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Liberals need to stop obsessing over privilege or they’ll never accomplish anything

People participate in the International Women's Day "Day Without a Women"
Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
Going in circles.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, a debate emerged over whether the general women’s strike planned might merely end up as a day of leisure for ladies who’d probably be lunching regardless. Some progressive critiques—Sady Doyle in Elle, Maureen Shaw in Quartz—framed race and class privilege as something to keep in mind when organizing a strike whose aim is ostensibly to battle such privilege. Notably, these critiques did not argue that the strike was conceptually bad idea. (In response, strike organizers ultimately spelled out that they were taking privilege into consideration.) Others—including several conservatives and the politically hard-to-place—used the presumed privilege of would-be strikers as a pretext for dismissing the endeavor.

It’s a reliable rule of today’s political discourse that those who vocally oppose privilege will be called out for obliviousness to privilege in their own arguments. These critics will, in turn, have their own privilege checked. According to strike organizers, the aim of the strike was to push back against “lean-in feminism,” which led, naturally, to the points about unequal access to a consequence-free day off. Indeed, this controversy is merely the latest reminder of how quickly conversations about broader cultural and political topics devolve into mutual accusations of privilege. As such, one of the big dangers of using privilege to frame societal critiques is how it can focus attention on whose privilege is showing, rather than which arguments (or actions) will bring about the most justice.

St. Martin's Press
Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s new book: “The Perils of Privilege”

In The Nation, women’s strike organizers Magally A. Miranda Alcazar and Kate D. Griffiths offered a now much-cited rebuttal to the protest-as-privilege hypothesis: “Striking is not a privilege. Privilege is not having to strike.” While I personally believe that striking is not in this context inherently privileged, I’m going to nevertheless step back from the conversation as it currently exists, and suggest that those involved in these debates question our terms. Specifically: What does it mean when we speak of a person—a woman especially—as “privileged”? Are we talking only about wealthy, white (or non-black) women with prestigious, well-paid careers, and understanding bosses? Or is the term referring to a much-larger pool?

While struggles are relative, using “privilege”—a word that evokes luxury—to describe any encounter with injustice is misleading and dismissive. To stick with the women’s strike example, a woman able to strike without losing her job enjoys a different level of societal comfort than a woman who is one missed day of work away from homelessness. Systemic inequality—racism and classism—is real, and a feminist movement focused primarily on the needs of relative haves requires a shift in priorities. But no woman’s status is privileged relative to that of her male equivalent. No striking worker’s status is privileged relative to that of his or her well-compensated boss.

The ranks of the economically exploited include many who qualify as privileged in one way or another. That’s because most people—including most women—are economically exploited while also not worse-off than absolutely everyone else on the planet. As Connor Kilpatrick has argued, privilege is used on the right as a way of telling struggling people not to complain (or organize). Here I’m thinking of Jason Chaffetz’s suggestion that poor people pay for health care rather than iPhones, but also of a strike-related tweet by British conservative Louise Mensch, calling out “privileged teachers.”

Now, more and more progressives have landed on that same framework. Rather than focusing on helping have-nots get more, there’s an emphasis on getting haves to have less. Rather than alerting workers to the ways they’re exploited, the left (or too much of it, at any rate) now urges the privileged to renounce, or at least earnestly acknowledge, their privilege. This formula gets applied even when the privilege in question is, well, questionable.

Alcazar and Griffiths hint at this complexity when they write:

Over the last several decades, women have increasingly faced a “double shift,” as larger numbers of privileged women find themselves responsible for paid, feminized labor as well as the overwhelming majority of unpaid housework and childrearing.

Indeed, as women have become better represented in higher education, degree-requiring work has been devalued. How privileged is a college adjunct or an unpaid intern? And as Dayna Tortorici points out in her N+1 defense of the strike, when women enter a professional field, that field starts paying less. The amorphous concept of privilege erases the difference between Sheryl Sandberg and a woman who maybe has a master’s degree, maybe buys the occasional almond-milk latte, but is still struggling to make rent.

Yes, the feminist movement needs to be more inclusive and less CEO-centric, and yes, individual feminists (and people generally) should be decent and self-aware. But I’m not sure it makes sense, when recruiting cisgender, or white, or middle-class women to feminist activism, to frame that invitation as instructions on “how to acknowledge your privilege.” Is it helpful for activist energies to focus on extinguishing whatever spark of outrage would-be activists personally experience? It seems more productive to take self-interest for granted, and find ways to channel individual grievances into actions that improve the status quo for all.

It’s important, when fighting any form of injustice, not to prioritize the complaints of those suffering from that injustice in minor ways. But we cannot allow the rhetoric of privilege to distract us from fixing the feminist movement’s (or any progressive movement’s) most urgent problems. After all, there’s always someone, somewhere, who has it worse.

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