The Sad Song of Privilege

Amber A'Lee Frost, The Baffler, July 12, 2017

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor.

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Dear Your Sorry Ass,

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As a twenty-five-year-old white cisgendered male, I feel like my life is completely useless.

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I have been dealing with depression since I was a teenager, and I have unsuccessfully sought treatment a few times before.

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I don’t really know what advice I’m even soliciting.

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Shitty Privileged Life


Dear Shitty Life,

The first thing that struck me about your letter was a rather strange new progressive social tic you hear a lot these days: the identity-politics preface.  Right out of the gate, you feel it’s necessary to tell me that you’re a “twenty-five-year-old white cisgendered male,” and only after that do you confess to struggling with extreme depression and money troubles—before ending with the self-effacing “Privileged” sign-off. It’s true that oppression and exploitation can be a huge factor in your mental health, but you just sound like you feel guilty about being depressed.

Here’s the thing about “privilege” rhetoric: it’s meant to be a thought experiment that articulates the different ways in which different groups navigate the world. But, on a personal level, it’s a dead end. And even as a thought experiment, I don’t think it’s very good one.

I mean, have you read the essay most responsible for the proliferation of privilege speak, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack? I would link you here, but Peggy McIntosh is incredibly protective of her intellectual property. Last I checked she was still trying to charge for printouts—it used to be $4 for the longer list.

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And McIntosh doesn’t seem to have reconsidered her work since her nearly thirty-year-old essay. Take this 2014 New Yorker interview, where McIntosh was asked about her original forty-six examples of white privilege:

I asked myself, On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer. The first one I thought of was: I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

Does this woman not know that Black and Latino and Asian neighborhoods (among others) exist all over the place, and that racial segregation in our country often means that people live in the company of their own race? Also, why is that even a privilege unless she’s assuming some aversion to being in a multiracial setting—that she would want to be in the exclusive company of white people? And what does “earn” mean? Why is segregation something to earn? For anyone?

Seriously, read the essay (if you can afford it) and honestly ask yourself: Why have we accepted this eighty-two-year-old Ivy League feminist’s ideas as absolutely true beyond reproach? Because she ran a glorified diversity consulting business out of Wellesley College? I mean their “diversity workshops” do boast a lot of impressive clients—Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, for example. That’s a fancy prep school where tuition for kindergarten will run you $24,000 to a year. Convenient how the wealthy permit themselves to cloister their children away from the hoi polloi so long as those children are taught to acknowledge how privileged they are.

I indulge myself in this semi-digressional rant not only because I think Peggy McIntosh is full of shit, but because I believe her “ideas” are not intended to change (or even analyze) the world at all; I believe they are intended to comfort the comfortable and to manipulate the emotions of those who are well meaning and self-critical. (And, also, she is just full of shit.) But for a depressed person such as yourself, that manipulation can really grind at your mental health. Depression already leaves one feeling irrationally guilty, so don’t subscribe to a politics that exacerbates it.

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