Layered Privileges – There Is No Meritocracy

There have been two debates about privilege recently.

One was Tal Fortang’s barbaric yop that he, Princeton undergrad, is not privileged by his whiteness, because his family was persecuted by the Nazis. The second was a Thought Catalog essay on female privilege.

The first essay demonstrated two key facts:

  1. Tal Fortgang does not understand the concept of privilege.
  2. American Media works likes this: Conservative white boy feels oppressed by liberals? How interesting! Let’s give him a forum to air his many grievances. This reaction was not just limited to Fox News, a place of naked partisanship, but much more widely. I think it has a lot to do with the white media also feeling that they worked damn hard for their achievements and being suspicious of the whole privilege debate. Also, it’s good for ratings.
The second, less well reported but still circling through my social media circles, was a snarky list of 18 types of female privilege.

I’m not linking to it because I think it’s basically clickbait and trying to sell a book about women and sex. Moreover, it’s mostly typical male grievance discourse. I’ve dealt with it before. To the extent that these grievances are legitimate, which some of them are, the solution to the problem is more feminism.

On the bright side, in reaction to Fortang, the New Yorker just published an interview with Peggy McIntosh, the Wellesey academic who first developed the term “white privilege” as a way of explaining structural advantages experienced by white people. In the interview she offers a very useful short-hand for thinking about layered privilege.

Here is McIntosh’s original paper from 1988, ““White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.”

It’s a great piece. One of the main criticisms is that it’s a little blind to class privilege (she’s highly aware of gender privilege, in general), but it started a conversation that sometimes is really useful. Here’s how she responded to the Fortgang piece [my emphasis]:

When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically. But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.

That’s useful language – that there are many variables that create structural advantages and disadvantages. It’s worth thinking about which ones are at play in any given situation.

In particular, this subject matters to me in the context of undermining the myth of a meritocratic society. I write this in regards to higher education all the time, but it’s a much bigger problem. By default, the people with the power to change society peacefully are those who succeeded. Those people who succeeded impede structural change because they know they worked hard and they believe in their own merit. Therefore, those who do not succeed must have done something wrong or otherwise have less merit.

I work very hard. I know, however, that my success in school, my success in work, and my ability to leverage my work into media access cannot be divorced from my class, my gender, and my race. That doesn’t mean that I have to feel guilty, but I also can’t feel smug and deserving.

Identifying the layers of privilege at work in my life has been good for me. It’s given me a sense of purpose in my writing and freed me to take different kinds of stands. It’s helped me figure out when to speak and when to listen (always a problem for us talkative white guys, and still something I’m working on). It’s pushed me to focus as much class as on race and gender, to push new variables into the equations of privilege.

Here’s my main take-away: recognizing privilege means working to undermine it. An equal society is not one in which everyone is, in fact, equal, but in which there is an equality of opportunity.

2 Replies to “Layered Privileges – There Is No Meritocracy”

  1. Thumoeides says:

    The question I always have with regard to this sort of argument is whether anything short of perfect meritocracy can be called meritocracy. Or to put it in more traditional terms, is anything short of perfect justice to be properly described as just.

    1. David Perry says:

      Oops, I missed this comment. Yeah, I don't know about perfect meritocracies anywhere. But there are greater and lesser meritocratic systems. The thing that really interests me is the persistent belief that academia is a greater system … and perhaps it was once (I have no real data). It's definitely not now.

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