The Prophetic Problem With ‘Privilege’

Would the Prophet Jeremiah be impressed with your “checked privilege?”


These days, it seems I can’t scroll down my Facebook news feed without seeing something about privilege. At Boston College and within American Jewry more broadly, conversations about privilege of various kinds have been vigorous and ongoing. While much of it has focused on racial privilege, especially here at New Voices, there has been a recognition that oppression operates simultaneously along many different axes confronting privilege requires an intersectional approach. On the whole, this conversation is good, and should continue.

Still, I want to raise a question about whether “privilege” is really an adequate framework for understanding the problem of systemic injustice (here I have to acknowledge my indebtedness both to conversations with my thesis adviser, Dr. Andrew Prevot, and to some of his work that remains unpublished, which is not to say he necessarily endorses this piece). Privilege can be a helpful concept, insofar as it requires one to acknowledge that the persistence of injustice a) is actual and b) is the product of systems, not individual “bad-apples.” But two aspects of privilege discourse strike me as particularly problematic: First, privilege is framed as something an individual possesses, as a social good of sorts that yields unmerited dividends. While this is technically correct as far as it goes, it misrepresents how systematic oppression works. Racism, for instance, does not simply give white people “privileges” that black people lack. Rather, it produces and naturalizes a set of standards that mark certain people as “white,” and therefore fully human, and certain other people as “black,” and therefore not. It is not simply a question of varying degrees of “privilege,” but rather a hierarchy inscribed within our concept of humanity that denies some people even the basic right to have their lives recognized as lives. While privilege discourse identifies some of the unearned advantages that are a product of systemic oppression, it conceals the violence these systems inflict upon their victims.

The second problem I want to highlight about privilege discourse is related: Privilege discourse centers around the voices of “privileged” people, and therefore erases the prophetic testimony that comes from the underside of unjust structures. A recent campaign at Boston College is a case in point: Designated “Never Have I Ever,” the “privilege awareness” social media campaign posts pictures of B.C. students “acknowledging their privilege” with captions like, “Never Have I Ever been told to get over slavery.” As though the problem with racism is that white people aren’t told to get over slavery. I am not indifferent to the good a “privilege awareness” campaign might do for students who lack even the most basic conception of systematic injustice (which is to say, students with no idea what our country is really like). But any campaign seeking to confront oppression cannot do so if it continually marginalizes those already denied a voice in the socio-cultural mainstream.

Offering an alternative framework is obviously a task beyond the scope of this space, but in the second half of this piece, I’d like to begin to sketch out a way of thinking about systemic injustice that is preferable to “privilege.” We start with Charles Mills, who writes: “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.” We start with bell hooks (sic), and her account of what she calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” We start with the recognition that “privilege” conceals a set of hierarchical, murderous power relations that confers humanity on a group-differentiated basis. What we call “white privilege” is more aptly defined as whiteness itself, which is not a skin color so much as an ideology that profits some and kills others. Racism makes some people kill-able and permits others to get away with murder, and that is not a privilege, that is simply evil.

Too often, “acknowledging our privilege” is a ritual by which people reassure themselves that they are Good White People, or #NotAllMen. But if we understand the categories correctly, we recognize that there are no good white people, so bound up in the destruction of bodies and lands is the very concept of whiteness itself. Sure, there are good people who are marked as white, just as there are bad people marked as anything else we can imagine. But whiteness is not, and cannot be, good. The question for anti-oppression movements, then, is not how we can more effectively “check our privilege.” A concept of civilization founded upon slavery, brutality, and murder cannot be checked; it can only be refused and dismantled. Rather than “privilege awareness,” we might call this refusal something like “race treason.” Race treason takes more than sharing a photo on Facebook. And “privilege awareness” without a meaningful attempt to cognitively and materially de-center “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” is just another form of complicity.

For Jews, this is not merely a political concern. This is theological: “And God created humans in God’s own image; in the image of God they were created.” We are commanded to be a holy people, in imitation of our God. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik described holiness as an ideal latent in creation, which it is the human task to actualize. Any religious activity that is not suffused with passion for realizing God’s holy intent for creation is wholly idolatrous. Of prayer, the Rav writes: “When a man [sic] stands before his creator, he must give an accounting of all his quotidian activities. Prayer must be a mirror of human behavior; it should never become a power force enabling one to escape from oneself and one’s moral obligations.” As Jews, we profess that God’s creation is holy and all the people in it are equally made in God’s image, yet our care for the world often does not reflect that belief. We have put our allegiance to nations and races (and States) above our covenantal obligations to God, and that is not religion, but idolatry. Systems of injustice commit crimes against holiness, and thus against God. Any system that does not recognize the holiness of God’s creation cannot merely be checked or acknowledged or reflected upon; like the idols of Terah’s shop, it can only be smashed.


Evan Goldstein is a student at Boston College.


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One Older Response to “The Prophetic Problem With ‘Privilege’”

  1. April Rosenblum
    May 10, 2015 at 10:22 am #

    Great commentary, thanks for writing it.

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