Trump’s victory has triggered a spate of post-hoc analysis about what went wrong. One of the major narratives to take root is that Trump’s win was fueled by a rejection of PC culture and identity politics broadly.
I’m agnostic on this point. I see a lot of reasons to think it might be correct in some way, at least from talking to Trump voters themselves, but I also think the narrative is probably a lot more complicated than “liberals hurt my feelings”.
At the same time, having taught hundreds of college students over ten years, I can say that certain aspects of liberal America are grating on the average person, none perhaps more than the concept of privilege. Calls to “check your privilege” are one of the mainstays of left wing politics and one of the most often cited examples of those politics in conservative and libertarian circles.
Privilege as a concept is attractive to liberals because it describes something real about the world. I receive a variety of benefits from being a well-educated white woman that other people do not get. And these benefits are based almost entirely on luck. Of course, I’ve worked hard and I’m not going to undermine the importance of hard work. But there are things I haven’t worked for: I’m less likely to be pulled over by police, I’m less likely to be beaten by police if I am pulled over. I’m less likely to die violently, be incarcerated, live in poverty, miss out on a job or have my apartment application rejected on the basis of my race.
Privilege, however, is a pretty blunt instrument for talking about those kinds of benefits, largely because it ignores a lot of the nuance of what provides opportunity in our society. White friends of mine who grew up in dirt poor rural environments and who watched many of their friends die in car accidents or drug overdoses or end up in prison have a hard time taking seriously the idea that they are especially privileged in any way. They may have slightly more positive interactions with police, but then again, those interactions may still end very badly.
Privilege is also used as a (not quite) literal blunt instrument by those on the left. The concept came up in one of my post-election classes when a bewildered conservative student said that she had been told “check your white girl privilege” by a friend while discussing the election on Facebook. She didn’t respond because she didn’t even know what she had been accused of. Most of my students, including liberal students, have similar stories.
As a result, I’ve tried to think about ways to talk about what we mean by privilege that might more accurately (and less explosively) represent what it really is that we’re getting at when we talk about why some people have significantly harder lives than others based on factors outside their control.
One possible contender is to talk instead about risk. To take myself as an example, because I’m a white heterosexual married woman with a PhD I am at much lower risk of negative interactions with law enforcement. I’m at much lower risk of dying violently than my male counterparts. For a long time, I was at lower risk of my marriage not being recognized and therefore losing custody of my kids than same sex couples. I’m at lower risk of being violently targeted for my race. All these examples represent real harm that is more likely for some people than for others. It’s the same information as the privilege discussion, but I think the language of risk is better for a few reasons.
Here’s what I like about the language of risk:
Risk roots us in facts. Instead of talking about generic opportunities, I can talk to my students about research done on resumes with traditionally black names and those with traditionally white names. We can talk about implicit bias and how it affects the way people get internships, jobs, and a host of other opportunities. I can have them read Radley Balko’s work and have them picture themselves living in a town where they are literally targeted by police because they are poor. I can talk about the risk of arrest, of conviction, of incarceration. Risk gives us specific harms to think about and target.
Risk forces people to be specific. Instead of talking about generic white privilege, risk forces us to talk about concrete experiences and to try to understand the other side. Risk forces us to think about the intersectionality, as progressives say, of our identities. As a woman, I may be at greater risk of being sexually assaulted, but at lower risk of dying violently, than a male counterpart. That’s a more specific assessment than my generic “privilege.”
Risk also makes it clear that we’re talking about real harms, not just generic advantages some people have that others do not. Risk of death sounds much more like the harm it is than the term privilege can convey.
Risk also does a better job proving the epistemic point the language of privilege is supposed to. “Check your privilege” is meant, however poorly it accomplishes its goal, to force people to recognize the accidental benefits they receive just by having the “right” color skin (or whatever other privileged status one inhabits). Unfortunately, that epistemic point backfires when the word is used to target people whose own experiences are much more complex than the person hurling the word around is aware of. The person hurling the term privilege around is the same person who has no idea that the person on the other end is mentally ill or grew up in foster care or was abused as a child. Privilege is far too broad to be epistemically useful because it assumes far too much knowledge on the part of those attaching “privilege” to various identities and lives.
Risk doesn’t do everything it might need to, admittedly. It’s doesn’t fully capture the benefits many (not all) white families received from discriminatory housing laws or mortgage lending practices, for example. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued a few years back, part of the reason the average white family has close to 20 times the assets as the average black family is precisely because after ending slavery, white people then took away black votes and black land, and prevented black Americans from owning property through discriminatory lending, redistricting, and zoning laws for generations. Those effects persist. I’m not sure risk encapsulates that history.
Risk is also less catchy, which is both a feature and a bug. It’s a feature because it forces people to think clearly about complex issues and tease out the real risks and benefits of various identities in a pluralistic society. It’s a bug because it takes a lot of mental work that people are disinclined to do. But since part of teaching requires getting my students to do that mental work, I think it has pedagogical benefits, even if it doesn’t take off in the broader society. The catchiness of privilege, is, of course, part of the reason it can be used as a bludgeon to shut down discussion, which is also one of my main concerns with the concept.
The other thing that risk, perhaps, doesn’t capture that privilege does, is that the kinds of risks we’re concerned about in this context are those that are socially caused. My family history of heart disease, while it might cause me some misery later in life, is different from the chronic stress-caused damage that the poor experience. Similarly, my friend’s risk of death might increase because of her penchant for sky-diving, but that’s a risk she’s voluntarily taken on.
Whether or not the language of risk is the right angle to take, I think it’s obvious that we need alternatives to the language of privilege because, whatever else it does do, it gets in the way of communicating complex ideas about harm in our society and it interferes with people’s ability to recognize the harms that laws and institutions cause to vulnerable populations. The question then is how to talk about these harms in a way that demonstrates the depth of the problem to those from a variety of political backgrounds. Is risk enough? Are there better words out there?