Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Check Your Privilege-Checking

March 28, 2017

Often when we talk about privilege, we’re referring to the systemic advantages some groups of people have over others, by virtue of their race, gender, or orientation. Having social awareness of privilege like this is an important part of fostering a more equal and inclusive society. Why then do people who value inclusiveness feel insulted when their own privilege is pointed out? Writer and editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy joins us to discus her new book, The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.

Bovy explains that while “privilege” is meant to illustrate advantages placed on us by societal injustice, the word also has undertones suggesting economic wealth and a life free of hardship. She asserts that for this reason using the word provokes a lot of confusion and outrage. Bovy believes that because very few people’s lives are without hardship, being told they are privileged can be counterproductive.

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And before we dove into today’s episode, a reminder that I’m going to be leaving Point of Inquiry to start a new podcast called The Breach. 

B, r, e, a, c, h for Rewire. Got news. It’s a deep dove into authoritarianism and corruption in the Trump administration. And it all gets under way in the first week of April. 

In the meantime, I’ll be right here hosting point of inquiry for you guys. My guest today is Phoebe Mount’s Bovey. She’s the author of the new book The Perils of Privilege Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others Of Advantage. Phoebe, welcome to the program. Thanks so much for having me. Lindsay, what inspired you to write a critique of privilege? 

Well, a lot of different things at different times in my life. 

But I guess the first would have really been just off line interactions I had. 

We’re we’re just groups of friends in high school. This was in New York City. Everybody was equivalently privileged. But people would sort of try to hide that fact about themselves. So that was when I first was aware of that dynamic. But what really got me interested in the topic were these debates I would see in blog comment threads around like 2008, 2009, give or take a couple of years where people would just really call out one another privilege. And it wasn’t always clear even what sort of privilege. So these days, there’s maybe more specific conversations about white privilege, male privilege. This was often just sort of a generic privilege. And I found these conversations fascinating. 

How do you define privilege for the purposes of the book? 

So what I talk about in the book is so privilege itself can mean any number of things in any number of contexts. 

But what I’m talking about is privilege as an unearned advantages as they were discussed these days and a privilege framework. So their unearned advantages about which the individual is oblivious and they tend to fit into broader systemic hierarchies where just the idea of privilege come from. 

What are its intellectual roots. 

So in terms of that in this way, I’m looking at it in this book, the relevant intellectual origin would really be Peggy Macintosh’s privilege knapsack paper from the nineteen eighties. 

So it started really in scholarship. 

This notion that if you look at the advantages you have that will somehow, somehow will flow from that dismantling society’s hierarchies. 

But there are other uses of privilege. I mean, the French Revolution was about getting rid of privileges, but that was in a different sense. 

And when Macintosh’s talking about privilege, she’s talking about various things that white people have in virtue of being white. 

Like, yeah. So walk freely in a store, not being suspected of shoplifting or to get a fair hearing for a job interview or to survive an interaction with a police officer, even if they’re a bit mouthy or things like that. Right. 

Right. And I think. 

And so what her checklist was about was really comparing her own experiences of disadvantage as a woman with her experiences of advantage as a white person. And I think as sort of observations about society. A lot of this and certainly the essence of this was sound and very interesting. I think it’s it’s more in the sort of popular application that things can get more complicated. 

So you were moved to write this book not because you doubt that any of these inequalities are real or dispute that there are problems. Right? 

Like, correct. So that’s actually I’m really glad to bring that point up, because I think sometimes whether it’s just from looking at the title or just from whatever thoughts people have when they see the word privilege and any sort of doubt. I don’t have any doubt that that’s how the world is structured, that society, especially in the United States, is racist and specifically racist against black people. I no doubt about that. I’ve no doubt about sexism existing. I’m a woman. I had some personal experience there and I certainly don’t out that classes exist. And I’m sure for very rich people, life is indeed easier. So my I I’m not looking at this from the perspective of doubting that that hierarchy is what proponents of the use of privilege say it is. My question is whether this conversation is whether when people are discussing privilege, they’re even talking about that or whether they’re even actually doing anything to dismantle those hierarchies. 

And what I argue is that often, but not always. It’s actually reinforcing those hierarchies, so the hierarchies themselves. I’m not disputing I know other people are. And I think if I were writing this book after Trump had won, I would dwell even more and really insist even more upon the fact that this is not about questioning the existence of these hierarchies. Quite the contrary. I mean, it’s in the book. But yeah, I would put it in even more strongly. 

Now, one interesting thing about privilege is that it does seem like it is invisible to a lot of people. Like everybody sort of knows having more money is better than having less money. But there are a lot of people who will swear up and down that racism is over. It’s sexism is over. And everything they got, they earned with their own two hands because they couldn’t possibly be beneficiaries of these hierarchies. Do you think that privilege is useful at all in terms of allowing people to be more insightful and see advantages that they’ve had? They might not have considered even disadvantages? 

Well, I think that there’s a couple of things there. 

I think somebody who is truly committed to not seeing how society is structured is not going to be moved by their having it pointed out to them that they’re privileged. They’re just that’s not going to probably make much headway. I think if somebody just this sort of unclear about how society is structured and the use and using the word privilege somehow could convey it’s not impossible. I think it’s just I think there are people who are what they need is not education on these matters. They just simply have a different take on it. And they’re and also, I think even if they are educated in these matters, there’s no guarantee that knowing that they’ve had advantages that they hadn’t earned would make them want to give up those advantages. And I think that’s really the missing piece here, is that. 

Let’s say any let’s say a well-meaning progressive acknowledges their privilege. Are they then trying to get rid of it? What what’s the sort of next step? 

Would you say that privilege might not mean what we think it means? Can you elaborate on that thought? 

Yes, absolutely. So the example that I tend to come to this is let’s say there is a person who had just to stick with the white privilege example. If you tell a white person who is not rich, is and privileged that they are privileged and you don’t specify in what context they could get defensive without necessarily even being a white person who disagrees that society is racist against black people, they could just not. They could just hear the word privilege and think, but I’m not rich. So I think it kind of obscures what’s even being talked about and. Well, even a more precise use of the term could also potentially get defensiveness. 

I think it sort of in its ambiguity, it invites that. But then also just to give us sort of more general example, I think, and this happens a lot and interactions online where people really don’t one doesn’t know who the other is. If somebody sort of drops a hint that they have had it easy, that they never had a particular sort of job or something like that, they can be accused. And it really is in these sorts of interactions, accused of privilege. And that may not be a word that really holistically describes their experience, but it could just be sort of an easy case to make based on one’s truth out of context, detail and privilege, just kind of strangely non-linear. 

And a lot of ways that, you know, having skin privilege may not equate to having gender privilege or sexual orientation privilege or able bodied. There are all these different matrices on which people could be more or less privileged. 

Right. I mean, I think that in scholarship, that’s definitely understood. Or some scholarship. I think that what happens in especially in sort of online arguments is one party is the privileged. The other is the not privileged. And the accuser sort of is implicitly placing themself as the not privileged. 

Even though very frequently in these cases, if you look at who is actually arguing, there is no meaningful distinction and maybe even the person accusing is more privileged. 

And it’s interesting because I think the way it was identified originally was supposed to be nonjudgmental and just stating a fact. 

You know, the fact is you are not to be shot by a cop. If you’re white, you’re more likely to get your resumé read if your name sounds white, male. 

Those kinds of things and it’s supposed to take the burden off the individual is not. I’m a bad person. It’s a yes. Jim has slotted me in this hierarchy, but then it became so personalized. 

Why is there so much? Emotional animus attached to privileged discussion these days. 

Well, I think that that’s really that’s interesting, this whole notion of how a term that was meant to just be descriptive came to feel like the most accusatory one. 

I think a lot of it is this ambiguity, and it’s also just the fact that it sounds so absolute like to be privileged in the old sense was to be a rich and well-connected person, to be a have to live in luxury, to not have problems, basically. So if you talk about everybody has relative advantages and relative disadvantages. But if you talk about every relative advantage as privilege, it’s sort of I think it almost naturally summons in the person who’s heard this a list of their disadvantages, which I think, again, I think defensiveness can happen either way, but I think that encourages it. And I also think that there’s a difference in discussing privilege is how society is structured. And there’s a separate discussion about whether it’s good to call that privilege or rather to focus on discrimination as sort of like the inequality rather than sort of calling anybody who has things. OK, as has too much. But that’s sort of a separate issue. I think they’re basically, I guess. I think there’s a difference between using privilege to describe society and then how it actually plays out. Which is something like check your privilege or your privilege is showing where. It’s definitely about an individual and it seems like something’s being asked. It’s not entirely clear always what. And I think it’s that confusion that lends itself to sort of well-meaning defensiveness and also makes it easier to just kind of exit a conversation and say a ha. I’m not totally privileged, even if. And to sort of miss the point. 

It’s interesting you’re talking about this sort of list of personal adversities when you tell someone they’re privileged immediately in the back of their mind, they’re thinking about all the ways they’re not. 

Did you come across that study came out in 2015 in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, where they actually did lead to what people a discussion of what white privilege is and then ask them to fill out a questionnaire about the hardships that they’d been exposed to in their childhood. And the people that got the preamble about white privilege came up with more hardships than the people had. I remember this. Yes. 

I think that that’s interesting to me. When I saw that made sense just in terms of interactions, I’d observed. I’m not a social scientist. My background, I’ve paged in French and French studies. It’s nothing to do with any of this. But, yeah, I think that that I think there’s a way that these pieces can fall into place if sort of for people on their own, but that it can’t really be imposed, this sort of privilege understanding. I think it’s good to know how society is structured. I think if you know just roughly your own demographics, you can kind of figure this out for yourself. But I think if it’s kind of forced upon a person, they in a certain way can invite defensiveness and which, you know, architecture, the privileged framework didn’t feel that the act of calling out was of special importance. 

Did they? 

I mean, I think it began certainly. I mean, in terms of the Peggy Macintosh example, that was really about. And this this is not a book about the use of privilege in scholarship. So there’s a ton of use of privilege and scholarship, some of which I looked into but didn’t have room for and others have, which I haven’t seen. But I think my understanding of it is it’s more about this understanding of how society works and understanding sort of who you are. And I think that that’s as that has moved into the broader culture, which is the part I focus on. It’s really these awareness declarations, even if they’re very nuanced, even if they’re very thoughtful, they don’t necessarily go anywhere. And then with accusation, I think that’s more a social media phenomenon than an academic one. 

So it’s really more of a cultural question about the Internet as opposed to about the merits of the privilege framework itself that people have made. It is weaponized style of interaction. 

Well, I think it’s both. I think that there’s a question there’s a sort of separate question in scholarship about whether it makes more sense to look at having things OK as privilege or to look at having things not be OK as disadvantage. And that’s kind of its own separate question. And I think there is a strong case to be made. 

That privilege is not a good term to use for having things just okay. 

Because then you can’t really fight for more if you deserve more. So, I mean, I think that that’s sort of a separate question, whether people who have things just okay should be referred to with a term used to describe society’s elites, then privilege, accusation and sort of a related question. And that’s where I think I feel more more strongly that it’s a problem, because it just it becomes a whole. It becomes something with nothing to do with actually remedying injustice and becomes about winning arguments. And I think this is particularly I want to make this clear. I think this is the case as is often the case when it’s equivalently privileged people arguing with one another. I think it’s different when somebody actually marginalized in a particular way uses privilege or any other term to speak out. I think that’s reasonable and understandable and have no qualm with that. But I think that what’s happened is these conversations among equivalently privileged people have in part due to the Internet, taken on a life of their own. 

And it’s especially frustrating because it seems like calling out somebodies privilege is just skating along the border of a logical fallacy like ad hominem or appeal to motive. 

Yes. And I think it also it just sort of lends itself to to inaccuracy. So an example that I talk about is if you never worked in food service, then you will be awful to a server in a restaurant or you will claim as if there’s any sort of as if any of this is fact check. But you will say in some online thread, I don’t believe in tipping servers or something like that. And I think if you look at how people actually behave when you’re out with them, I have seen people who have absolutely worked in food service behaved terribly and I have seen people who haven’t behaved fine. I think these are sort of how the world should work vs. how it actually does. And I think it just it presents things as a bit more sort of cut and dry than they are. 

Do you worry that privilege obscures the difference? We actual privileges, things that you have without disturbing them and rights, things that everybody should have. 

Yes, absolutely. I think it obscures the distinction between rights and between privileges. 

I think it also obscures the difference between being really look at the top of the social structure or having a ton of money and just having one small relative advantage in a particular area or just having a little bit of cultural capital that hasn’t really amounted to anything in terms of capital capital. But, yes, that definitely I think there’s a case to be made for speaking of rights rather than privileges. And there are academics who make that case in more, much more detail than I could. 

Is the privilege discussion bled over into artistic criticism and consumption of popular culture? Oh, this is one of my favorites. 

So I think that there’s been very useful development in criticism of not assuming that a straight white man of about 40 years old or so is the default voice. I think that’s really important. I think it’s important on a personal level. I think it’s important just in general. I think that that’s good. I think white privilege has done and criticism, though, and to get into this in detail, I would really have to explain sort of about like online journalism economics, because I think that explains a lot of it. 

But basically, the economics of turning the page rationalizes. Exactly. 

So I think that there’s this type of criticism that looks at every work in terms of privilege as as who is not just is this a white man, but like who who is this creator’s family? What did they have it easy. Did it have breaks here and there? Does the work punch up or punch down as if these are all sort of questions that even can be answered in all cases? And then what I think that this has done is it’s kind of created the space where only works by white men basically don’t get subject to this quite as much like they just they they get to be just kind of art. 

And then the more sort of identity categories, apart from white and male a creator has, the more they get this treatment. 

So I think it’s exactly why it’s a perverse thing where you’re trying to unseat white man as the dominant, but it also arouses a kind of perverse interest in anybody who is not white and male. They constantly get asked about what’s it like to be a woman writer. Exactly. A writer. 

Exactly. Well, it’s even more than being asked what’s it like? But it’s sort of how could it be that somebody who fits into certain marginalized categories wasn’t flawlessly sensitive to all the different marginalized categories? And is it really like did they represent every single group properly in every single thing they’ve ever created? And then it just it becomes a completely different standard and it sort of spares white men. But just a word on those sort of the economics of this. I think a lot of this has to do with the way criticism is now produced and especially not particularly well-paid online criticism. It’s very quick to just look at that sort of become a formula is who is privileged, who is oblivious. Amy Schumer said something oblivious becomes just kind of like this default think piece. 

And I think what happens is and then there’s the sort of other side of it where there are the similarly churned out think pieces from on the right saying, oh, no, everybody’s so outraged. And I think whether anyone is actually sort of feeling any of this, whether this is actually coming from any writers, true response to any of this art is sort of a question. 

Do you feel like attention to esthetics has been lost when criticism framed in terms of privilege gets out of control? I think it can. 

I mean, I think I think these things are really, really hard to sort of pin down, because I think that the very sort of old way that completely ignores identity gets things way off and it’s actually distracting. If a work is only treating white men as human beings and not anybody else. 

I think what can happen, though, is if there’s kind of no distinction made between even like a pop culture sort of worked and an op ed, then you can’t really even say anything about whether you liked it or not, other than did it make the argument that I would have made in an op ed if I were writing an op ed today? 

And yeah. So I think it’s I think it’s a tough balance there. 

In the book, you argue that female creators often get more of the brunt of privilege attacks than their male counterparts for just writing about their truth. 

Yes, I think that’s the case. I wrote it and I still think so. I think this came up obviously quite a bit regarding Lena Dunham, who, while white and privileged, is not uniquely so in her world and in terms of the privileged part, is not actually all that well connected by the standards of that industry, as I understand it. She is certainly to me, she seems very well connected, but not compared to like Ben Stiller or somebody maybe or Carrie Fisher with her Hollywood royalty chart. Exactly. So I think that that that really was what illustrative for me. 

How and then I see this also in journalism and in writing in general, that any woman who creates anything kind of gets this backlash of. Surely there was a rich man behind her. Surely there is like whether it’s a husband, father, surely there’s some sort of straley. She’s some sort of princess. And I think this is no equivalent backlash exists where men are concerned that men can have tons and tons of privileges and not face this. And I think it’s important when having these conversations, too. I think it’s fine to look at somebody like Lena Dunham and say, OK, why aren’t people of who didn’t grow up wealthy at all, who aren’t white getting more opportunities? I think that’s absolutely right. I think the question is, why is this only asked of women and not. I think if it’s going to be asked should also be asked of men. 

Do you think critics are probing for a weak spot? Do you get someone like that done in his young feminist who’s hip? Do you think they go after her because she cares as opposed to Jonathan Franzen and his colleagues who might say, how dare you or so what? 

Yeah, I think that’s true in general, and not just for famous people. I think that this is another problem with sort of privilege as accusation is that it tends to get directed at the people who care when there’s all these people who don’t care. And there is I think this especially given the election result in the US. 

It makes me think that maybe a little more attention should be paid to the people who just plain don’t care whether that’s sympathetic attention and trying to really, like, gently convince them of things or whether that’s just outright saying your way off. 

And here’s why. 

So where do we go from here if we agree that the that the privilege framework is kind of ended in an analytic unenlightening stalemate? How do we restructure our discourse so that we remain aware of these important hierarchal arrangements, but also maybe move forward in terms of changing people’s minds? 

Well, I think that there’s sort of two changes. So when people ask me, well, what should be done instead of calling out privilege, I think it depends in what context. I think if you’re calling out privilege to win a point in an argument that has nothing to do with society’s structures and you’re just trying to tell somebody they’re an idiot, maybe just don’t do that. If, however, you’re trying to draw attention to society structures, I think precision is often a great idea. So if somebody has said something racist, sexist, homophobic, use those words. 

Yes, they are going to inspire defensiveness, but privilege will inspire defensiveness and genuine confusion. So that’s one thing I would change. 

Another is just focusing on end goals a bit more. And obviously not everybody is going to be an activist or organizer or something like this. 

But I think this demanding like if you’re asking people to sort of demonstrate that they are privilege aware or sort of focus on, well, why why do you want that and then see it. 

Maybe there’s a way of actually getting there that doesn’t sort of encourage that kind of false promise of this performance. Right. That isn’t really changing anything. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Thanks so much for having me on. 

End of inquiries of production at the Center for Inquiry. Become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry. Dot org slash membership. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.