THIS SPRING, THE novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put a new spin on the commencement speech, that most staid of genres. Speaking at Wellesley College, she didn’t emphasize how the graduates had been helped by their education, but how they had been hindered by it. She invoked their privilege — and her own — to describe how ‘‘privilege blinds.’’ As a highly educated woman, she told them, she hadn’t always been alert to the ‘‘nuances’’ of people who were different from her. ‘‘Privilege blinds, because it’s in its nature to blind,’’ she said. ‘‘Don’t let it blind you too often. Sometimes you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.’’
Adichie was speaking to her audience in their own language. The word ‘‘privilege’’ has become ubiquitous on college campuses — but in her coolness, in her ability to claim her own privilege without anxiety or abjection, she restored some dignity to an overstuffed, overheated word.
‘‘Privilege’’ is as old as society itself and initially referred to wealth: ‘‘We have got to fight against privilege,’’ George Orwell wrote. ‘‘And if the rich squeal audibly, so much the better.’’ But when social scientists began using the word to refer to the unearned benefits afforded a group of people, the term experienced a resurgence. It has prompted flamboyant disputes on cable news, memorably between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly, who debated whether privilege really exists at all. It inspires college students to fire off indignant editorials about how identity politics on campus and a culture of ‘‘checking your privilege’’ — examining how your perspective is shaped by your advantages — is going too far or not far enough. President Obama has been asked if he is doing enough to address white privilege in America. On the Internet, it makes for trusty kindling, and in the popular imagination, a cudgel: When people think of ‘‘privilege’’ being used, it’s almost always as an epithet, to shame.
In the 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois had an insight that privilege isn’t only about having money — it’s a state of being. He noted a ‘‘psychological wage’’ of whiteness: Poor whites felt that they outranked poor blacks; they could at least vote and access public schools and parks. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a women’s studies scholar at Wellesley, expanded on the idea, publishing a list of 46 benefits of being white (for example: ‘‘I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time’’; ‘‘I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection’’). ‘‘I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage,’’ she wrote, ‘‘but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.’’ For many, this idea of privilege was their introduction to thinking about racism not as ‘‘individual acts of meanness,’’ in McIntosh’s words, but as ‘‘invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance.’’ And for people of color, it was yet another powerful confirmation of their perceptions, their feeling that there were different sets of rules in place. It also made the case that failing to reckon with your privilege meant settling for a partial view of reality — Adichie’s very point.
But the shine has come off this hardy, once-helpful word. It looks a little worn, a bit blunted, as if it has been taken to too many fights. Instead of clarity, it has sown confusion: ‘‘I’m white, my husband is Latino,’’ one woman commented on a blog post about confronting your privilege. ‘‘We have a Latino last name. Does that mean I lose some of my white privilege?’’ Even those who find it useful in certain contexts say the word swallows too many subtleties and individual variations. ‘‘You need to know that I was privileged,’’ Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on his blog for The Atlantic. ‘‘I can run you all kinds of stats on the racial wealth gap and will gladly discuss its origins. But you can’t really buy two parents like I had.’’ My own allegiance to the word is atavistic — growing up, it was one of the few words I had to understand the racism I felt so surrounded and mystified by. But now I find myself wielding the word warily, like the devalued currency it has become — dismissed as jargon or used to hector. The only reliable effect it seems to produce is panic.
In a new meme on Twitter, white men have been posting photographs of themselves lying facedown on the ground, with the hashtag #takeusdown, in mock apology for their white privilege. ‘‘I’m waiting for the Semi Truck of Social Injustice to end my privilege,’’ one man wrote beneath a photograph of himself belly-flopped on what looked like very hot tarmac. The men appeared to be mimicking the poses of activists at ‘‘die-ins’’ organized to bring attention to the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In doing so, they seemed to equate the notion of being ‘‘accused’’ of white privilege with being shot dead in the street. It’s a comparison that would have been outrageous if it weren’t so ill-conceived. If the concept of privilege was designed to enjoin people to look and listen beyond their own experience, by lying facedown on the ground, these men ensure that they see and hear nothing.
Lest it seem that outrage over being ‘‘accused’’ of privilege is the exclusive province of angry men on Twitter, consider Joan Didion’s 2011 memoir, ‘‘Blue Nights.’’ Didion writes about her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, who died at 39, with a fierce tenderness. She evokes Quintana’s struggles with mental illness and alcohol, as well as her enchanted childhood spent on Hollywood film sets and in the homes of movie stars, at the Dorchester, the Plaza Athénée. But when mentioning Quintana’s Spanish-speaking nanny, Didion turns huffy. ‘‘ ‘Ordinary’ childhoods in Los Angeles very often involve someone speaking Spanish,’’ she hastens to add. She wants it understood that her daughter in no way was ‘‘privileged.’’ ‘‘ ‘Privilege’ is a judgment,’’ she writes. ‘‘ ‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.’’
The critic Maggie Nelson dissects this scene in her new book, ‘‘The Argonauts.’’ It is strange, she writes, that Didion, who has written so brilliantly about suffering, could believe that privilege and pain are mutually exclusive. Like some of the #takeusdown demonstrators, Didion holds that hardship negates the privileges of whiteness or wealth. It’s a perspective that obscures — almost willfully — what the idea of privilege was trying to illuminate in the first place: how structural privilege is, and how it manifests in the unexceptional and everyday, in what we take for granted. Think of how personal and pointed McIntosh’s examples were: ‘‘I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.’’ And Nelson finds Didion’s use of the word ‘‘cop’’ especially odd and suggestive. ‘‘The notion of privilege as something to which one could ‘easily cop,’ as in ‘cop to once and be done with,’ is ridiculous,’’ she writes. ‘‘Privilege saturates, privileges structures.’’
‘‘Privilege saturates’’ — and privilege stains. Which might explain why this word pricks and ‘‘opportunity’’ and ‘‘advantage’’ don’t. ‘‘I can choose to not act racist, but I can’t choose to not be privileged,’’ a friend once told me with alarm. Most of us already occupy some kind of visible social identity, but for those who have imagined themselves to be free agents, the notion of possessing privilege calls them back to their bodies in a way that feels new and unpleasant. It conflicts with a number of cherished American ideals of self-invention and self-reliance, meritocracy and quick fixes — and lends itself to no obvious action, which is perhaps why the ritual of ‘‘confessing’’ to your privilege, or getting someone else to, has accumulated the meaning it has. It’s the fumbling hope that acknowledging privilege could offer some temporary absolution for having it.
It makes sense that we’re fixated on the word ‘‘privilege’’ now: There has never been more ample or graphic evidence of its material and psychological benefits. Studies show that having a ‘‘black’’ name halves your chances of getting a job interview, and that experiencing racism has been linked to developing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and breast cancer. A small University of Virginia study showed that by the age of 10, white children don’t believe that black children feel the same amount of pain as they do, the first stage of dehumanization.
It’s easier to find a word wanting, rather than ourselves. It’s easy to point out how a word buckles and breaks; it’s harder to notice how we do. ‘‘Privilege’’ was a ladder of a word that wanted to allow us to see a bit further, past our experiences. It’s still the most powerful shorthand we have to explain the grotesque contrast between the brutal police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the treatment extended to Dylann Roof, charged with murdering nine black people last month in a church in Charleston, S.C. — captured alive, treated to a meal by the arresting officers, assigned a judge who expressed concern for his family. ‘‘Privilege’’ was intended to be an enticement to action, and it is still hopeful, if depleted and a little lost. It is emblematic of the kinds of pressures we put on language, our stubborn belief that the right word can be both diagnosis and cure.