More Wrong Than Right On Privilege-Checking & Oscars Jokes
I’m accustomed to disagreeing with Freddie DeBoer, but I’m unused to seeing him employ lousy logic and self-defeating arguments. So it was surprising to see him do so poorly on the subject of privilege — the subject of some of his best and most personal writing — in a post about the debate over jokes and offense-taking that followed the Oscars:People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone’s back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don’t mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.
This is a worthwhile set of questions, in a vacuum. If it never goes beyond a classroom exercise, privilege-checking becomes self-serving. At its most conspicuous and vapid it can be a vehicle for social positioning and alienation rather than, y’know, good things. (Such as making economically-disadvantaged white people realize they are still privileged, and using mass awareness of the bad-hand-at-a-good-table reality of social capital and skin color to shift public attitudes towards the systems of oppression and privilege-protection Freddie so rightly assails.) This is why privilege-checking isn’t and shouldn’t be a constant apologia or a hair-shirted gnash-toothed exercise in look-at-me posturing. White people who run around flashing their awareness of privilege like a credential of their Good Guy status are not helping anything, save themselves. And when they turn their awareness of privilege into a cudgel in interactions with less-aware (or less-overtly-signalling) white folk, they prove Freddie’s point. In a vacuum, this is provocative and potentially enlightening stuff.
However, he didn’t ask those questions in a vacuum. And the context transforms the above-quoted into a foolish wholesale renouncing of the public, interactive, instructive privilege-checking that a lot of people use the internet to pursue. Here’s how Freddie’s piece starts:When I saw, in this Atlantic Wire piece, that Internet personality “Jay Smooth” was lecturing Radley Balko on his attitude towards people of color, I laughed out loud. It’s like God decided, “I’m going to create the perfect possible example of cultural liberalism’s preference for feelings over material conditions.”Jay Smooth makes videos on the Internet. So he’s got that going for him. Radley Balko, meanwhile, has gotten actual black people out of actual jail. He has worked tirelessly against police abuse and corruption, the drug war, and mass incarceration, and specifically the mass incarceration of young black men.
He goes on to extend his slap at Ill Doctrine’s Smooth into a familiar indictment of social media as a dead end that saps social liberal energy in a meaningless game of who’s-the-coolest — in this case, by encouraging folks to the kind of showy, vapid privilege-checking discussed above.
Right out of the box, you’ve got Freddie declaring that only material accomplishments have value, and that in any given interaction, the person with the fewer material accomplishments has no standing to critique the actions of the person with more of them. We should ignore or discount those whose contribution to a better world is in improving and expanding the running conversation about how to achieve a better world. You could probably take that as a cue to ignore Freddie himself (or me!) and be done with it, but then you’d miss the real cockery:If you’re a white person who thinks that “Jay Smooth” has the right to lecture Radley Balko about race in America, you care more about your social positioning than about the material conditions of the nonwhite people you claim to be speaking for. Period.
Let’s count ways in which this is convenient, obfuscatory horseshit: