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The Rise of the Privilege Epiphany

Donald Trump made them realize their dumb luck in life. Now what?

Anna Webber/Getty Images for The New Yorker

One would expect a column titled “2017 Was the Year I Learned About My White Privilege” to appear in Thought Catalog, the self-indulgent opinion site, or perhaps self-published on Medium. And odds are, the author would be a liberal arts student or recent graduate, their Sociology 101 coursework still fresh in the mind. But in fact, the above piece appeared last month in Foreign Policy, and its author was Max Boot—a military historian, unrepentant Iraq War proponent, and former adviser to John McCain and Mitt Romney. Not a Donald Trump supporter, but hardly a with-it millennial.

It was the president, though, who prompted Boot’s epiphany. While videos of police brutality—and a black woman friend’s account of racial profiling in department stores—contributed to this awakening, “Trump’s victory has revealed that racism and xenophobia are more widespread than I had previously realized,” he wrote. Similarly, the #MeToo moment alerted Boot to the continued existence—even in America, which is not, he notes, Saudi Arabia—of sexism. But there, too, the president is a catalyst: “Trump continues to sit in the Oval Office despite credible allegations of sexual assault from nearly 20 different women.”

Once a mainstay of a certain brand of first-person literature that’s now on its way out, the privilege-epiphany essay is experiencing a mini-revival of sorts. In a Guardian article published the same day as Boot’s confession, titled “‘Check your privilege’ used to annoy me. Now I get it,” English journalist Gaby Hinsliff wrote that “Privilege isn’t reserved for those who went to Eton, and it’s all relative.” Matthew Sears, a classics and ancient history professor at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, joined the trend with a viral year-end thread turned Globe and Mail op-ed that declared, “I’ll start 2018 by recognizing my white privilege.” (Fictional protagonists are also newly privilege-aware: Author Sam Graham-Felsen describes his new book, Green, as “a coming of age novel, but also a coming of awareness novel—about a white kid at a mostly black school who slowly wakes up to his privilege.”)

As a form of rhetorical progressivism, the first-person privilege epiphany is inherently contradictory: It re-centers the already privileged, and only tangentially looks outward. These essays can, depending the subtleties of the author, read more as self-promotional than sincere. But there’s also value in such shifts toward decency, however clumsily expressed. There are many people out there—Trump and his diehard supporters, for starters—who are miles away from even so much as gesturing at humility and self-awareness. If the previously oblivious are listening now, or at least declaring as much, that gives cause for hope that we are not intractably divided by culture wars—that it’s possible to have one’s mind changed, and that it’s a potential source of validation. (Sears, for instance, retweeted a bunch of praise, along with some criticism.) Unlike privilege disclaimers woven into essays by already enlightened writers, a public privilege epiphany seeks out those who might need convincing or desire permission to express views they didn’t always hold.

The current political climate is not especially conducive to changing one’s mind. Nor, for that matter, is online life. On the left, new arrivals to a particular cause or viewpoint are sometimes penalized for having not been attuned to today’s cultural sensitivities in remarks made a decade ago, or even just before Trump. So it may be worth overlooking the drawbacks and at times cringe-inducing quality of the privilege epiphany genre, and view it as a positive step toward ideological flexibility and recognition that for most people can’t be neatly categorized as enlightened or ignorant.

Hinsliff, Boot, and Sears all describe variants of the same conversion process. Boot recalled being “one of those smart-alecky young conservatives who would scoff at the notion of ‘white male privilege.’” Now, he wrote, “I no longer think, as I once did, that ‘political correctness’ is a bigger threat than the underlying racism and sexism that continue to disfigure our society decades after the civil rights and women’s rights movements.”

Hinsliff described overcoming her revulsion to self-righteousness. “There are worse character traits,” she wrote, “than sanctimony.” She didn’t always feel this way: “[W]hen the phrase ‘check your privilege’ began to be bandied around on social media some years ago—as a sort of rough shorthand for ‘you can’t possibly know what you’re talking about, because unlike me, you have never truly suffered’—it grated. I told myself that was because it was invariably deployed by sanctimonious people when losing arguments.” Now, she thinks she resisted the expression out of privileged defensiveness.

Sears, too, detailed a move towards earnestness. Once, he wrote, “I rolled my eyes at every mention of what many call out as today’s ‘campus orthodoxies’—ongoing oppression, systemic racism, sexism and misogyny, micro-aggressions, trigger warnings and any hint that speech could be a form of violence.” But then “I began to see the world and myself differently. I saw that I am extraordinarily privileged. I saw that, though I do work hard, I begin way ahead of others simply by being white. I’m not where I am just because of what I’ve done.”

Each of these essays explains the author’s privilege and awareness thereof. “Whether I realize it or not, I have benefitted from my skin color and my gender—and those of a different gender or sexuality or skin color have suffered because of it,” Boot wrote. “This sounds obvious, but it wasn’t clear to me until recently.” Sears: “Once I acknowledged and weighed the evidence that was right in front of my face, nothing was the same. I began to see the world and myself differently. I saw that I am extraordinarily privileged.”

Only Hinsliff addressed the psychology of privilege self-awareness. Her analysis is helpful but incomplete. She correctly notes “that nobody likes to think of themselves as privileged, with its connotations of pampered ignorance and thoroughly undeserved success.” But she doesn’t follow through and ask whether the defensiveness that the term “privilege” inspires might mean another framework for discussing injustice would be more effective. Instead, Hinsliff doubles down on the importance of getting the privileged to acknowledge their unearned advantages. Even assuming some will do as she suggests, what then? The demonstrated attitudes of privileged people—that is, affluent whites—toward their neighborhoods and schools suggest the problem isn’t so much that the privileged don’t know they’re privileged, but that they wish to stay that way, and for society to allow it. Rather than focusing on privileged people’s self-awareness, it makes sense to look at broader structures that serve as obstacles to good fortune for others.

There are some key differences between these epiphany tales. Boot still considers himself “a classical liberal,” for example, while Sears does not. “I can’t be a classical liberal any more,” he wrote, “because there simply isn’t a level playing field—not in terms of race, educational opportunities, economic resources and so many other factors—that ensures the best ideas are recognized and that effort is fairly rewarded with economic success.” The epiphanies happened at different times—Sears said his dates to five years ago, while Hinsliff’s was just this past the fall—but they all land in this same place. While the authors dwell on their own privilege, what they’ve actually become aware of, on a deeper level, is how society is unfairly structured. But this epiphany is largely meaningless unless it changes one’s behavior. “Like territorial acknowledgments, recognizing privilege must be but the first step,” Sears wrote. “Real action has to follow.”