Accusations of privilege are a form of one-upsmanship and a charge against which there is no real defense
In recent years, Skidmore College, where I am a professor, has been roiled by political incidents large and small. As at other colleges and universities, these eruptions have ranged from sometimes violent protests designed to prevent controversial speakers from speaking to call-outs and disruptions to prevent the teaching of ostensibly offensive books or to punish people for using ostensibly offensive language.
In an effort to encourage dialogue, the president of Skidmore recently invited a scholar named Fred Lawrence to give a lunchtime lecture to faculty and staff. As author of a book called Punishing Hate and the secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, the nations oldest honor society, Lawrence seemed suited to offer advice about the troubles wed been going through on campus. How could we better differentiate between offenses serious enough to warrant concern, and the more minor slips or unintentional derogations sometimes called microaggressions?
To be unable to tell the difference between kicking a dog and accidentally tripping over one is to have little hope of successfully navigating life on a college campus, Lawrence said, in a talk that was mild and notably free of polemic.
The first faculty member to raise a hand after the lecture asked Lawrence whether he was aware of the privilege he had exercised in addressing us. She spoke with conviction, and suggested that Lawrence had taken advantage of his august position by daring to offer his advice. Lawrence replied with courtesy, conceding that, like everyone else assembled, he was of course the beneficiary of several kinds of privilege, and would try to be alert to them.
Though nothing further came of this exchange, it seemed clear that privilege had been invoked as a noise word to distract from the substance of Lawrences remarks and from his suggestion that some of us had failed to make the elementary distinction he had called to our attention. More, the privilege charge had been leveled with the expectation that he was guilty not because of anything particular he had said, but because he was a white male.
It was hard not to think that my young colleague was in fact suffering from what Nietzsche and others called ressentiment a feeling of inferiority redirected on to an external agent felt somehow to be the source or cause of that painful feeling. Rightly or wrongly, she regarded him as the embodiment of a power, or authority, that is nowadays conventionally associated with privilege; that is, with some endowment or attribute wealth, position, conviction, erudition, benevolence enjoyed by some people but not others.
Of course there really is such a thing as privilege, and of course it is distributed unequally in any society. Youd have to be a fool to deny that whiteness has long been an advantage, however little some white people believe that their own whiteness has given them what others lack. Can anyone doubt that privilege is a real and legitimate issue when certain groups in a society enjoy ready access to good healthcare and schooling when others do not? There was a time, not so long ago, when to speak of privilege was to identify forms of injustice that decent people wished to do something about.
But youd also have to be a fool to deny that the idea of privilege has been weaponized in contemporary discourse, often by people attempting to seize rhetorical advantage. The privilege call-outs increasingly common in the culture entail a readiness to rebuke people simply because their gender, ethnicity or rank makes them an apt target for shaming and condemnation. The charge of privilege is usually directed at its targets not with the prospect of enlisting them in some plausible action to combat injustice but instead to signal the accusers membership in the party of the virtuous. Accusations of privilege have become a form of oneupsmanship, and a charge against which there is no real defense.
The writer and linguist John McWhorter has written of the self-indulgent joy of being indignant; for many in the academy, he notes, the existential state of Living While White constitutes a form of racism in itself. In fact, he argues, the standard White Privilege paradigm is designed to shunt energy from genuine activism into Im sorry a kind of performance art.
Those words a kind of performance art sharply identify what has lately happened and explain why many of us believe it is time to retire the term privilege, or at least agree to use it only when it cannot be understood to describe a self-evident crime. Not every advantage is unearned. Not every advantage is misused. Not every white person enjoys privilege in the way that some white persons do. Not all black people are without advantages.
In fact, to speak of privilege in the way that is now customary is to suppose that whiteness, or blackness, or maleness, or other such attributes, must signify to all of us the same things. It is to consider a white person primarily as a white person, a black person primarily as a black person, and to consign to irrelevance the many other qualities that make humans different from each other.
Our emphasis on privilege has served to obscure a great many things that ought to be obvious. We cannot have a serious discussion about privilege without first making elementary distinctions between one experience of race or advantage and another. Until and unless we are prepared to renounce the performance art phase of our relationship to privilege we ought to let it go.
Robert Boyers, a professor of English at Skidmore College, is the founder and editor of the journal Salmagundi and the founder and director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute