In his NYT obituary of Joan Rivers, Robert D. McFadden refers to her as “the brassy Jewish-American princess from Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Larchmont, in Westchester County.” This jumped out at me, not just because “JAP” is a slur (which it is, but one could argue that it honors Rivers to violate PC), but because… Flatbush? Some of my family lived in more or less that part of Brooklyn at more or less the same time, and it seems an odd place to label “princess” country.
I made that point on Facebook, which led to a discussion about whether one must be born a “JAP” to be one, or whether one can, through scrappy hard work, deck oneself out in tasteless-but-expensive garb and become a princess in the derogatory sense. Can one ever earn unearned advantage? Is that a thing?
Which brings us back to the more general question of “privilege.” Can privilege be earned? Is the combination of talent, hard work, and luck that brings a handful of people from not-so-privileged backgrounds success enough to move such individuals into the “privileged” category? Or does the word specifically refer to advantage that’s the result of being born to the winning side of some systematic inequality?
That’s a big part of the conversation that’s emerged in the response to my earlier post, in which I took issue with Rod Dreher’s choice to call out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “privilege” when what Coates was describing – taking a French class as a successful adult, in a situation that wouldn’t have been available to him as a kid – seemed a fairly clear-cut case of earned advantage. Freddie deBoer takes issue with that assessment:
Of course Coates has been the beneficiary of unearned advantage.
It’s an unearned advantage to be born without crippling medical ailments. It’s an unearned advantage to be born male. It’s an unearned advantage to be born in the United States rather than in Afghanistan or Somalia. And so on. Is that what most people mean when they talk about privilege? Maybe not, but then another of the central points of privilege theory is that the privileges that are most profound tend to be those we don’t acknowledge. Besides: Coates has written at length about the benefits he had growing up thanks to his parents, and to being politicized by his father, a former Black Panther. That’s a classic kind of privilege, parental privilege, and one that absolutely matters.
Such talk will inevitably piss some people off, but it shouldn’t. The fact that Coates has been the recipient of great advantages compared to many people in the world doesn’t change the fact that he has also been faced, his whole life, with the disadvantage of living in a structurally racist society, or the relative disadvantage of his own economic circumstances compared to some others. The point is that “privileged” is not a binary category, and in fact essentially all people are some combination of advantaged and disadvantaged.
Despite a tone that suggests he and I are in stark disagreement, I basically agree with him on this. And he’s right that Coates, going the 2012 article I suspect he’s at least partially referring to, probably would as well. How anyone ends up where they do in life is always going to be some incalculable mix of effort and unearned advantage. One of the great flaws of “privilege” as a concept – and as deBoer notes, I’ve held forth on this topic quite a bit; if my ending was “underwritten,” it was out of a fear of length of the holding-forth that could ensue – is that it fails to account for the myriad unearned advantages and unfair (but often invisible) obstacles that don’t fall into any particular privilege framework. Is talent “privilege”? Is growing up in a dysfunctional but upper-class family a lack thereof? It’s always going to be possible to point to individual rich people who’ve had it worse than individual poor ones, individual black people who’ve had it easier than individual white ones, and so on. We can all point to people we know who are, on paper, more privileged than we are, but have struggled more than we have, and vice versa.
But this is only a problem when one tries to apply “privilege” to individuals. The concept works much better for describing society, because it’s about all-things-equal. While unearned, idiosyncratic advantages have doubtless contributed to Coates’s success, that doesn’t somehow tell us that white privilege (or white unearned advantage) isn’t significant in some broader sense. I suppose what I’m saying is that I’d be wary of taking this critique of privilege as far as deBoer does when he describes “a world of such multivariate complexity that we can never know whose accomplishments are earned and whose aren’t.” Yes, life is complicated, but it’s not that complicated. Are we really going to say that the Harvard legacy kid has precisely the same level of unearned advantage as the kid who got in thanks to hard-work-and-dedication-privilege?
Two readers address this question of systematic inequality more eloquently than I could, so let’s end with their observations. The first:
I think the critique of Coates’ essay regarding privilege misses a key component of TNC’s entire project. When you argue: “people often round up how easy those who have it relatively easy actually have it. I’ve heard variants of this that are about class, not race – where those who didn’t grow up with college-educated parents assume that those who did spent their dinners discussing Ideas, not squabbling over nonsense, or watching bad television.” You miss the key difference, in a way that Dreher does as well. TNC’s point (and he links repeatedly to the research backing it up both on Twitter and in the Reparations essay) is not that there’s some vague privilege in having grown up in one neighborhood vs another and that if only his family had been middle class he’d be different. It’s that structurally, a black child in a family that we would call middle class is vastly more likely to grow up in a bad neighborhood, attend worse schools, and have far more contact with actual poverty than a white child with the exact same family profile. That is the access to culture we’re talking about here. It’s not a vague sense that someone reads with a child or that mom and dad talk about books or whatever. It’s that for black families, being middle class isn’t enough. They will live in worse neighborhoods, they will have greater contact with poverty (and violence, and likely the police) and their outcomes will be constrained because of it.
That’s what’s actually more galling about Dreher’s response. It’s that he hand-waves away the research TNC puts forward with anecdotes about his family, and so he never confronts the structure of the argument at all.
And the second:
I suppose this list of qualifications – senior editor a respected magazines, writing for top publications, spending a summer studying French at Middlebury – is a set of markers of class and privilege. But consider this set of qualifications: tenured professor at one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country, respected scholar with an international following, board member of a number of prestigious cultural institutions. Pretty upper class, right?
Of course, I’m describing Henry Louis Gates, who if we all recall was arrested in 2009 after being locked out of his house.
I’m neither a senior editor at a national magazine, nor a professor at a prestigious university, but if I’m ever locked out of my house, I don’t worry that a neighbor will call the police on me. Yet should that nonetheless happen, I’m extremely confident of my ability to explain the situation to the police and avoid arrest. And I’ll wager however much you like that Dreher is in the same position.
Here would be where I point out that this is white privilege – but I think “privilege” is not actually helpful, nor accurate. Rather, here is where I point out that this is in fact a question of class, that class has many components, and that alongside income, wealth, education, and profession, race is one of them.
Race is part of class, and I think a lot of the bitterness comes from the realization that however many achievements a black American may achieve in 2014, race often still trumps achievement as a designator.