Talking to Phoebe Maltz Bovy about ‘The Perils of “Privilege”’

It’s Billfold Book Club week!

This week, we’re discussing Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved By Accusing Others of Advantage. It’s about the different ways we discuss privilege, and how focusing on individual privilege makes it harder to address systemic inequality. (It also mentions The Billfold—and a lot of other publications you’ve probably read.)

We’re going to be running a handful of pieces about the intersection of privilege and money this week, but I thought I’d start off by reaching out to Phoebe Maltz Bovy and asking if she’d like to have a conversation about her book.

The following is an edited version of our discussion.

ND: So… how do you define privilege? Not to start off with anything hard or anything. 😉

PMB: Ooh, always a tough one, no matter how often I’m asked! The simplest way to define it is unearned advantage. So, wealth, or whiteness, maleness, etc. But — and I hope this comes through in the book! — privilege is not the only way of discussing unearned advantage.

Using “privilege” does two things: it focuses on unfair advantages rather than unfair disadvantages, and it includes an (often plenty founded) accusation of obliviousness. To seem “privileged” isn’t just to seem unfairly advantaged. It’s to seem unfairly advantaged and clueless.

Or, rather than “privilege is not the only way of discussing unearned advantage,” maybe, privilege is not the only way of discussing systemic inequality. Which, to be clear, I think should be discussed!

YES! And I want to get to the systemic inequality piece, because when you wrote about discussions of individual privilege not being an effective way to address systemic inequality I was like YES, THIS IS SO IMPORTANT.

But it struck me, when you mentioned advantages and disadvantages, that it’s sort of socially… déclassé? to say “I am disadvantaged, compared to you.” Plus we don’t always know who the “you” is, as you mention more than once. So we ask people instead to say “I am advantaged.”

I think of the “I am advantaged” declaration as, all too often, amounting to the same thing as #blessed. However well-intended, I don’t think it makes the recipient who isn’t advantaged in whichever area feel better. At least, when I have seen someone earnestly acknowledging advantages I personally lack, I have not found this particularly helpful.

It’s better than outright denying advantages. But that’s about it.

Yeah. On the one hand you’ve got the 20-something real estate mogul telling Millennials to skip the avocado toast without mentioning that he got his first down payment as a gift from his grandfather. (True story.)

And on the other hand you have people saying they’re privileged because they only have five figures of student loan debt instead of six. Which is true, in a comparative sense, but also not.

Yes. This is very, very important. One huge issue with a “privilege” approach is that it encourages people who actually are suffering financially not to speak out, lest they seem to be mistaking broke-ness for poverty.

And I think there are things more dangerous than the possibility that someone who’s “just” broke speaks out in favor of redistribution.

This is where the “individual privilege vs. systemic inequality” factor comes in.


In one sense, there’s the idea that a lot of us are trying to figure out who has the best share of a very small percent of the wealth, as it were. And to acknowledge if we have more than other people, because we recognize that we’re all struggling in different ways based on a number of intersections.

But then there’s also the argument that focusing on wealth and financial privilege leaves out ALL OF THOSE OTHER INTERSECTIONS. We are not in fact a unified 99 percent, and to ignore racism and sexism and ableism leaves out a huge component of the conversation.

At its best, a “privilege” approach leads to a greater understanding of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression that operate on a scale comparable to wealth inequality.

At its worst, what it does is mistakenly conflate trappings of cultural capital (and by “cultural capital” I mean something like avocado toast, but also, say, an MA in a not-so-lucrative area) with actual wealth and power.

I think there are ways of discussing systemic inequality that don’t involve the often confusing approach of using a term that suggests wealth, ease, and well-connectedness to describe situations that are in fact ones of relative advantage.

Ultimately, who is it who’s earnestly confessing to privilege? It’s generally not the people on top of any hierarchy. It tends to be women, and tends to be people who are not as privileged as all that.

Part of the issue with our current privilege discussion is that we don’t always agree on what defines a “privilege,” right?

I think there’s a tendency — maybe it could be called privilege-creep? maybe someone is already calling it that? — for “privilege” to get used for situations that are about either very minor forms of luck, or earned advantage. A lot of times, when underrepresented (of color, first-gen, or both) students at elite universities protest, they’re criticized from the right as being privileged, because, you know, they’re at a fancy college. To me this is missing the point — earned advantage is not “privilege.”

But it feels inappropriate, in some ways, to say “I earned this” without also adding “because I had an advantage that helped me do it,” like a parent, or “because I did not have a disadvantage that would have made it harder.”

Right — I don’t think specific achievements are ever going to fall 100 percent in the earned or unearned category. Which brings us back to the trouble with discussing systemic inequality centrally through individual cases.

Okay. So how do we have these conversations about privilege and earned vs. unearned advantages? Because we all spend all day online, talking about what everyone else is doing online—and online conversation is almost entirely about the individual.

Yes — it’s about the individual, and the individual about whom very little is known. (As in, online, it’s very easy to wind up telling someone to check a form of privilege they don’t actually have.)


So how do we have a better conversation about systemic inequality? Although we do try to look at systems we always seem to pull in individuals as examples, because that’s what humans do. We are attracted to stories, and stories are about people.


As for a better conversation… there are a few ways.

I don’t think “let’s move everything offline” is the answer.

The first step is not to expect people who’ve won life’s lotteries to voluntarily and on an individual basis give up their advantages. This is where the privilege model goes wrong — that someone has acknowledged privilege doesn’t imply the plan or, on an individual level, the ability to shed that privilege.

So it’s better to think in terms of systems. Of policies. An example would be… free college! Taxpayer-funded public college is more useful than privilege-awareness exercises at schools that cost $70,000 to attend.

But I can’t make that happen on my own. So we need to be doing the work to participate in local governments, vote in people at higher levels of government, etc.?

Yes — more awareness of what’s going on in the world (which does, often, inspire engagement), with less of a focus on the (inherently futile) aim of impeccable self-awareness.


Which, to tie it back to a financial example I use on The Billfold often: agonizing over whether you should feel bad about your small purchases is much less effective than figuring out how to earn more.

Or, in this case, figuring out how all of us can earn more.

Not to sound cornball, but you know what I mean here.

Yes! That’s right. Don’t let micro concerns hide macro ones, basically.

But, for the record, I do feel bad about my small purchases.

This post is part of the Billfold Book Club’s discussion of The Perils of “Privilege”.

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