A good many of my students, white and black, are in thrall to the idea that they are required to portray themselves as beautiful souls. Even those with little feeling for polemic or posturing are ever at the ready to declare—like their academic instructors—their good conscience and their attachment to the indisputably correct virtues. Thus they find in the idea of privilege an ideal vehicle. It seems at least to provide, to anyone who climbs on board, an opportunity to arrive at a sort of moral high ground that costs nothing. The students at our table were at one in feeling superior to my old teacher. He had, they felt, been oblivious to his privilege, and they were secure in their conviction that they would never be as oblivious as that. Their comfort lay in their unambivalent commitment to a species of one-upmanship. Theirs was the empty affirmation of an ideal they had no need to articulate with any precision, but which amounted to the certainty that, above all things, we are required to be and to remain perfectly guiltless. Nor did they recognize—not so that I could tell—that their immurement in good conscience was itself a privilege that could only be secured by finding others guilty, in one degree or another, of privilege.
The charge of privilege, as leveled even in ostensibly sophisticated critiques, carries with it the presumption that people are readily intelligible, their natures and motives determined by accidents of color or class. When I read sentences that begin with the words “white persons think” or “whites can only know,” I feel at once the fatal absence of any intimation of radical uncertainty. The agitation we want to feel in confronting others—or in confronting what is opaque or impenetrable in ourselves—is denied, banished by the impulse to define and diminish by resorting to accusations of privilege—as if the work of understanding might thereby be accomplished.
The culture of grievance that has taken shape in recent years has led to what Phoebe Maltz Bovy calls “the fetishization of powerlessness” and the not always “polite bigotry” that makes it acceptable to target groups or persons not because of what they have done but because of what they are.
For one thing, it has taken us to the domain of cliché and pure assertion. Nothing is easier than to wield the charge of privilege and thereby to win instant approval, nothing easier than to beat oneself up now and then for enjoying privilege while pretending to solidarity with the disadvantaged. There is comedy in the rush of the well-heeled and enlightened to affirm their virtue by signaling their guilt and their difference from those who have not yet mastered the rituals of self-disparagement and privilege bashing required of them. And there is temptation, surely, in the prospect of constructing a privilege-free profile: in my case, for example, by citing my own less-than-exalted childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, my struggles in three years of remedial speech courses, not to mention the fact that I could never have succeeded in life by virtue of good looks or an impressively masculine baritone voice. Thus, competitively speaking, in the precinct shaped by the privilege obsession, here I stand, nearly virtuous, though white, to be sure, and though not completely powerless, near enough to having been so to qualify for a modicum of sympathy.