One of my most memorable lovers’ quarrels was about the controversial sociologist Alice Goffman. Go figure.
“A privileged white woman who went to Princeton shouldn’t write about disadvantaged black men in West Philly!” I insisted, confidently dropping my favorite rhetorical trump card — “privilege.”
“You haven’t even read her book,” my partner deadpanned, calling me out for shamelessly parroting someone else’s thoughts on Goffman. “How do you know she doesn’t have something worth saying about those communities just because she’s white?”
(What a smart guy, right?)
Discerning reader, you read this and probably thought something like, “Oh, she tried that whole thing.”
What’s that “thing” you know I was trying to do, but are short on words for?
“Privilege” can be a helpful term to describe systemic socioeconomic advantages that make life easier for some than others. It can help us identify what justice looks like, and what it doesn’t look like. I’ll be the first to admit, though: its ubiquity seems to make it easy and safe to use, almost without thinking. It’s what my philosopher colleague Brian Earp would call a “mental shortcut” that stops conversation as often as it advances it.
Using the P-word tells people that you’re self-aware and socially conscious. It’s a nugget of social and moral capital. Performing social criticalness can exculpate you as a participant in oppressive systems. That’s the “thing” I was doing: allowing my own intellectual and civic insecurities to swamp an otherwise important conversation about seeking justice for disadvantaged communities.
Conversations about race and representation come with a lot of historical and emotional baggage in US. It’s destabilizing to enter a conversation where the stakes are higher than simply risking a foot-in-mouth moment. If you unintentionally say the wrong thing, you could end up on the wrong side of history, so a lot of us end up over-correcting.
Much like when you’re driving and jerk the wheel to avoid swerving off the road, we can over-correct in conversations by turning the wheel in the right direction, but a little too hard. We render meaningful words, like “privilege” and “lived experience,” meaningless when we use them to secure standing in a conversation, as opposed to when we use them to keep the conversation on track.
Much like “privilege,” the phrase “lived experience” appears everywhere in conversations about social justice, but it can also function as an ill-defined trump card. Writer James Walker suggested, “In the present age, ‘experience’ is both what is beyond reproach and the embodiment of the sacred, defined succinctly by the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus as ‘that which cannot be laughed at.’”
Arguably, present deference to experience is a form of backlash against the historical reduction of diverse groups into damaging stereotypes. Just think of the minstrel show-style stereotypes that shaped the character of Jim in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
However, “lived experience” can also be used as an over-correction. Writer George Packer observed how this happened recently in a review of a book on the musician James Brown. The review suggested the book was successful because the author, as a black man, knew what was important to recognize about James Brown, as a black musician. Packer took issue with the claim that black writers have “penetrating insights and varieties of context that are otherwise lost to nonblack music aficionados, no matter how broad the appeal of the music under scrutiny.”
The problem with this logic, Packer argued, is that it doesn’t escape the trap of reducing racial identity into a set of essential experiences. Thinking this way doesn’t allow for us to imagine the diverse complexity of experiences that make up black lives in America. He explained that the proposition in reverse would be clearly offensive and wrong:
Mozart can be fully appreciated only by people of European background. You can take the most sophisticated, gifted, industrious nonwhite critic — sorry, he or she is just going to miss some crucial things (‘penetrating insights and varieties of context’) for not having been born into the racial lineage of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with its cultural prerogatives, its particular refinements.
To come full circle, I basically admitted at the beginning of this essay that I’m an occasionally tone-deaf liberal: I don’t always hear my words getting off track. We all over-correct and misspeak, though. I would hate this essay to be misread as yet another on how liberals are just as dogmatic as conservatives. That’s a blame game we’d all do well to escape. Instead of focusing on real issues, like justice for disadvantaged groups, that’s a conversation being had among an elite intelligentsia diverting time and resources to righteously silencing one another.
What if we spoke and listened more carefully instead of silencing each other? I took a hard look at myself and saw this: I wasn’t thinking before I spoke, or listening to the real and imagined meanings of words. How often does this stop us from sustaining dialogue and effecting social transformations?
I now disagree with, but understand, the former me who said only disadvantaged black men should write about disadvantaged black men. I was getting caught up in a rhetorical performance, without considering, “Does ‘privilege’ mean ‘bad’?” Sure, unacknowledged privilege isn’t a good thing, but merely existing in the world, as I do, with socioeconomic advantages isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.
I don’t have the inside scoop on whether Alice Goffman exoticized the account she gave of those communities in Philly to dramatize their drug use or poverty. I do know, though, that her skin color and privileges don’t automatically preclude the possibility that she could have written a book based on trusting relationships, an empathetic one and reflects the complexity of her interlocutors’ experiences.
Whether liberal or conservative, all political philosophies have a vocabulary of their own. In conversations about social justice, it’s easy to parrot meaningful words, like “privilege,” to present ourselves as progressive. But we might want to pause and consider whether our language serves a purpose beyond a self-interested performance.
Chelsea Jack is a Masters student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her writings for popular and academic audiences can be found on her Academia.edu page. Follow her on Twitter @chelseaajack.
Earp, B. (2016). Mental shortcuts. Hastings Center Report, Vol. 46, No. 2, inside front cover.
Fury, L. (2016). Media Coverage of Sex Workers Erases Our Voices. The Establishment, May 23.
Goffman, A. (2014). On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Haidt, J. (2016). Why Nick Kristof Is My Favorite Liberal. Heterodox Academy, May 7.
Holmes, A., & Parker, J. (2016). Who Gets To Tell Other People’s Stories. New York Times, May 24.
Lewis-Kraus, G. (2016). The Trials of Alice Goffmann. New York Times Magazine, January 12.
Nussbaum, M. (2010). From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Packer, G. (2016). Race, Art, and Essentialism. The New Yorker, April 7.
Walker, J. (2016). Authenticity and Experience: The Problem of Identity Politics in Literature. Quillette, May 4.