Eustacia Tan (avatar)
updated 2 months ago

The Perils of Privilege: Very Long Book Review

Hello everyone!

I found out that I can't change the address on my driver's license today, so I shall do a live blog book review!

Disclaimer: I'm reading the NetGalley copy

Basically, I'm 20 pages in with The Perils of Privilege and there are so many things that I've highlighted so it makes more sense to just live blog the whole thing instead of finishing the book first.

I'm not very familiar with the idea of "privilege", so I decided it would be a good idea read up on it, especially since I see notions of it creeping into Singapore culture (Chinese privilege has been appearing a few times). I am normally wary of importing American social justice methods wholesale, because it seems to have led to a more divided America which makes me question its efficacy and more importantly, because Singapore is not America and we need to adjust for that.

The introduction, titled 'The "Privilege" turn', starts with the experience of someone being dog piled by accusations of privilege. The author points out two reasons why this is a draining experience:

1. It hits at the value of you as a person
2. It's intentionally vague (which privilege is showing?) or perhaps hyperspecific (you're not X so you can't possibly know Y) which to me seems like two extremes.


The conversation will have switched from one about some broader issue to the ultimately trivial question of our privilege.

The next section looks at the rise of the concept of privilege, and the author states that "privilege isn't so much a concept as it is a worldview." But there is a long history - for example, politicians in America like to portray themselves as humble, self-made people and their opponents as privileged elitists. But even privilege in politics only intensified in the 2016 elections and it became a "privileged people end up voting for Z"

And so, we move on to the basics of privilege. In academia, a 'privilege focus' means "looking at oppression not only in terms of the oppressed, but also of the oppressor. It means studying the systems of marginalisation by looking not only at the marginalised, but also at the non-marginalised." Which to me feels very different from the way that the word is being used nowadays. Reading this, though, I do agree that the word fulfils a need.

The next part is a little bit harder for me to understand. Basically, the central idea of the concept of privilege is that we refocus and realise that the "advantaged" is not the normal one. That I understand. But, I don't get the next statement, that says that "it implies shifting away from the notions of rights."

There is an example that white privilege doesn't confer additional privileges, but that people have rights taken away by virtue of not being white. I get that but - oh wait, I get it

Basically, I think the author is saying that in America, people of colour are essentially living with certain rights (for example, being much more likely to be seen as a criminal and shot), and to use the term "white privilege" suggests that things like "not being shot" is a privilege rather than a right that anyone should have.

That makes sense to me and I'm glad the example is here.

According to the author:

This is the biggest theoretical challenge to the privilege turn: An approach that's ostensibly about achieving social justice winds up suggesting, or seeming to suggest, that everyone should be miserable.

The author does point out a few more flaws, but it seems like those will be explored in depth later on, so let's move on to the next section, which is "a brief but sincere case in favour of using the term."

It seems like most scholarly proponents of the privilege theory agree that just acknowledging it won't solve anything (I agree). But being self-aware is a first step, and the author goes on to talk about why this has caught on:

However, this - the obliviousness angle - seems key to why "privilege" caught on. It can function in a subversive way, by saying that sure, this other person has everything, but you understand things that this idiot never will. [...] It's also - when used internally, among the have-nots in whichever area, rather than as an accusation - a way of conveying the sheer annoyance of life's systemic injustices.

Which to me sounds like "the reason why the concept of privilege is popular is because it makes someone who has always felt inferior to finally feel superior", which does sound like a very powerful emotional argument.

After this defence of the word privilege (although criticisms of the defence was included), the author goes on to explore the history of the term in its 'new' meaning.

The oldest usage of the word that the author can find is in a 1997 Amazon review that says that a character is aware of his privilege. But for the author, she started to notice the word around 2004, and realised in the following years that it had become ubiquitous. For me, I think I've only noticed it in the past few years, so I would say 2013-2014? Perhaps even as far back as 2012 but definitely after I came to Japan.

So why is the concept of privilege so popular now? To sum up the explanation in one word: Internet. Well, the author uses a lot more words than that but my impression is that the way that the Internet is used now is a primary factor.

Also, I learnt a new acronym - YPIS (Your Privilege Is Showing). And yes, it is an insult, not just a neutral description so of course people are going to take it personally.

The author also points out that a lot of the people being called out for privilege are the people who are trying (but failed) to criticise privilege, like Justine Sacco's ill-received tweet. (There are those who are outside the framework getting called out, but they don't care). To me, that seems like calling out privilege doesn't have any positive effects, excepts boosting the self-esteem of people doing the calling-out.

"Privilege", thanks to its ambiguity, is able to push all sorts of different buttons for agendas and identities of all kinds. [...] it includes built-in hyperbole. It ramps up every form of advantage to that of society's haves versus it's have-nots, tsars vs serfs.

And another quote that I find interesting:

Yet the more interesting aspect of the privilege turn is the emphasis switch from society to individuals. Or rather, "privilege" is about societyC but it's adherents insist upon defining individuals as the sum of their identifiable, systemic advantages and disadvantages.

I thought this quote was interesting because I've always had the idea of America as an individual-focused society, so the thought that even American find themselves moving towards more individualism shows how extreme it's going.

The author also makes a good distinction between privilege call-outs and general call-outs. Remember, you can call out someone's bigotry without resorting to their privilege.

And once you get called out for privileged, "the conversation switches from one about a broader issue to being about your interlocutor and his or her inner life." Which to me seems to defeat the purpose of pointing out a problem, since you're changing the subject.

I just realised that I've written a lot and... just finished the introduction. There's still 230ish pages to go! I shall endeavour to go faster.

Chapter one starts with a discussion on the proliferation of privilege confession essays (or essays of people who are - of course- sick of having their privilege called out) and you can't talk about this without the infamous xoJane's "black person in my yoga class" essay. Even I've heard of that one and it made my eyes roll. Then again, xoJane has published a lot of eye-rolling pieces, probably because that's how they get clicks.

(Anyone remember the piece about how someone's friend died and the writer was glad about it? I wasn't even reading xoJane then and I heard about it)

Anyway, the point of all this is that unless you're good at it, your privilege confession is going to come across as "conceited and presumptuous", but it's going to attract lots of attention.

Then there's a twist on the confessional, where the humblebrag is added. I'm starting to realise why I've always felt uncomfortable with all this - there doesn't seem to be any use and it's cringe-inducing.

Next comes more examples of YPIS call-outs.

After that comes critiques from the left. A lot of it is about how being aware of your privilege but not doing anything about it is useless, which has been mentioned earlier.

Ok, this next part is interesting. It's in the Clinton-Sanders Privilege Wars, which I didn't know was a thing at all. So apparently Clinton called out privilege and then Sanders supporters called out the Clinton supporters for their (economic) privilege. And of course this YPIS stuff goes to Trump too, and it's just one huge mess.

It is not longer enough to point out that someone is wrong, and to be [...] corrects that wrongness needs to be attributed to privilege.

Note to self: I have to check out Hadley Freeman's analysis on "check your privilege". But her point is that a well-meaning word to listen to others has become an angry cliche.

The author talks about her blog a lot for some reason, but there are lots of other references so I don't really mind, I guess. It is starting to feel a little repetitive, though, possibly because the introduction was quite detailed. Anyway, this section is on the criticism of YPIS.

And then things get really meta with privilege critiques of privilege and I'm going to have to read slowly. So basically there's the "you're fairly privileged to be able to argue on the internet" part, the "such jargon turns away would be activists" part and "people who can reject their privilege have enough to spare."

I think the last one is particularly resonant, because one thing that I've read of Trump supporters is that many of them are poor, white folks.

(Stats indicate otherwise but I didn't look into that so let's ignore it)

Anyway, it makes sense that poor people who are struggling hate being called out on their "white privilege", because it feels like they don't have any/can't afford to lose anything more. Plus, the word "privilege" has connotations of money and wealth, so it doesn't resonate with them.

But even with all this criticism of YPIS, it's important not to forget that it does have meaning. So obviously we shouldn't be going to extremes here, although that is very easy to do on the internet.

And hey, I finished Chapter One a lot faster than the introduction. So here's chapter two:

This is going to be interesting - a discussion on campus protests. It won't be easy to sum up though, because it's all over the place. You've got the mattress one (didn't the girl lie?) and people who want to rename buildings, and people protesting racist incidents and many others. But there are three broad categories: sexual assault, racial sensitivity, and free speech.

This segues into a discussion of privilege on campus, where the author suggests that a lot of this discontent comes from universities over promising themselves as safe spaces. The author compares this with her time in uni, which is "the conservative critique of education".

I wish I could quote the whole passage on disclaimers but basically the author acknowledges that she can't cover everything (I think she's done a good job so far though).

Tumblr comes up and I am not surprised. A sociologist named Tressie McMillan Cotton talks about the gap between the way words are used on tumblr and the actual meanings in sociology (the blog post is called "when your curriculum has been tumblrized") and this illustrates why I was very skeptical of cultural appropriation arguments from Tumblr - what they talk about seem to be different from what my sociology friends tell me.

Digression: I think that the tumblr This is Not Japan is deeply problematic and overreaches its boundaries. Not to mention that at least one moderator was impersonating a Japanese American and that a different mod doesn't seem to understand what Shintoism is, so I would not encourage anyone to take them as a source.

In this grand quest to eliminate obliviousness, there's actually quite a great deal of it. Everyone seems to miss that the most vulnerable students are precisely the ones who won't come forward about their disadvantages. Meanwhile, the students socialised to view themselves as deserving of special help tend to be... privileged.

There is a detailed critique of campus culture, the admission procedure and university in general, but I am going to skip a lot of it. I found a lot of it illuminating, but I don't really have a lot of things to say about it. You should just get this book and read it.

Chapter three is on problematic things that people like, starting with Woody Allen.

Fashion criticism - despite the occasional pleas from experts - has morphed into a tired conversation about cultural appropriation. (Much of this conversation hinges on the appropriateness of white British women and girls wearing Native American headdresses to music festivals... in the United Kingdom. The extent to which US-centrism enters into this is generally ignored).

Quoting this because of the last part - the US centrism - is something that I don't think people realise. The most recent one was Karlie Kloss but I've already written my thoughts on that (I agree that casting could be seen as problematic but it is still very US-centric).

Other examples include - dividing comedy into punching up and down, historical drama being criticised for not being diverse (even if that would be anachronistic) and more.

Now, it isn't new for art to be political but

What's new, then, is [...] the all-encompassing "privilege" framework. [...] A work gets called brilliant if it brilliantly skewers someone from one of the official have categories.

And oh wow there's a section called "But is it Appropriation" and I definitely sat up straight when I saw the title. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts' kimono exhibit appears here, and I am so not surprised.

It's sadly, a rather short passage but it is somewhat reassuring to know that I am not the only one that has the same doubts. A few quotes:

According to news reports, Japanese observers were partly baffled, but also annoyed at having their plight, not so much appropriated, as invented by other East Asians. Can Chinese Americans by offended on behalf of Japanese people who, when consulted, are not actually offended?

Yet a further, ignored, angle is the question of whether it's offensive (or even inaccurate) to suggest that Japanese people are somehow underdogs with respect to white Americans in the twenty first century.

The appropriation discussion is thus a microcosm of the privilege critique more generally. Despite being ostensibly about social justice, it ends up reinforcing and maybe even inventing hierarchies.

The next sections look at outrage marketing and that trends now end up categorising people as discussion points rather than people.

Next, the author looks at YPIS and jealousy. Some criticism can come up because the person thinks that the artist is untalented and therefore succeeded because s/he is "privileged".

And then there's Lena Dunham and privilege. I'm not a fan of Lena Dunham, and I think she's done and said some problematic things (what she did to her sister and what she said about wanting to have had an abortion are two things that pop to mind) but the section seems to overstate the amount of criticism she gets. Or perhaps I'm just oblivious because I think she gets defended a lot more than criticised.

Next the author talks about women of colour artists, and it shows the double standard that exist that people like Mindy Kaling (loved her memoir!) are expected to be entertaining and be a thought-leader and get everything right. But if even Aziz Ansari can get criticised for not getting it right, is perfection even achievable?

"Privilege" criticism leaves no conceptual space for enjoyment that isn't in line with politics or identity, particularly for any reader/viewer who isn't a white man, and therefore able to go the antisensitivity route without getting accused of personal hypocrisy.

And now chapter 4: Privileged Imposters

More cases of people being accused of privilege and I'm really amazed that people have so much time to keep accusing others of being privileged. One example was basically a DIAL type of blog posts and the 'privileged' part was soba noodles and waking up with yoga and fruits.

But note to self: also google "Feminism's Toxic Wars".

How do the men who confidently disqualify Hilary as a meaningful history-maker on account of how she's a wealthy white woman explain that we've never had a female president of any race or class? - Rebecca Traister

I thought this was a pretty thought-provoking quote from the analysis of Hillary Clinton, which is tied to the "white lady" (how privileged is she?) and "white feminism", and the author writes that "the concept of privilege is, it starts to seem, gendered female." And I guess this is why the awareness disclaimer became really popular?

Sorry, I know I'm rushing through the last few chapters but I want to finish the book today. Chapter 5, and the last chapter, is called Bizarro Privilege.

I'm sort of getting overwhelmed by all the examples but Trump comes up again, and it's like what I mentioned earlier - about the privilege call-out phenomenon and Trump supporters.

And then there's a small discussion of Jewish privilege which the author calls anti-semitism, and I tend to agree because history shows us that people have been accusing the Jewish people of all sorts of things - just look at that piece of paper that accused them of running the world; that got sent to the Japanese to convince them that Jews were evil (but ended up leading to the Fugu plan, which is actually pretty interesting to read about)

After discussing the position of Jews to privilege, the author goes to talk about the 'new Jews' aka Asian Americans. It raises the question of "who is less privileged" in this new framework and how that leads to scapegoating (think of the case of Peter Liang vs Akai Gurley - a Chinese-American police officer found guilty of manslaughter of an unarmed black man, but thought by his community to be a scapegoat)

So Asian-Americans exist in an uneasy position on the privilege spectrum.

And the conclusion (just picking up one quote but again, do read the whole book):

On this much, the privilege framework is accurate: Society has hierarchies, and some categories of people are - all things equal - luckier than others. Those who deny that "privilege" exists in those broad, sweeping areas where you need your head rather deep in the sand not to have noticed [...] need not so much a privilege check as an introduction to reality.

The trouble is that those hierarchies don't explain all injustice, and that they don't always correspond to the hierarchies that "count" according to the privilege framework.

And the "conclusion" section of the book basically summarises it as "privilege theory is a way of explaining the world, but application of it has not brought about a more just society (even if it has raised awareness)".

There are more examples and I learn that someone has tried to check the privilege of someone after she has passed away which if you ask me is overkill. And then the author gives her suggestions, which I will not list because it's quite a long list.

Final Thoughts

I think this is something that everyone should read, because the concept of "privilege" is something that has left American shores and travelled around the world. The book uses many examples to explain what the privilege framework is and how it can be problematic.

As for me, I think that the privilege framework should stay in academia. It is a valid way of seeing things, but I think this victim hierarchy has a way of diverting attention from the real problem.

Let's call a spade a spade, and not by a different name. I sincerely hope that the fledging privilege framework in Singapore (which seems to be a wholesale importation of the American framework, but with the names of the privileged change) is discarded for a method that is more accurate and less divisive than the privilege call outs.

#Dayrebookclub #Dayresays

(Also this is the longest book review I've ever written and I will need to do a lot of editing before posting it to the blog)

Day 56

Saturday, 25 Feb 2017

28 2
ilusuens (avatar)

ilusuens Wow i definitely need to read this.

2 months ago

eustaciatan (avatar)

eustaciatan @ilusuens please do! It's a very illuminating read!

2 months ago

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