Most progressive millennials will by now have come across some preachy internet think-piece encouraging them to acknowledge their white/male privilege. The HuffPost, Salon and the New York Times have all contributed pieces asking white readers to consider and admit to themselves the ways they benefit from and perpetuate a racist society.
The rationale behind this kind of thing is clear: You can’t take steps to fix a problem without first acknowledging it exists.
These appeals have worked, too. Admissions of privilege abound. The rapper Macklemore has released a track about checking his own privilege. A whole host of progressive white writers, including Mic’s Charles Clymer and Medium’s Elizabeth Grattan, have published pieces about acknowledging their own white privilege.
Unfortunately, one doesn’t need to do much digging to discover an ugly side to this trend. Just last week, Current Affairs writer Angela Nagle published a piece titled “The Scourge of Self-Flagellation Politics” in which she points out that many of these admissions of privilege have devolved into thoroughly unhealthy performances of self-loathing.
She points to the example of actor Donald Sutherland, who recently confessed that the election of Donald Trump made him feel “ashamed” to be a “white male,” or Jeopardy contestant-turned-social justice columnist caricature Arthur Chu’s tweeting of, “As a dude who cares about feminism, sometimes I want to join all men arm-in-arm & then run off a cliff and drag the whole gender into the sea.”
I’ve seen my fellow Stanford students reduce themselves to tears of shame thinking about this kind of thing. You have to wonder whether this is really a constructive expression of progressive values.
So why do people bother?
Fredrik deBoer determines that these displays function less as a vehicle to undermine social inequality, and more of a means to “deepen the self-regard of the educated white elite.” He points out that while many of these loud, privilege-admitting progressives will acknowledge the problem of white privilege, they will often stop short of actually doing anything about it.
As such, their displays of contrition become nothing more than a narcissistic means of patting oneself on the back and elevating oneself over less virtuous privileged people who don’t make the same performances of guilt.
While DeBour and Nagle do a good job exposing the uselessness, neuroticism and narcissism of some of these performances, the criticism shouldn’t end there.
Firstly, because few things could make progressive values less appealing to outsiders. DeBoer provides the example of a characteristically loathsome comic from the website Everyday Feminism in which a young white woman quickly explains her own privilege before switching to condescendingly lecturing white readers on their ignorance of racism before demanding “fucking educate yourself!!”
DeBoer writes, “I’ll set aside the question of whether anyone, ever, has actually been convinced by that kind of scolding.”
Since my social media feed indicates that the answer is apparently not immediately obvious to many Stanford students, I’ll take it up.
The answer is no. No one was ever convinced to fight the good fight by that kind of self-congratulatory drivel. No one was inspired to be a progressive or work for justice by absurd performances of shame. This is important. We just lost an election. In order to make a better society, we need to convince a lot of people who do not currently share our values to fight for them. If all progressives appear to have on offer is shame and condescension, then why the hell would anyone want to be a progressive?
This foolishness is very present at Stanford. I have been present when a fellow student expressed, without any apparent irony, her disgust that some frat-party attendees she’d observed seemed to feel no guilt or shame at what they were “part of.” I realized in that moment that this person had never in her life convinced someone who wasn’t already a progressive to join the struggle for equality, and that it would be a long time before she did.
There’s a second point in the discussion of privilege DeBour and Nagle missed. It’s that displays of shame are exactly the wrong response to having privilege.
Money, influence and security are all tools that can be leveraged to make the world a better place. Stanford students, who have been handed the proverbial keys to the kingdom, can fund worthy causes, take greater risks and shape the agendas of powerful institutions in ways most people cannot.
To think of one’s privilege as solely something to apologize for, rather than as something to exploit for all its worth in pursuit of others’ interests, is putting virtue signaling above real action, and it is others who will bear the cost of that.
Contact Nick Pether at npether ‘at’ stanford.edu.