Check Their Privilege

In the New York Times Magazine, a peculiar article by Claudia Rankine, a Yale English professor, muses about a provocative question. It’s peculiar not just in its putative subject matter, white privilege, but in its buried lede. The article purports to be about Rankine’s inquiry of white men about what they think of their privilege. This would be odd enough, since the perspective of white privilege exists primarily from the outside. It’s like asking a fish to talk about its feelings on water.

Perhaps this is why one day in New Haven, staring into the semicircle of oak trees in my backyard, I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege. I imagined myself — a middle-aged black woman — walking up to strangers and doing so. Would they react as the police captain in Plainfield, Ind., did when his female colleague told him during a diversity-training session that he benefited from “white male privilege”? He became angry and accused her of using a racialized slur against him. (She was placed on paid administrative leave, and a reprimand was placed permanently in her file.) Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after white man walk away as if I were mute? Would they think I worked for Trevor Noah or Stephen Colbert and just forgot my camera crew? The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to, and though my husband is white, I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage, even if my fantasies of these encounters seemed outlandish. I wanted to try.*

She manages to squeeze in there that she’s a middle-aged black woman married to a white man. She seized upon a random story of police captain as poster boy for white men, and blames white men for not seeking her out, ignoring the alternative of her seeking them out. So, here she was, theoretically, ready to indulge her fantasy encounters. Except she doesn’t actually do so. Instead, she muses about doing so, and from there devolving into fantasy explanations of what would happen if she did so. Except she doesn’t do so.

The closest she comes is when a guy cuts in front of her in the First Class line at the airport, where she parses his inner secret white privilege motives through the goo in her mind. Even her retelling of her therapist’s response is peculiar.

Later, when I discussed this moment with my therapist, she told me that she thought the man’s statement was in response to his flight mate, not me. I didn’t matter to him, she said; that’s why he could step in front of me in the first place. His embarrassment, if it was embarrassment, had everything to do with how he was seen by the person who did matter: his white male companion. I was allowing myself to have too much presence in his imagination, she said. Should this be a comfort? Was my total invisibility preferable to a targeted insult?

Some people imagine themselves the star of every story, including the stories occurring in other people’s worlds. And if, as the therapist suggested, she wasn’t the star, then she’s still the star by dint of her being rendered invisible, as if she was different than the hundred people one runs across in a random day.

And so we arrive at the buried lede: Through whose lens is this “conversation” about race to happen, that of the person to whom the inquiry is made or that of the person making inquiry?

In this story, problems arise from the intrusion of narcissistic delusions, a story told not of what happened, but what someone would imagine happened if she actually did what she thought about doing, except she didn’t bother and instead invented a conversation that never happened. But even if it happened, would it then be filtered through her perspective, retold, as it was to her therapist, the way she perceived it? Could she possibly give the responses honestly, or would she be constrained to reinvent them through her mind’s eye?

The answer, if there is one, reveals itself in the white man with whom she actually engages.

Back home, when I mentioned these encounters to my white husband, he was amused. “They’re just defensive,” he said. “White fragility,” he added, with a laugh. This white man who has spent the past 25 years in the world alongside me believes he understands and recognizes his own privilege. Certainly he knows the right terminology to use, even when these agreed-upon terms prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition. These phrases — white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation — have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation.

Her husband, the white guy, used the right jargon, white fragility, “white defensiveness, white appropriation,” but still he was wrong.

He was not wrong, of course, but he joined all the “woke” white men who set their privilege outside themselves — as in, I know better than to be ignorant or defensive about my own privilege. Never mind that that capacity to set himself outside the pattern of white male dominance is the privilege. There’s no outrunning the kingdom, the power and the glory.

If there is no answer that doesn’t prove white privilege, then there isn’t much point in talking about it. Finally, an explanation of why the New York Times published an article about someone asking white men about privilege without every actually doing it, and instead indulging their narcissistic delusions to get their answer. And this is what they teach students at Yale.

*Forgive the long block quote, but Rankine is an academic, and short, less verbose, more readable paragraphs are an unforgivable sin in the Academy.

49 thoughts on “Check Their Privilege

  1. Guitardave

    I always thought the best thing about having imaginary friends is that they always say the right thing…?

    1. SHG Post author

      Until the Prozac kicks in, anyway (this is where delurking gives me a lesson in psychopharmacology, because he just can’t help himself).

      1. Casual Lurker

        “Until the Prozac kicks in, anyway (this is where delurking gives me a lesson in psychopharmacology, because he just can’t help himself).”

        I didn’t realize delurking was also member of the head-shrinkers club? Or are you just confusing your “lurkers”?

        In any case, not wanting to disappoint, Prozac is generally not suited to controlling delusions or hallucinations. Although, antidepressants are sometimes used in odd circumstances. However, when they are, it’s usually something in the SNRI class, such as Venlafaxine, a/k/a Effexor. (Prozac is in the SSRI class, and is the Rx of choice for the dreaded PMDD! – think Demetra Nyx).

        The usual first line drugs are those in the so-called “conventional” antipsychotic class, like those in the Phenothiazine family. e.g. Chlorpromazine (a/k/a Thorazine), Stelazine, and related derivatives like Mellaril, Etc. Also in the conventional class is the ever-popular Haldol (a/k/a “chemical handcuffs”).

        Then come the newer “atypical” antipsychotics. These include drugs such as Risperidone, Clozapine, Olanzapine, Etc. The current crop of atypicals are often preferred due to less pronounced side-effects.

        For a number of reasons (some obvious, some not), the conventionals tend to be better suited to in-patients, the atypicals to out-patients.

        Too much? Best to be careful when invoking the name(s) of the head-shrinking spirits!

        Anyway, sorry to have not done much commenting lately. Things have been busy. June through early August is when we’re trying to break-in the new crop of R1s, and just trying keep them from killing anyone doing more harm than good. That, and a million other things that have been dumped in my lap.

        All the best!

  2. Orthogon

    There’s a somewhat outdated concept from Social Psychology called “ambiguity tolerance”, a framework which tries to measure individuals’ ability to refrain from projecting categorical labels onto ambiguous situations. Experimental results suggested that most individuals preferred a negative explanation of ambiguous situations to the anxiety produced by no explanation at all.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s long been one of my themes that successful and sane criminal defense lawyers have a great tolerance for ambiguity, a concept that I don’t find outdated in the least. There’s no way to survive the legal system without it.

  3. wilbur

    Your last sentence was a welcome confirmation of my reaction that muddled writing is a strong indicator of muddled thinking.

    1. SHG Post author

      As Shakespeare once told me, “I don’t know what I think until I see what I write.” Sometimes, it’s ugly.

  4. Elpey P.

    This weaponization of “fragility” is one of the weirder projections of this current discourse. Apparently it’s only a shortcoming when applied to white people, while for others it’s celebrated, and white people should be more apathetic about accusations of racism against them. And I swear I never touched her hair.

  5. Hunting Guy

    She comes up and asks me about my privilege……

    Admiral Ackbar.

    “It’s a trap!”


    Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    “Run away, run away.”

  6. Richard Kopf


    After reading Professor Rankine’s essay and your post, I imagined the following conversation with the Professor:

    Professor: What do you think about white privilege?

    Kopf: I don’t think about it hardly at all.

    Professor: Do you acknowledge your white privilege or, as I prefer, white dominance?

    Kopf: Sure.

    Professor: How does that make you feel (she, having learned the way of therapists)?

    Kopf: it’s better than the alternative.

    Professor: Are you being snarky?

    Kopf: I snark therefore I am.

    And, there nearly ended the story of my conversation with my imaginary new friend. But, thankfully, that was not the case.

    Because the Professor both taught and wrote poetry, we spent the next 24 hours straight discussing whether Beowulf, the Old English epic poem consisting of 3,182 lines, contained the first known exemplification in poetic form of white privilege. Although we both agreed never to drink mead again, we could not reach agreement on the primary subject of our discussion,

    All the best.


    1. Jeffrey Gamso

      Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
      þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
      hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
      Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
      monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
      egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
      feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
      weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
      oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
      ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
      gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.

      Which is, roughly,

      Hear! We have heard the glory
      of the Spear-Danes – how great deeds
      those noble warriors did.
      Scyld Scefing, would seize
      from many foes the benches from their mead-halls,
      terrorizing his enemies, though first he might be
      helpless and poor. He would exact revenge
      He grew, from below to great honor
      from neighboring tribes and from
      those beyond the whale-road, submission
      and tribute. That was a good king!

          1. Richard Kopf


            Blame the Danes!

            I’m a friggin true German. I get enough unwarranted shit already.

            All the best.


          2. LocoYokel

            I just want know how long it took him to write that looking up all those unicode characters and pasting them in.

  7. L. Phillips

    I lived such a simple life.

    Black, female lieuenant as we walked away from an awful morning spent in sensitivity training with dozens of our peers: “Sergeant, your white privilege is showing.”

    Me: “Fine, I’ll go on a diet.”

    Her, laughing: “Whatever. It’s still your turn to buy lunch.”

          1. Hunting Guy

            Is jiggling a term of art?

            I’m not familiar with it in that usage.

            The dictionary definition is

            “To move or rock lightly up and down or to and fro in an unsteady, jerky manner: The gelatin jiggled on the plate.”

            I guess I’m just an old foggy.

  8. Pingback: The Myth Of White Male Privilege - Derek L. Ramsey

  9. Jardinero1

    “a story told not of what happened, but what someone would imagine happened if she actually did what she thought about doing” – Scott H. Greenfield. No single sentence could better summarize The New York Times today than that single sentence. Thank you.

  10. MonitorsMost

    This article was considerably more entertaining when you retweeted it through Kay Rosenfield and I mistakenly thought she was the author. When I got to the part where it said “I imagined myself – a middle aged black woman -…” I eventually figured out my mistake.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Has Rankine ever checked her own privilege as a tenured professor at an Ivy League school being paid a great deal of money to do not much actual work? She can’t even be bothered to leave her office and do actual field research, preferring to cite anecdote and invent straw men to populate high falutin word salad. I suspect there is also fear as well as laziness at work since talking to real people outside the “woke” bubble places her at risk of having preconceptions challenged.

  11. Matthew Scott Wideman

    I was not surprised at her apprehension to have a conversation about “race” in America. Difficult topics are difficult to discuss. Then I found out she had a white husband and I was like……. seriously. Why is this pertinent to be published. This is just some crazy person’s inner fantasy about being oppressed in an Oprah produced movie.

  12. cinnamongirl

    This is a perfect example of an academic having too much time on her hands. Here she is traveling all over the world in first class no less, with just a mere mention of her economic privilege yet doing nothing but trying to interpret what’s in the mind of her fellow travelers, in a way only a narcissist can. I only get to fly in first class when i agree to take the next flight as a perk in an overbook situation. I’m short in stature and get pushed out of the way all the time by big people. Most big people are men. I don’t attribute it to male privilege. The fact is tall people are easily seen. Instead, I’ve learned to yell in a very loud voice. “Hey bartender, I need a drink and make it a double”

  13. John V. Burger

    This is a beautiful paragraph:

    “He was not wrong, of course, but he joined all the “woke” white men who set their privilege outside themselves — as in, I know better than to be ignorant or defensive about my own privilege. Never mind that that capacity to set himself outside the pattern of white male dominance is the privilege. There’s no outrunning the kingdom, the power and the glory.”

    Wrap that privilege up in religion and you have one mighty, immutable, and unassailable privilege. Yes, you do. But, answer me this: If everything is an expression of “white privilege” or “white dominance”, doesn’t that also mean that nothing is an expression of “white privilege” or “white dominance”?


  14. Jim Cline

    There’s really no way to say this without offending somebody, somewhere, and that’s unfortunately the way things are now. If I followed her line of reasoning I would have to think she got her position due to affirmative action rather than on merit. Just because you may have benefited from something does not mean you are actively taking advantage of it.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s unfair and without basis. You can disagree with her, even find her unqualified by her writing, but to make the leap to AA is a step too far. There are plenty of academics who didn’t get their position due to AA who are, ahem, less than impressive. Don’t go there.

      1. Jim Cline

        I was not saying I followed her line of reasoning. Of the eight supervisors I’ve had at my current job the two best were black women. The only privilege I’ve had was learning how to better do my job. I felt I was just pointing out the flaw in her reasoning. By making assumptions about others without any facts, she’s only making things worse.

        1. SHG Post author

          All of that may be, but there was no reason and no basis to make that blind leap. I’m offended by it, and I’m not easy to offend.

  15. Brian U

    Reading through the post summarizing Prof. Rankin’s thoughts, and comments on the post, it seems that many could benefit from reading Don Miguel Ruiz “The Four Agreements”, focusing on Agreement 2: Don’t take anything personally, and Agreement 3: Don’t make assumptions. Wikipedia has a nice summary (no link per rules)

  16. Random Wine Geek

    In light of Portland State’s investigation of Peter Boghossian for the “Sokol Squared” papers, Prof. Rankine may have been afraid to go from imaginary conversations to real ones without IRB approval.

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