Checking Privilege Checking

Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang was right that "privilege" is a problem, but not about why.

Students stroll across Princeton University's campus. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Poor Tal Fortgang. (Well, perhaps “poor” isn’t the right word.) Not long ago, the Princeton freshman’s white male privilege was known only to those in his life. Then he published an essay about this privilege in a conservative student publication, arguing that because his ancestors had struggled, he personally doesn’t benefit from unearned advantage. If he’s not privileged, no one should be asking him to check his privilege, right? After all, some of his advantage was earned; he just doesn’t happen to be the one who earned it.

Because “privilege” is clickbait, Fortgang’s piece made the rounds, culminating in the New York Times interviewing his classmates about his privilege and whether he had, in fact, checked it. The consensus is that he did not. Fortgang’s privilege has now been checked not only by his classmates and Facebook friends but by the entire Internet.

While privilege is nothing new, the term “privilege” is everywhere in post-recession America, not just on college campuses. The ideas of Peggy “Invisible Knapsack” McIntosh and Pierre “Cultural Capital” Bourdieu have trickled into the culture. Whatever “privilege” consists of in a given conversation—wealth and whiteness? Familiarity with kale?—no one wants to own theirs. And for good reason: “Privilege” isn't merely unearned advantage—it implies entitlement. To say that someone “comes across as privileged” is to call that person clueless and insensitive. It may not even be logically possible to admit to privilege, if we’re defining “privilege” as advantage about which one is unaware.

Fortgang’s is only the latest in a string of “privilege” controversies. Some, like his, have involved young adults with no prior notoriety writing tone-deaf items that ended up reaching the large audiences social media makes possible. Others, meanwhile, have dealt with the more famous: Advice columnist Dan Savage, with his “cisgender, able-bodied, thin privileged, class privileged, white male body,” comes to mind, as does fashion prodigy Tavi Gevinson, whose middle-class Midwestern childhood wasn’t scrappy enough for some Jezebel commenters. But the prime example has to be Lena Dunham who, though not all that privileged by show-business standards, has become our cultural stand-in for the phenomenon.

Even President Obama had his moment in the privilege limelight, when Rick Perry announced that Obama “grew up in a privileged way.” As this suggests, to stand accused of privilege, one need not actually possess the form of privilege in question. To call someone “privileged” is to say that his or her successes are undeserved. It’s a personal insult posing as social critique.

Fortgang, then, was right that “privilege” is a problem, but wrong about why. (He was also wrong about it being an argument specific to the left—see Charles Murray and the “bubble” quiz, or Ross Douthat's recent column about college debauchery.) Yes, Fortgang comes across as oblivious, as college freshman used to do more discreetly, before student op-eds went viral. And yes, privilege theory—that is, the term as applied to society, not individuals—is quite useful. All things equal, the rich, white, male, and so forth have it easier than others, and do well to remember this. But has “check your privilege” educated Fortgang, or anyone else?

Use of the term “privilege” has, I’d argue, actually set back the cultural conversation about privilege. It's not just that “privilege,” when used as an accusation, silences. It’s also that it’s made cluelessness a greater crime than inequality. These ubiquitous expressions—“check your privilege” or “your privilege is showing”—ask the accused to own up to privilege, not to do anything about it. There may be a vague, implied hope that privilege checking will lead to efforts to remedy some injustice, but the more direct concern is not coming across as entitled, not offending anyone underprivileged who theoretically might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in the room. Thus we've arrived at “blessed,” but also the “first-world problems” disclaimer. The goal of both is to appear self-aware and grateful, rather than to challenge the unfairness that led to whichever unearned advantage.

Those unfamiliar with these phrases might imagine that “check your privilege” is how women or people of color, say, might speak up about the sort of injustices that can be invisible to out-group members. As in, that the expression would express a genuine, personal sense of injustice, and would precede an explanation of a particular concern that simply wouldn’t have occurred to even a well-meaning outsider. That can happen, and in such cases, it has the potential to be useful. But more typically, it’s a way for someone privileged to play self-appointed spokesperson for the marginalized, so as to win a sensitivity competition with others similarly aloof.

Having the privilege conversation is itself an expression of privilege. As Conor Friedersdorf succinctly put it, “Well-versed-in-the-subtle-ways-identity-issues-are-discussed-among-meritocratic-elites privilege is a thing.” It’s not just that commenting online about privilege—or any other topic—suggests leisure time. It’s also that the vocabulary of “privilege” is learned at liberal-arts colleges or in highbrow publications.

A certain sort of self-deprecating privilege awareness has become, in effect, upper- or upper-middle-class good manners, maybe even a new form of noblesse oblige, reinforcing class divides. When Fortgang’s classmates admonish him to check his privilege, what they’re really doing is socializing him into the culture of the class he’ll enter as a Princeton graduate. Failure to acknowledge privilege is very gauche, maybe even nouveau riche. (Do the Real Housewives own their privilege?)

Or, because “privileged” is essentially an epithet, it ends up encouraging privilege denial. “Your privilege is showing” inspires—and Fortgang's essay is just the latest example of this—all these selective histories of people's upbringings (or, if they grew up truly "blessed," that of their parents or grandparents) to create the illusion of scrappiness and an upward trajectory. Thus why a woman claiming not to be a socialite (alas, if you stand so accused…) let the New York Times lifestyle section know that her “parents came from nothing and started at the bottom,” as if this says something about her own advantages. “Raised alternately in Manhattan and in the coastal Colombian city of Barranquilla, where her grandfather was a noted modernist architect, Ms. Harper was no child of privilege, she said,” unconvincingly. Thus, too, why Gwyneth Paltrow insists that her father was working class. There's always a beat-up used car to be highlighted, a summer home or trust fund to go unmentioned.

The self-deprecatory, class-signaling approach might (but rarely does) serve as a first step towards genuine self-examination and, in turn, some broader social-justice commitment. But the main result of privilege talk is scrappiness one-upmanship among the privileged.