“Your Privilege is Showing”

Mutual support for self-development can be risky (as well as valuable). Phoebe Maltz Bovy addresses some of the dangers in The Perils of “Privilege,” Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage. In her extensive, important, informative, and disturbing review, Bovy evaluates the “call-out culture” -- a recent explosion that’s commonly reflected in the charge, “Your privilege is showing.” Her observations suggest more effective ways to nurture personal growth and political action.

Privilege -- whether “earned,” gained by birth or luck, or granted arbitrarily -- is an advantage held by a particular person or group. Bovy affirms “admirable self-awareness of advantage” and agrees with Roxanne Gay’s statement: “If you cannot recognize your privilege, you have a lot of work to do; get started.” But she strongly criticizes most efforts to increase privilege awareness.

As Gay wrote:

Too many people have become self-appointed privilege police, patrolling the halls of discourse, ready to remind people of their privilege, whether those people have denied that privilege or not…. When someone writes from their experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege.

Accusations of “unchecked privilege” often challenge the other’s value as a person and reduce them to a symbol. As a Briarpatch magazine essay that went viral argued, call-outs are often

a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are…. When people are reduced to their identities of privilege...and mocked as such, it means we’re treating each other as if our individual social locations stand in for the total systems those parts of our identities represent [emphases added].

Bovy argues:

  • Privilege surely does inform political decisions, but in too many directions for it to be possible to label anyone…. One ends up neck-deep in speculation….
  • Unsolicited education in the form of a call-out isn’t productive [and leads to resentment].
  • [Alleging that the other is guided by] “privilege” involves a permanent quest to sort out who’s the most marginalized, but in a way that gives the impression that all the less-dire battles have already been won…. We’re now living in the age of dividing the marginalized from the privileged…. When two underdogs face off...is the answer to decide who’s more privileged? ...According to the rules of “privilege,” though, that’s the only way…. That haziness encourages scapegoating…. The hated ticks more “privilege” boxes than the hater…. If a group that isn’t quite at the top gets to function as a stand-in for the one that is, then the hierarchy doesn’t have to shift…. People will just fight things out among themselves.
  • There’s also a pervasive sense that personal enlightenment must precede efforts to improve the world.
  • The “privilege” worldview wrongly holds the privilege bearer responsible….Yes, “privilege” refers to various important phenomena -- but is it important (or necessary, or helpful) to use “privilege” to speak of them?... The framework is confusing…. It produces -- daily, with every Twitter/think-piece controversy -- winners and losers, the individuals who get it and those who do not.
  • “Your privilege is showing” is about treating unacknowledged privilege as the real problem. Owned-up-to privilege...is thus spared…. The “privilege” framing, with its focus on unearned advantage rather than unjust disadvantage, doesn’t fit with situations where even the “privileged” person is still quite screwed.
  • The goal needs to be recognizing the humanity of all.
  • A privilege accusation -- or even just a privilege awareness-raising exercise -- is a demand for personal information. The framework leaves no space for discretion [concerning issues that people justifiably] are not keen to talk about…. [It can be] an invasion of privacy. The dangers of sharing are generally going to be greater than the ones in keeping quiet [emphases added].

One of Bovy’s key criticisms is that to focus so heavily on “privilege” reinforces narcissism and is a diversion from action to dismantle oppressive systems.

Bovy, however, seems to go too far toward the other extreme. She affirms a predominantly “materialist” worldview and diminishes the value of personal change. A different perspective is proposed on TransformTheSystem.org. The Change Myself, Change the World commitment posted there suggests a balance between the personal and the political.

The most important contribution offered by Bovy may be her critique of judgmental, doctrinaire, and authoritarian methods that inflame divisions, hurl labels, try to read minds, discount others’ humanity, and violate privacy. With its attention to those issues, The Perils of “Privilege” encourages us to develop alternative approaches.

Proposals on TransformTheSystem.org aim to be sensitive to those concerns, which understandably drive much of the resistance to personal engagement. Mutual support for self-development need not necessarily rely on oppressive methods.

To clarify that another goal is intended, Bovy’s analysis prompted me to edit two components of the Change Myself, Change the World commitment. It now includes, in part:

I commit to:

  • Acknowledge, at least to myself, my mistakes and resolve to avoid them in the future.
  • Talk confidentially with close friends about efforts of mine that I want to discuss, and listen to them talk confidentially about their efforts they want to discuss.

Another difference I have with Bovy is that she suggests that we target those at “the top.” But if the System is our primary problem, it doesn’t make sense to scapegoat top-level administrators (though we should hold them accountable). I prefer Van Jones’ formulation, “The 99% for the 100%.” In fact, I believe, “We are all victims.”

Our best hope is for Americans to push for measures that will benefit everyone and are supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Then we might create a world in which relatively minor advantages held by some will be legitimate -- that is, accepted by others as justified. Bovy’s powerful book helps show the way.