What’s the Point of Checking Your Privilege?

Mutual Exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses — we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s audience.

A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside of C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged. The following Mutual Exchange will begin as a feature by ’s, “What’s the Point of Checking Your Privilege?”. , Casey Given and  have prepared a series of articles challenging, exploring and responding to the themes presented in Given’s original article. Over the next week, C4SS will publish all of their responses. The final series can be followed under the categories: Mutual Exchange or The Point of Privilege.

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With the stroke of a keyboard, Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang has singlehandedly brought the topic of privilege roaring back into the national discussion. “Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color,” Fortgang penned in an article for the conservative Princeton Tory, “to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting.” Republished in Time, Fortgang’s article has ignited crossfire of cheers and jeers from all sides of the political spectrum.

However, what the media has largely failed to recognize is that this circus is nothing new. The concept of privilege has been lingering in academic circles for over a half-century now, somehow surviving despite seemingly being debated to death. While bursts of conservative outrage such as Fortgang’s float to surface every so often rallying around American meritocracy, what’s more damning is the criticism the concept has received from the same social justice scene that it sprung from. Some left-leaning academics have condemned the privilege framework for sweeping oppression under the rug by emphasizing white guilt over political action to end socioeconomic inequality.

Though rarely mentioned in the media firestorm over Fortgang’s article, the privilege concept traces its roots to Wellesley Professor Peggy McIntosh’s seminal 1988 essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.” In it, McIntosh provides a list of 46 “daily effects of white privilege,” ranging from the abstract (e.g. “I will feel welcomed and ‘normal’ in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social”) to the concrete (e.g. “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed”). While most of the social advantages enumerated in McIntosh’s list are undeniably true, the essay ultimately leaves the reader uncertain of what exactly to do with the newfound knowledge of their societal advantages.

Indeed, McIntosh admits near her essay’s conclusion that simple awareness of one’s privilege is not enough to combat it. “I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude,” she recalls. “Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.” How, then, can the privilege framework help end structural inequality? McIntosh seems to hint at some sort of government policy reform without providing any answers. At the second-to-last sentence of the essay, she is left asking, “What will we do with such knowledge?”

If awareness of one’s privilege is not sufficient to end oppression, then the framework itself seems little more than an exercise to alleviate white guilt. But, what good can that do? White guilt will not stop cops from racially profiling black people. White guilt will not help a family escape the cycle of poverty their ancestors have been stuck in for centuries. As the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective explained in a fall 2013 Harvard Educational Review article, “while reading and working with McIntosh’s piece might be a consciousness-raising exercise for individual white people, her text provides limited help with understanding and undermining systemic white supremacy.”

The privilege concept not only ignores action, it ignores oppression as well. McIntosh makes it clear that the two are separate concepts in the very first sentence altogether by highlighting how she has “often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged.” Privilege in McIntosh’s mind is more than just the absence of oppression; it’s special advantages that society bestows upon selective classes of people.

Looking back at her list, however, it seems puzzling to apply the “overpriviledged” label to daily experiences like not being harassed at a grocery store. After all, shouldn’t everyone feel safe shopping regardless of their race in an ideal world? Isn’t the very goal of anti-racist activism to help minorities “feel welcomed and ‘normal’ in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social?” In this sense, McIntosh seems to conflate privilege with human rights, as Africana philosopher Lewis Gordon explains in the critical race compilation What White Looks Like:

A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white-privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things?

McIntosh’s preoccupation with criticizing the privileges that everyone should enjoy is perversely prioritized over fighting against the oppression that nobody should be subjected to. Make no mistake about it, there are great differences in how various socioeconomic classes of people experience daily life. However, answer to fixing such inequalities is not to put down people who rightfully enjoy its privileges but to prop up those who do not enjoy them through political action.

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