The Perils of ‘The Perils of “Privilege”’

Inequality sucks, but is being criticized worse?

When I saw there was a book called The Perils of “Privilege”, I was intrigued. Considering the success of Trump, the increase of online misogyny, and the pervasiveness of police brutality, it sounded like a timely exploration of privilege — that is, how society confers unearned advantages on members of certain social groups (white, male, upper-middle-class, heterosexual, etc).

Then I noticed the scare quotes around “Privilege,” which make it look as if author Phoebe Maltz Bovy doesn’t think the concept exists. That couldn’t be true, could it?

Well, kind of. The book isn’t a hateful right-wing screed about how “social justice warriors” are ruining the world with their insistence that everyone deserves empathy. Bovy identifies as a liberal and a feminist, and admits that inequalities exist. She just doesn’t think privilege is a good framework for talking about them.

She has a particular problem with telling someone “your privilege is showing,” common practice on social media and in online comments sections. She claims that being called out in this way — asking a white person to consider how their limited experience of racism might affect their view of a situation, for example — is, in her experience, more “viscerally draining” than Twitter abuse from neo-Nazis.

The author apparently sees little distinction between inexcusable online bullying and social media users asking writers or public figures to recognize the limits of their own perspectives. Sometimes, regrettably, the latter turns into the former, but the two aren’t automatically linked. Using the term “outrage culture” to cover both seems like a neat way to avoid criticism while also dismissing some valid concerns.

To be fair, Bovy doesn’t like it when people call out their own privilege either, particularly in personal essays. She thinks writers’ disclaimers that they’re aware of their advantages are “self-serving,” inspired by a fear of criticism rather than sensitivity toward potential readers. Perhaps that’s true, but as a disabled woman, if I see an acknowledgement that not everyone can, say, take a train across Europe, I feel recognized, and more likely to read on.

The book’s central flaw is right there on the cover, in the subtitle: “Why injustice can’t be solved by accusing others of advantage.” This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of talking about privilege: it’s not an accusation, it’s an invitation to do better. Calling someone out isn’t about shaming them, it’s a reaction to the fact that we all live in a prejudiced society and have biases we don’t always recognize.

As much as it might sting to be confronted with evidence of your inadvertent ableism, racism, or homophobia, it’s more painful still to experience it. Bovy argues against focusing on these microaggressions in favor of the big picture, but fails to understand that small daily grievances make life harder for members of marginalized groups, which helps to uphold the status quo.

Something Bovy and I do agree on is that it’s not enough to talk about inequality, we need to address it, too. And it wouldn’t hurt to talk about some of the other ways oppression is perpetuated, either. She quotes a blog post by sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom which suggests that some students with experience of Tumblr feminism are overly familiar with the concept of privilege: “I have taken to sending some terms on vacation in my class (e.g. privilege) and pulling others out of retirement… (e.g. power.)”

Bovy suggests that we need to focus more on the damage done by institutions than individuals, which would be a fine sentiment if she didn’t also choose to quote Julie Bindel, a British journalist known for her transphobia, and if her own writing succeeded in engaging with the structural nature of privilege.

She acknowledges that privilege is not about meritocracy but rather the result of systems (health, education, welfare, justice) that are designed to make life harder for people of color, disabled people, working class people, and the LGBTQ community. However, phrases like “luck” and “life’s lottery” risk undermining otherwise valid points, (“Inequality does exist across a wide range of intersecting axes, and the “haves” in each area really are oblivious.”), carrying as they do the suggestion of happenstance.

Bovy mentions more than once that it’s difficult not to come across as defensive, but maybe that’s because… she is? Her reaction to Chloe Angyal’s response to the Charleston massacre that white women need to “decry the violence that is done in our name” is that, “none of us white women asked that evil idiot to shoot black people.” That’s some spectacular point-missing. (The point being that white women’s lives are often seen as more valuable, and perhaps we could think about that occasionally in exchange for earning more than most people of color and being less likely to experience violence.)

When it comes down to it, a highly-educated, white, seemingly cis, heterosexual, and non-disabled woman writing about why everyone should STFU about privilege is the ultimate act of privilege. Her conclusion that “life isn’t just about structural oppression and the feelings it inspires” could only come from a place of luxury. Instead of the discussion of inequality I’d hoped for, The Perils of “Privilege” is a shrug emoji in literary form, a book-length wail that “it’s not my fault.”

The author assumes her readers are in the same demographic as herself, exemplified by asides like, “a seemingly racist faux pas can lead to one’s downfall” but she fails to provide useful insights into life with a lack of privilege.

Toward the end of the book, she offers a list of suggestions for addressing injustice without using the P-word. Some of these are reasonable: that we should talk more about prejudice, including the intersecting oppressions some people experience (on the grounds of gender plus sexuality, for example), and that both traditional media and social media should focus more on systemic inequality than individual gaffes.

She also argues that we need to consider economic factors more thoroughly, to look beyond class to the relative poverty many graduates experience — and address the reasons for that. “How “privileged” is a college graduate with enormous loans and no job prospects?”

Bovy also discusses the way privilege is taught and deconstructed in college and high-school classrooms, with the acknowledgement that even having an understanding of privilege doesn’t do much to address the underlying issues: “Yes, one microaggression is avoided when a prep-school senior remembers not to mention his family’s estate in Saint-Tropez. Yet his choice to cultivate sensitivity doesn’t in any way change the social structure that allows his family to have a second (or tenth) home…”

This gets to the heart of the limits of calling out privilege: the most privileged are unlikely to want to abrogate any of their power, as they have no motivation to do so. In fact, I’d have been interested to read Bovy explore in more detail how capitalism bolsters oppression of all kinds.

However, not all of her insights are so sharp. She argues against using “violence” for anything other than physical assaults (“Cultural appropriation? Not violence”) and dismisses the validity of describing what she calls “casual racism in the you-all-look-alike vein” as “white supremacy.” Not only are these not her judgments to make, she again dismisses the cumulative harm that even the most “casual” experiences of discrimination can cause.

She also writes, “The default should be human decency. Not some sort of hyperawareness where everyone is magically in on what might offend everyone else.” But offense isn’t the point, empathy is: it’s not difficult to learn more about people with lives other than your own if you talk to them, read what they write, or even follow them on Twitter; no magic needed. In fact, if you benefit from any type of privilege, it’s pretty much the least you can do.

Bovy says that only people working full-time to combat injustice should call themselves allies, and proposes that the rest of us: “Just don’t be overtly racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory. It’s that simple.” Simple, perhaps, but hardly adequate considering the potential for people with tons of privilege to signal-boost the needs of those with less. It also brings the conversation back to individual responsibility rather than offering collective solutions for social change.

Bovy might be right in saying, “Everyone’s oblivious to life beyond his or her own experiences, and that’s normal.” But I disagree that it’s inevitable, that it can’t be challenged, or that there’s little point in “looking into our own navels and contemplating why we may act in ways that support discrimination.” Maybe the privilege framework is more of a starting point than an end goal. But it should still be in play.

Diane Shipley likes books, TV, photos of miniature dachshunds, and Twitter.

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

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