Ways of Being: New Immigrant Fiction

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, March 10, 2016

THE MIGRANT IS the “defining figure of the 20th century,” Salman Rushdie wrote 20 years ago in the literary magazine Granta. In “this century of wandering,” of refugees and writers in exile carrying “cities in their bedrolls,” migrants taught us what it was to be human, he said, because they’d lost those very things that gave shape to their humanity — roots, culture, social knowledge — and were forced to devise new ways of being. And the migrant writer hatched a new language along the way. “To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free,” Rushdie wrote in his 1991 essay collection, “Imaginary Homelands.” Shoals of people still move across the world today, but the idea of a literature of migration seems to have fallen out of fashion — not with readers but with writers, some of whom chafe at being narrowly categorized, consigned to an ethnic beat, their work treated as sociology instead of art.

 “I don’t know what to make of the term ‘immigrant fiction,’ ” Jhumpa Lahiri said in a 2013 interview in the Book Review. “If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?” There’s a feeling that the designation edges writers to the margins — they are forever hyphenated and their work sapped of its universality. “I’m not an immigrant writer,” the poet Richard Blanco told The Los Angeles Review of Books. “I am the son of immigrants, and I’m an immigrant myself who is a writer. You always worry if you’re writing in the context of your story, it’s not ­mainstream.”

This is all very reasonable. Aren’t the themes of immigrant literature — estrangement, homelessness, fractured identities — the stuff of all modern literature, if not life? “Can it be that we’re all exiles?” Roberto Bolaño asked. “Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?” Alienation is alienation, after all. Kafka spoke to everyone when he wrote in a (possibly apocryphal) diary entry: “Enclosed in my own four walls, I found myself as an immigrant imprisoned in a foreign country; . . . I saw my family as strange aliens whose foreign customs, rites and very language defied comprehension; . . . though I did not want it, they forced me to participate in their bizarre rituals.”

 The trouble is that the migrant is not a metaphor, or not always. Two novels published this month make this plain, rendering the trauma of migration with harsh clarity. A LIFE APART (Norton, paper, $16.95), by Neel Mukherjee, and THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS (Knopf, $27.95),by Sunjeev Sahota, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, recount the stories of Indians making a miserable transition to life in England — from the costs of the journey (much dignity, one kidney) to the caste politics at either end to the first beating, the first sight of snow. Bolaño may be right, we may all be strangers in strange lands — but for some of us, these authors point out, this terrain is not merely internal, and it must be navigated without language or aid (to say nothing about that kidney).

Both books are elegies of sorts for the many characters who don’t survive the journey, who are broken or just turn sour or strange. But they couldn’t be more different. Sahota writes about the lowest castes and the tribes of the unlucky — lonely men lacking even nourishing fantasies, who suffer at home, angle to enter England by any means necessary only to be greeted by violence and dangerous, low-paying work. His sentences are crowded with incident, but he’s fundamentally an aloof, emotionally reticent writer. Mukherjee, who has inveighed against this very kind of prose in his criticism (“the dominant and unquestioned orthodoxy of contemporary Anglophone fiction”), is fussier.He is partial to elaborately upholstered sentences, sometimes unhappily so, and a contrapuntal structure — there’s a novel within this novel. He follows just one character: a young Bengali writer studying at Oxford on scholarship. But in both books, the favored and unfavored quickly lose their footing. They run out of money and overstay their visas. They’re forced into the twilight life of sex work and hard labor.

“A Life Apart” and “The Year of the Runaways” are part of a wave of recent books that cast a more critical eye on migration than usual. The immigrant novel has tended to be optimistic by nature — stories of upward mobility tinged with nostalgia for the motherland and animated by the character’s struggle to balance individual desires and the demands of the family or community. Continue reading

Fighting ‘Erasure’

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Illustration by Javier Jaén

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 2, 2016

EFFORTS TO FORCE collective amnesia are as old as conquest. The Roman decree damnatio memoriae — ‘‘condemnation of memory’’ — punished individuals by destroying every trace of them from the city, down to chiseling faces off statues. It was considered a fate worse than execution. But there are subtler, everyday forms of banishing people from public life.

In December, Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer,stood trial for sexually assaulting 12 black women and one teenager. He preyed on the vulnerable — the poor or drug-addicted or those with outstanding warrants — threatening them with arrest if they wouldn’t comply. Few people were following the case, however, until black women on social media began calling out the press for ignoring the story. Many reached for one word — ‘‘erasure’’ — for what they felt was happening. ‘‘Not covering the #Holtzclaw verdict is erasing black women’s lives from notice,’’ one woman tweeted. ‘‘ERASURE IS VIOLENCE.’’ Deborah Douglas, writing for Ebony magazine, argued that not reporting on the case ‘‘continues the erasure of black women from the national conversation on race, police brutality and the right to safety.’’

‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?

The casualties of ‘‘erasure’’ constitute familiar castes: women, minorities, the queer and the poor. In some cases, the process is so routine that it has a name; the suppression of women’s contributions to science, for example, is known as ‘‘the Matilda effect,’’ named for the 19th-century women’s-rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage. It refers to how female scientists have been left out of textbooks, and seen their research appropriated and their deserved Nobel Prizes given to male colleagues and supervisors.

But there has been resistance from these overlooked quarters, too. As with the Holtzclaw case, black female journalists and activists have been spotlighting how crimes against black women are met by silence and seeming unconcern — like the 19 transgender women of color murdered in 2015. The #SayHerName movement draws attention to black women believed to be victims of police brutality, like Alexia Christian and Meagan Hockaday, whose deaths received a small fraction of the attention given to Eric Garner or Michael Brown. In December, a group of activists organized a die-in at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State to protest that only five out of 107 participating artists in an exhibition called ‘‘Art AIDS America’’ were black. They publicized the event online with the hashtag #StopErasingBlackPeople and released a statement saying the exhibition ‘‘paints H.I.V. as an issue faced predominantly by white gay men, when in fact the most at-risk group are currently black trans women.’’

With the recent ubiquity of ‘‘erasure’’ has come a flurry of correction and confusion. There are attempts to create hierarchies of erasure among various minority groups as they try to square their particular histories — who has silenced whom? Who is now hoarding attention? Is asexual erasure more profound than bisexual erasure? Why was Daniel Holtzclaw described as white instead of half Asian-American during the trial? And what does it have to do with the race of the women he raped?

These internecine skirmishes can turn petty, but they also reveal that we’re part of ever-shifting power relationships. Our identities and our privileges are not static but deeply contextual. We who are silenced may yet silence others. This awareness is central to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, ‘‘Hamilton.’’ In a play that’s so self-consciously an act of historical restoration, with its cast of mostly black and Hispanic actors playing America’s founding fathers, there is a twist. While burning letters from Alexander Hamilton, his wife, about whom little is known, sings, ‘‘I’m erasing myself from the narrative/Let future historians wonder/How Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.’’ It’s an acknowledgment of the stories this play cannot fully restore, and of a group — women — who are still left out of history.

Wherever it is found, erasure, as a practice, can be detected by its preference for what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the single story — for easily legible narratives that reinforce the existing order. Take the furor around the film ‘‘Stonewall,’’ released last year. Continue reading

Invisible Designs: On Bohumil Hrabal

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Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Jan. 12, 2016

BOHUMIL HRABAL DIED only once — in Prague, on Feb. 3, 1997 — but there are at least two versions of the story.

In the first, Hrabal — one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century; the scourge of state censors; the gregarious bar hound and lover of gossip, beer, cats and women (in roughly that order) — slipped from a window while feeding birds at the hospital where he was being treated for arthritis.

In the second, Hrabal, whose books had been periodically banned by the government and burned by dissidents, now tormented by loneliness, became consumed with jumping from the fifth floor of his apartment, “where every room hurts.” He wrote about others who had fantasized about jumping from the same floor: Kafka, Rilke’s character Malte Brigge. And on a winter’s day, a couple of months shy of his 83rd birthday, he threw himself from a fifth-floor hospital window.

Because this is Hrabal, in whose work beauty, pity, sorrow and high silliness come tightly braided, both versions have prevailed; there is no official narrative. He leapt and fell to his death. He died of an excess of despair and enthusiasm, both retreating from life and nourishing it.

It’s a death out of his own fiction, with the grave absurdity of his greatest novels — “I Served the King of England” (1971); “Too Loud a Solitude” (1976); “Closely Watched Trains” (1964), made into an Oscar-winning film in 1966 — that mournful laughter in the dark. He once said his comic sensibility was shaped by a warning on a dry cleaner’s receipt: “Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.”

Today Hrabal is revered, if rarely read outside his homeland. But a book of his has recently been translated into English for the first time, a violent and merry collection of stories from the 1950s called MR. KAFKA AND OTHER TALES FROM THE TIME OF THE CULT (New Directions, paper, $14.95). It’s a slender book, perhaps his bleakest, and a reminder that we ignore Hrabal to our detriment. The “political novel,” so frequently an anemic assemblage of thesis statements, is, in Hrabal’s hands, antic and unpredictable, full of eccentric strategies for imaginative resistance. “One single book by Hrabal does more for people, for their freedom of mind, than all the rest of us with our actions, our gestures, our noisy protests,” Milan Kundera wrote.

But this approach, which I put forth so ponderously, is gauzy in Hrabal, lightly, artfully deployed. He is a spider of a writer: subtle and sly, patient, with invisible designs. He never proclaims — he never needs to. He envelops. His muse was his Uncle Pepin, who once arrived for a two-week visit and didn’t leave for 40 years. Lazy, loquacious Pepin had the comic melancholy of Chaplin, Hrabal recalled, and a meandering storytelling style. From him, Hrabal must have learned how to snare the reader with charm and plain language and logic slightly, sweetly askew. Many of his books take the form of digressive monologues — the novel “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” famously unfurls in one 90-page sentence — by stouthearted, ­simple-minded narrators. Ditie, from “‘I Served the King of England,” is representative: He’s whiling away his time as an apprentice waiter in a series of crumbling hotels, scooping ice cream into his boots to cool his aching feet, when he bumbles into history by marrying a Nazi.

Hrabal’s own date with destiny came earlier in life. Born in 1914 in Moravia, he was first a poet, in thrall to the French surrealists. Sediments of this fascination can be detected in his prose: a taste for the unexpected detail, for cockeyed metaphor — in “Mr. Kafka,” a man vomits and “the liquid runs out of his mouth as though he’d dropped a pocket watch on a chain.” Continue reading

The Profound Emptiness of “Resilience”

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Illustration by Javier Jaen. Umbrella: Resavskyi/iStock/Getty Images

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 1, 2015

THERE ARE MANY versions of the bird’s death, but in each, it rises the same way — out of its own ashes and into the sun. The myth of the phoenix, that symbol of endurance, began in Arabian and Egyptian folklore and was brought to the West by Herodotus 2,500 years ago.

We have an ancient attraction to stories of resilience, but recently, the word itself has achieved a more prosaic popularity. Deriving from the Latin for ‘‘to jump again,’’ ‘‘resilience’’ has sprung into new life as a catchword in international development and Silicon Valley and among parenting pundits and TED-heads. Hundreds of books have been published on the topic this year, mostly with a focus on toughening up your investment portfolio or your toddler. We’ve seen encomiums to the resilience of Paris and Beirut after terrorist attacks — but also to Justin Bieber, after his weepy comeback performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. It’s a word that is somehow so conveniently vacant that it manages to be profound and profoundly hollow.

Almost any organization you can think of has squeezed ‘‘resilience’’ into its mission statement: The United States Agency for International Development has an explicit ‘‘Resilience Agenda’’; the Department of Homeland Security lists two of its core goals as enhancing ‘‘the security and resilience of the nation’s critical infrastructure.’’ The word has started swallowing up creakier competitors in jargon’s version of the survival of the fittest, supplanting ‘‘security’’ and ‘‘sustainability.’’ At an event in March called ‘‘Uniting Nations, People and Action for Resilience,’’ Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, explained that ‘‘we cannot stop disasters, but we can anticipate the risks and reduce them.’’

Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-­class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way. ‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting. Best-­selling books like ‘‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,’’ by Paul Tough, and ‘‘The Triple Package,’’ by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, argue that children need to encounter difficulties, to learn how to push past their own frustration.

But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character. ‘‘It’s pretty much the same message that’s drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-­century chant invented to make children do their homework: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ ’’ the social scientist Alfie Kohn argued in an op-ed article in The Washington Post. ‘‘The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-­discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies.’’

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Mary Gaitskill and the Life Unseen

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Gaitskill in 1988. Credit Photograph by Sophie Bassouls/Corbis

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 2, 2015

WHEN THE WRITER Mary Gaitskill was a child in the 1950s, she was once taken to a roller-skating rink. She looked around and burst into tears. She didn’t understand why everybody was wearing the same thing, those poodle skirts and poodle hairdos.

‘‘It meant something, and I didn’t know what it was — it felt frightening to me,’’ she told me recently. ‘‘I thought, My God, this is too complicated.’’ It was a feeling that lasted until adulthood — a sense that people were speaking to one another in a code she couldn’t decipher. Out of this elemental confusion, Gaitskill has produced a body of work so acutely observant of human behavior that it’s frequently described in the language of violation: a vivisection, a dental drill, a flogging. There is very rough sex in her books, and characters who binge eat and rip out their hair. But the real danger is elsewhere: It’s in glances and gestures and sudden silences, in craving contact and being rebuffed. ‘‘I wanted to communicate and connect,’’ Gaitskill said when I asked why she became a writer. ‘‘I simply didn’t seem able to do it.’’

I first met Gaitskill on an August afternoon at her apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is beautiful, startlingly so — straight-­backed and contained, her body a wick of tensile energy, her hair a silvery blond. She offered me sparkling water and hunted down a lime — ‘‘I can’t serve it to you naked,’’ she said, quietly aggrieved — and for two hours we talked across her kitchen table. She has a new novel out this month, ‘‘The Mare,’’ and she seemed jittery about its reception.

Her apartment is a jumble of tatty rugs, climbing plants and books (in one pile in the kitchen: a Brassai monograph; ‘‘The Art of Joy,’’ an Italian epic on the pleasures of perversion; and a collection of Peanuts comics). She can’t afford to live in New York on her own, she said, so she shares the place with a roommate — a writer who teaches English at a college and yoga on the side, and who, I suspect, is responsible for the knob of sage on the windowsill and the kitschy Indian decorations.

Gaitskill is friendly, if wary in the way of habitually truthful people trying to stay out of trouble, and slightly irritable. She feels misunderstood, which, of course, she is. For more than two decades, she has been the object of admiration but also titillated curiosity and fear. In 1988, at age 33, Gaitskill published a short-­story collection called ‘‘Bad Behavior’’ about speed freaks in love, missed connections between prostitutes and lovelorn johns. The book combined formal elegance, sweetness and sadomasochism, and received a remarkable amount of attention. Rights were immediately sold to a dozen foreign publishers; Michiko Kakutani praised its ‘‘radar-­perfect detail’’ in The New York Times; and this darkly funny chronicle of thwarted sexual adventure became something of a bible for college women. Four books followed, in the same vein — gritty city stories of characters trying, as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘‘to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.’’

Gaitskill isn’t scary because she conjures monsters; monsters, she points out, are almost always in fashion. What makes her scary, and what makes her exciting, is her ability to evoke the hidden life, the life unseen, the life we don’t even know we are living. The critic Greil Marcus, a champion of her work, calls her a descendant of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne ‘‘is aware of the hidden chambers in the heart,’’ he told me. ‘‘He is aware that there are things that people won’t talk about and there are things that people can’t talk about — and those aren’t the same things. He wants to reveal all those layers.’’ Gaitskill’s fiction unfolds in these psychological spaces; she knows that we, unlike plants, don’t always grow toward the light, that sometimes we cannot even be coaxed toward it.

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Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 25, 2015

IT’S A TRUTH only selectively acknowledged that all cultures are mongrel. One of the first Indian words to be brought into English was the Hindi ‘‘loot’’ — ‘‘plunder.’’ Some of the Ku Klux Klan’s 19th-century costumes were, of all things, inspired in part by the festival wear of West African slaves; the traditional wax-print designs we associate with West Africa are apparently Indonesian — by way of the Netherlands. Gandhi cribbed nonviolence from the Sermon on the Mount.

We sometimes describe this mingling as ‘‘cross-pollination’’ or ‘‘cross-fertilization’’ — benign, bucolic metaphors that obscure the force of these encounters. When we wish to speak more plainly, we talk of ‘‘appropriation’’ — a word now associated with the white Western world’s co-opting of minority cultures. And this year — these past several months alone — there has been plenty of talk. In film, there was the outcry over the casting of the blonde Emma Stone as the part-Chinese Hawaiian heroine of Cameron Crowe’s ‘‘Aloha.’’ In music, Miley Cyrus wore dreadlock extensions while hosting the V.M.A.s and drew accusations of essentially performing in blackface — and not for the first time. In literature, there was the discovery that Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet, had been published in this year’s Best American Poetry anthology under a Chinese pseudonym. In fashion, there was the odd attempt to rebrand cornrows as a Caucasian style — a ‘‘favorite resort hair look,’’ according to Elle. And floating above it all has been Rachel Dolezal, the presiding spirit of the phenomenon, the white former N.A.A.C.P. chapter president who remains serenely and implacably convinced of her blackness.

Questions about the right to your creation and labor, the right to your identity, emerge out of old wounds in America, and they provoke familiar battle stances. The same arguments are trotted out (It’s just hair! Stop being so sensitive! It’s not always about race!) to be met by the same quotes from Bell Hooks, whose essays from the early ’90s on pop culture, and specifically on Madonna, have been a template for discussions of how white people ‘‘colonize’’ black identity to feel transgressive: ‘‘Ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.’’ It’s a seasonal contro­versy that attends awards shows, music festivals, Halloween: In a country whose beginnings are so bound up in theft, conversations about appropriation are like a ceremonial staging of the nation’s original sins.

It can feel like such a poignantly stalled conversation that we’re occasionally tempted to believe we’ve moved past it. A 2013 NPR story on America’s changing demographics and the evolution of hip-hop made a case that the genre has lost its identification with race, and that young people aren’t burdened by anxieties about authenticity. ‘‘The melding of cultures we’re seeing now may have Generation X and Generation Y shaking in their boots with claims of racial ‘appropriation,’ ’’ the rapper and performance artist Mykki Blanco said in an online discussion about fashion’s debt to ‘‘urban culture.’’ ‘‘To Generation Z, I would clearly think it all seems ‘normal.’ ’’ Hip-hop culture is global culture, according to this wisdom: People of Korean descent have dominated the largest international b-boy championships; twerking is a full-blown obsession in Russia. ‘‘We as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture,’’ Questlove, the drummer and co-founder of the Roots, said last year in an interview with Time magazine in which he defended Iggy Azalea, the white Australian rapper derided for (among other things) affecting a ‘‘Southern’’ accent. ‘‘If you love something, you gotta set it free.’’

But many of the most dogged critics of cultural appropriation are turning out to be the very people who were supposed to be indifferent to it. Continue reading

How ‘Privilege’ Became a Provocation

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, July 14, 2015

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.

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