Privilege theory, as a formal academic thing, has been around at least since 1989, when Peggy McIntosh published the now-seminal essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Even within academic cultural studies, however, privilege theory was pretty niche until about a decade ago–it’s not what you’d call intellectually sound (McIntosh’s essay contains zero citations), and its limitations as an analytical frame are pretty obvious. I went through a cultural studies-heavy PhD program in the early twenty teens and I only heard it mentioned a handful of times. If you didn’t get a humanities degree, odds are it didn’t enter your purview until 2015 or thereabouts.
This poses an obvious question: how could an obscure and not particularly groundbreaking academic concept become so ubiquitous so quickly? How did such a niche (and, frankly, weird and alienating) understanding of racial relations become so de rigeur that companies that still utilize slave labor and still produce skin whitening cream are now all but mandated to release statements denouncing it?
Simply put, the rapid ascent of privilege theory is due to the fact that privilege theory is fundamentally conservative. Not in cultural sense, no. But if we understand conservatism as an approach to politics that seeks first and foremost to maintain existing power structures, then privilege theory is the cultural studies equivalent of phrenology or Austrian economics.
This realization poses a second, much darker question: how did a concept as regressive and unhelpful as privilege become the foundational worldview among people who style themselves as progressives, people whose basic self-understanding is grounded in a belief that they are working to address injustice? Let’s dig into this:
First, let’s go down a well-worn path and establish the worthlessness of privilege as an analytical lens. We’ll start with two basic observations: 1) on the whole, white people have an easier time existing within these United States than non-white people, and 2) systemic racism exists, at least to the extent that non-white people face hurdles that make it harder for them to achieve safety and material success.
I think a large majority of Americans would agree with both of these statements–somewhere in the ballpark of 80%, including many people you and I would agree are straight-up racists. They are obvious and undeniable, the equivalent to saying “politicians are corrupt” or “good things are good and bad things are bad.” Nothing about them is difficult or groundbreaking.
As simplistic as these statements may be, privilege theory attempts to make these statements the primary foreground of all understandings of social systems and human interaction. Hence the focus on an acknowledgement of privilege as the ends and means of social justice. We must keep admitting to privilege, keep announcing our awareness, again and again and again, vigilance is everything, there is nothing beyond awareness.
Of course, acknowledging the existence of inequities does nothing to actually address those inequities. Awareness can serve as an important (though not necessarily indispensable) precondition for change, but does not lead to change in and of itself.
I’ve been saying this for years but the point still stands: those who advocate for privilege theory almost never articulate how awareness by itself will bring about change. Even in the most generous hypothetical situation, where all human interaction is prefaced by a formal enunciation of the raced-based power dynamics presently at play, this acknowledgement doesn’t actually change anything. There is never a Step Two.
Now, some people have suggested Step Twos. But suggestions are usually ignored, and on the rare occasions they are addressed they are dismissed without fail, often on grounds that are incredibly specious and dishonest. To hit upon another well-worn point, let’s look at the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. The majority of Sanders’ liberal critics admit that the senator’s record on racial justice is impeccable, and that his platform would have done substantially more to materially address racial inequities than that being proffered by any of his opponents. That’s all agreed upon, yet we are told that none of that actually matters.
Sanders dropped out of the race nearly 3 months ago, yet just this past week The New York Times published yet another hit piece explaining that while his policies would have benefitted black people, the fact that he strayed from arbitrarily invoked rhetorical standards meant he was just too problematic to support.
The piece was written by Sidney Ember, a Wall Street hack who cites anonymous finance and health insurance lobbyists to argue that financial regulation is racist. Ember, like most other neoliberals, has been struggling to reconcile her vague support for recent protests with the fact that she is paid to lie about people who have tried to fix things. Now that people are forcefully demanding change, the Times have re-deployed her to explain why change is actually bad even though it’s good.
How does one pivot from celebrating the fact that black people will not be receiving universal healthcare to mourning racially disproportionate COVID death rates? They equivocate. They lean even harder on rhetorical purity, dismissing a focus on policy as a priori blind to race. Bernie never said “white privilege.” Well, okay, he did, but he didn’t say it in the right tone or often enough, and that’s what the problem was. Citing Ember:
Yet amid a national movement for racial justice that took hold after high-profile killings of black men and women, there is also an acknowledgment among some progressives that their discussion of racism, including from their standard-bearer, did not seem to meet or anticipate the forcefulness of these protests.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who pioneered the concept of intersectionality to describe how various forms of discrimination can overlap, said that Mr. Sanders struggled with the reality that talking forcefully about racial injustice has traditionally alienated white voters — especially the working-class white voters he was aiming to win over. But that is where thinking of class as a “colorblind experience” limits white progressives. “Class cannot help you see the specific contours of race disparity,” she said.
Many other institutions, she noted, have now gone further faster than the party that is the political base of most African-American voters. “You basically have a moment where every corporation worth its salt is saying something about structural racism and anti-blackness, and that stuff is even outdistancing what candidates in the Democratic Party were actually saying,” she said.
Crenshaw’s point here is that the empty, utterly immaterial statements of support coming from multinational corporations are more substantial and important than policy proposals that would have actually addressed racial inequities. This is astounding. A full throated embrace of entropy as praxis.
Crenshaw started out the primary as a Warren supporter but threw her endorsement to Bernie once the race had narrowed to two viable candidates. This fact is not mentioned, nor does Ember feel the need to touch upon any of Biden’s dozens of rhetorical missteps regarding race (you might remember that he kicked off his presidential run with a rambling story about the time he toughed it out with a black ne'er do well named Corn Pop, or his more recent assertion that if you don’t vote for him, “you ain’t black.”). The statement here–not the implication: the direct and undeniable statement--is that tone and posturing are more important than material proposals, and that concerns regarding tone and posturing should only be raised in order to delegitimize those who have dared to proffer proposals that might actually change things for the better.
The ascendence of privilege theory marks the triumph of selective indignation, the ruling class and their media lackeys having been granted the power to dismiss any and all proposals for material change according to standards that are too nonsensical to be enforced in any fair or consistent manner. The concept has immense utility for those who wish to perpetuate the status quo. And that, more than anything, is why it’s gotten so successful so quickly. But still… why have people fallen for something so obviously craven and regressive? Why are so few decent people able to summon even the smallest critique against it?
We can answer this by taking a clear look at what privilege actually entails. And this is where things get really, really grim:
What are the material effects of privilege, at least as they are imagined by those who believe the concept to be something that must be sussed out and eradicated? A privileged person gets to live their life with the expectation that they will face no undue hurdles to success and fulfillment because of their identity markers, that they will not be subject to constant surveillance and/or made to suffer grave consequences for minor or arbitrary offenses, and that police will not be able to murder them at will. The effects of “privilege” are what we might have once called “freedom” or “dignity.” Until very recently, progressives regarded these effects not as problematic, but as a humane baseline, a standard that all decent people should fight to provide to all of our fellow citizens.
Here we find the utility in the use of the specific term “privilege.” Similar to how austerity-minded politicians refer to social security as an “entitlement,” conflating dignity and privilege gives it the sense of something undeserved and unearned–things that no one, let alone members of racially advantaged groups, could expect for themselves unless they were blinded by selfishness and coddled by an insufficiently cruel social structure. The problem isn’t therefore that humans are being selectively brutalized. Brutality is the baseline, the natural order, the unavoidable constant that has not been engineered into our society but simply is what society is and will always be. The problem, instead, is that some people are being exempted from some forms of brutalization. The problem is that pain does not stretch far enough.
We are a nation that worships cruelty and authority. All Americans, regardless of gender or race, are united in being litigious tattletales who take joy in hurting one another, who will never run out of ways to rationalize their own cruelty even as they decry the cruelty of others. We are taught from birth that human life has no value, that material success is morally self-validating, and that those who suffer deserve to suffer. This is our real cultural brokenness: a deep, foundational hatred of one another and of ourselves. It transcends all identity markers. It stains us all. And it’s why we’ve all run headlong into a regressive and idiotic understanding of race at a time when we desperately need to unite and help one another.