us from the substance of our discussion, and from the somehow unpleasant spectacle of a male writer intoning the names of great women writers, as if this were, in itself, a flagrant violation of a protocol. More, the invoking of privilege was oddly intended to punish the speaker of the offending words—my words—by making him into a representative of something he could not possibly defend himself against.

Privilege, then, is increasingly hauled in as a weapon, though wielded, in the main, by persons attached still to the conviction that, whatever their own bristling incivility and the punishing quietus they clearly intend to deliver, they remain in full possession of their virtue. Can those who come on as investigating magistrates really hope to regard themselves as generous and tolerant people? The privilege turn has made the examining magistrate role enticing to large numbers of those whose being-in-the-right is to them an article of faith.

In a recent interview, the novelist and essayist Zadie Smith speaks of her friendship with the writer Darryl Pinckney, describing him as “a model of … active ambivalence. He is as well read on African-American issues as anyone could imagine being,” she goes on, and he “is absolutely aware that there is such a thing as having been subjected to the experience of blackness, which causes all kinds of consequences.” Even so, “and at the same time, he claims the freedom of just being Darryl, in all his extreme particularity. I haven’t met many people like that.”

No need to observe—though I will—that the words “he claims the freedom of just being Darryl” denotes the exercise of a privilege to which others would likewise hope to stake a claim, or that Smith is right to note that not many are now equipped to be “like that.” There is privilege, of course, in the refusal to accede to someone else’s view of you, the refusal to emit the affirming noises that declare unequivocally your willingness to be what others take you to be and insist that you remain. It is not at all surprising that Smith has often described what she calls the “cartoon thinness” of many of the identity images we employ to certify who we are, or that a character in her recent novel Swing Time calls upon his friend to reevaluate her sense of reality with the words “you think far too much about race—did anyone ever tell you this?” Pinckney—in spite of the great opening line of his novel High Cotton (“No one sat me down and told me I was a Negro”)—has devoted virtually all of his writing to the study of race, and yet he has refused to think of himself principally in terms of race. Though he is “absolutely aware,” as Smith says, that race has marked him, his brave determination has been to affirm his “extreme particularity.”

Black writers who have challenged the standard racialist orthodoxies about color have often come in for withering criticism from other black intellectuals. When Ralph Ellison complained that black writers “fear to leave the uneasy sanctuary of race,” he generated a firestorm of hostility. Even James Baldwin received considerable criticism, much of it having to do with his efforts to have it both ways—that is, to insist upon his estrangement from the “white centuries” of Western culture while refusing to pretend that those centuries did not shape and define him. Baldwin famously wrote,

I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa … I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt … a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history … At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine.

Baldwin wears his ambivalences and refusals with the cunning of a man who is ever in search of what will suit him. He accords to himself, as he should, the privilege of fashioning what he calls a “special attitude,” a “special place.” Baldwin knew that he could not be the man he wished to be, or write the books he had to write, unless he found a personal way to declare “appropriate” affinities. He could not operate from a doctrinaire idea of ethnic solidarity and thus was bound to provoke disappointment in quarters where solidarity was regarded as an indispensable virtue.

It’s tempting to say of Baldwin that he was, after all, a great writer, and that he was therefore singular in ways we ought not to claim for ourselves. But the drama he enacted, rooted in his own extreme particularity, is not so very alien to the condition to which most of us aspire, however limited our courage and our gifts. Rankine and Loffreda note that “we wish”—all of us—to “unsettle the assumption that it is easy or simple to write what one ‘is.’ ” But then, they say, when we “keep familiar things familiar,” we inevitably miss what is most important about ourselves. Baldwin’s “special attitude” required that he repudiate familiar assumptions about what did and did not define him, and he accorded to himself the privilege of appropriating what he needed.

Baldwin thought of the special place he was required to make for himself in terms peculiar to him and his situation. And why not? Yet, when I read the words “these were not really my creations,” I find it impossible not to think that they apply as well to me, growing up in an inner-city apartment without books or other cultural artifacts. I note too that the words—Baldwin’s words—“I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself,” are somewhat misleading, in that, like myself, he would early discover reflections of himself even in works far removed from his own family setting.

But what burns through every page of Baldwin’s writing is the truth of his own intense subjectivity and his contempt for provincial slogans and categories, provincial a word notably absent from discussions of privilege, which rely upon an impoverished idea of identity and, by extension, of what rightly belongs to each of us. The charge of privilege, as leveled even in ostensibly sophisticated critiques, carries with it the presumption that people are readily intelligible, their natures and motives determined by accidents of color or class. When I read sentences that begin with the words “white persons think” or “whites can only know,” I feel at once the fatal absence of any intimation of radical uncertainty. The agitation we want to feel in confronting others—or in confronting what is opaque or impenetrable in ourselves—is denied, banished by the impulse to define and diminish by resorting to accusations of privilege—as if the work of understanding might thereby be accomplished.

Does privilege exist? Of course it does. Only a fool would deny that advantage is real and that some people have what others lack. Though advantage is unevenly distributed in any population, or within any racial or ethnic group, it is legitimate to assert that whiteness—like maleness—has long been an advantage, however little some wish to acknowledge it. Just so, other kinds of privilege often determine, unfairly, the way people live, and suffer, or thrive. But then these are commonplaces, and if not everyone is as yet prepared to accept them, that is hardly a good reason to employ privilege in the way it has lately been used. The culture of grievance that has taken shape in recent years has led to what Phoebe Maltz Bovy calls “the fetishization of powerlessness” and the not always “polite bigotry” that makes it acceptable to target groups or persons not because of what they have done but because of what they are.

The most promising feature of the privilege turn was its focus not on the kinds of privilege everyone can see for themselves—expensive private schools, 10-bedroom vacation homes, inordinate tax breaks or deductions available only to the wealthy—but instead on advantages unacknowledged and pernicious. For a while it seemed a good idea to dwell upon the hypocrisies that allowed us to proceed as if class inequities were not major factors in the system that supported our habits and assumptions. We were moved to learn things we wanted somehow not to learn: that housing laws designed to help returning GIs discriminated against black veterans; that college admissions boards, even where inclined to diversify their student bodies, continued to rely upon protocols that would ensure acceptance mainly for the wealthy or the otherwise privileged; that apparently trivial slights or insults might conceivably affect people in disastrous ways, while allowing those responsible for the insults to proceed as if nothing consequential had transpired. Rankine and Loffreda argue that “whiteness has veiled from them their own power to wound,” and though what they call the “recourse to innocence: I did not mean to do any harm” has rightly been called out within the framework of “privilege,” it is surely legitimate to ask where this initially promising thrust has taken us.

For one thing, it has taken us to the domain of cliché and pure assertion. Nothing is easier than to wield the charge of privilege and thereby to win instant approval, nothing easier than to beat oneself up now and then for enjoying privilege while pretending to solidarity with the disadvantaged. There is comedy in the rush of the well-heeled and enlightened to affirm their virtue by signaling their guilt and their difference from those who have not yet mastered the rituals of self-disparagement and privilege bashing required of them. And there is temptation, surely, in the prospect of constructing a privilege-free profile: in my case, for example, by citing my own less-than-exalted childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, my struggles in three years of remedial speech courses, not to mention the fact that I could never have succeeded in life by virtue of good looks or an impressively masculine baritone voice. Thus, competitively speaking, in the precinct shaped by the privilege obsession, here I stand, nearly virtuous, though white, to be sure, and though not completely powerless, near enough to having been so to qualify for a modicum of sympathy.

The absurdity inherent in all of this should not obscure the damage it has wrought: damage in sowing confusion even about the obvious—about the difference between what is important and less important, between doing what is injurious and being deficient in doing what is positively good, between sponsoring injustice and simply living more or less modestly in an imperfect world. To be unable to make these kinds of elementary distinctions is to be radically impaired, and there seems to me no question that the tendency to invoke privilege has exacerbated that impairment. There was, at the heart of the privilege turn, an aspiration to enlightenment. But the partisans committed to promoting the privilege critique are mainly interested in drawing hard lines separating the guilty from the saved, the serenely oblivious from the righteous, fiercely aggrieved, and censorious.

It is hard not to see in all of this the operation of garden-variety envy, though the online diatribes denouncing the guilty are necessarily loath to mention that sentiment, even where it is impossible to miss. At my own college, younger faculty members have complained publicly about the “privilege” exhibited by colleagues who speak at length and “with confidence” about controversial matters. The charge carries with it the wish, sometimes the suggestion, that those “other” faculty members find a way to be ashamed of this privilege, which so many of their colleagues do not enjoy. Thus forthrightness and self-assurance can be made to seem as offensive and illegitimate as the Bentley parked ostentatiously in a well-tended driveway. Again, the rage to call out privilege is often an expression of a simple desire to have what others have, or to cast aspersions on those who have it. It is not at all surprising that the most brilliant and accomplished of my colleagues should lately have inspired criticism that cites her “relentless articulacy” and her “always having something to say.”

One consequence of the obsession with privilege is the growing divide within communities otherwise united by shared principles. The emphasis upon so-called microaggressions—that is, upon what Rankine calls “slippages,” including the failure to acknowledge privilege—has created a climate in which many people have withdrawn from active participation in public or political life. Many faculty members at my college have intimated, or declared, that they will no longer become involved in controversial debates or speak on the floor at faculty meetings. Why get involved in efforts to raise consciousness among students by enlisting in voter registration campaigns when some students will likely accuse you of exploiting your power and your privilege? Why join your local Democratic Party and work to field a slate of electable candidates in a swing district when you are apt to be pilloried for the privilege entailed in championing moderation and electability? After all, only someone privileged enough (and clueless enough) to embrace a gradualist approach to politics would counsel incrementalism. Better to stay out of politics entirely, with the privilege charge always apt to erupt and make you feel guilty.

For that matter, why attempt to find common ground in situations where envy for your good fortune and resentment of your advantages are sure to make everything you do an expression of your “identity”? For all of the intensity unleashed by proponents of the privilege critique, they would seem to have little interest in real politics—that is, in coalition building and respect for difference. The tendency to think of potential allies as inevitably tainted by the habits and perspectives of their racial, ethnic, or gender cohort is unlikely to issue in an effectual politics. The privilege turn is part of a new fundamentalism built on a willful refusal to accept that the most obvious features of our so-called identity are the least reliable indicators of what may reasonably be expected of us.

None of this is to suggest that identity, as usually conceived, counts for nothing at all. “I am born,” writes the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, “with a past, and to try to cut myself off from that past … is to deform my present relationships.” At the same time, he goes on, “rebellion against my identity is always one possible mode of expressing it.” We are always, as it were, “moving forward” from the condition and the tradition we inherit. A culture is in good order only when its people are engaged in conducting a continual argument about the assorted virtues—MacIntyre calls them “goods”—they hope to pursue. The fundamentalism central to the privilege turn is predicated upon the assumption of deficits inherent in groups and persons who are condemned to reflect those deficits and to apologize, however inadequately, for embodying them. That assumption is not only ungenerous. It is also simply untrue, given that rebellion against aspects of identity is a feature of ordinary cultural evolution. The envy and resentment that would deny to Pinckney his particularity, or to Baldwin his wayward appropriation, or to W. E. B. Du Bois his will to “summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will” are no less vicious than promiscuous assertions of privilege deployed to deny the complex particularity of others. Proponents of the privilege turn have adopted a sanctimonious rhetoric to create an “us” and a “them” that answers not at all to the reality of our common life.

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Robert Boyers is the editor of Salmagundi, a professor of English at Skidmore College, and the director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute. His most recent book is The Fate of Ideas.


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