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The trend of apologizing for your privilege is still in high gear. The idea is that if you have all the markers of being on the top of society’s food chain, you need to acknowledge that. But once acknowledged, what are you supposed to do about it is just not clear. Actress Rosanna Arquette took to Twitter to confess her privilege, and to repent.
“I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” She tweeted earlier this week. Her tweets are now protected, under advisement from the FBI, after she received substantial backlash for the absurdity of her guilt.
Arquette fell into the trap of apologizing for things about herself over which she has no control. In exactly the same way as no one should be judged for the colour of their skin or their socio-economic standing … no one should be judged for the colour of their skin or their socio-economic standing. That we are doing this, as a society, on the regular, is the result of privilege theory, which tells those who have the most that they feel bad about it.
Privilege theory came about with Peggy McIntosh’s now-notorious, listicle style, 1989 essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. This essay is the foundational text for the miasma of confusion and angst we’re living in where white people who conform to social justice ideology have no idea what they’re supposed to do, what hair shirt they’re supposed to don, or how many lashes they are supposed to inflict upon their entitled white skin before they are relieved of the burden of their whiteness.
The flip side of privilege theory is that we’re supposed to consistently take a person’s external characteristics into account when considering who they are. We are meant to take our own identity into account, and then discern another’s identity, given their external presentation, and then determine what our identity’s relationship is to their identity. The idea here is that we ought to consider the dynamics of our groups’ relationship to each other as opposed to simply meeting each other where we stand.
That’s how Arquette can be ashamed of her privilege. Because in match-ups between her privileged identity and identities that come with less innate privilege, she comes up short on the oppression scale. This way of thinking is divisive and nonsensical. Instead of considering group identities when considering interactions between individuals, we should simply consider the individuals present, and not worry about whatever tribes each person hails from. We used to know this. This was a lesson from the Civil Rights Era that has been thrown under the bus in an effort to right wrongs. Yet some of those wrongs still exist, and the confession of privilege, which has no redemption, compounds it.
While Arquette apologized, pop singer Iggy Azalea absolutely refused to. She was accused of cultural appropriation, which is something only a privileged person can be accused of. The idea here is that a privileged person can adopt, or appropriate, elements of a culture that not only doesn’t match their group identity but are an expression of an identity whose group is more marginalized. Azalea experienced backlash because she is a white, Australian singer who sings using a “blaccent,” which is not native to her home of Mullumbimby, Australia.
Back in 2013 when Azalea was first asked about her penchant for making the kind of music she liked regardless of it being in the internationally recognizable tradition of African American music, she apologized for some offensive lyrics, but didn’t apologize for her style. She still won’t. When asked about it in a recent interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, she said “I’m still going to make the same type of music and still be ridiculous and larger than life,” she says. “So I can’t be that fucking sorry about it.”
Whatever you think of Azalea’s music, her willingness to stand up for her work in the face of accusations that she shouldn’t be making it, not because it isn’t good but because of who she is and what her group identity signifies, is admirable. These accusations that a person shouldn’t create art or engage in activities simply because it is perceived to not match their identity is anti-individualist and anathema to free expression.
Privilege theory isn’t wrong, but it’s a way of looking at things, not a solution. We can be aware of our relative standing with regard to group identities in society, but we shouldn’t use it to make any actionable determinations. Privilege theory, like critical race and gender theory, or a pair of rose coloured glasses, is a way to look at the world, a lens through which to consider systems and trends in culture, but it is not the way out.
Confessing privilege may be all the rage, and it may make rich white people feel better about living within the bubble of their privilege to let the public know that they know how much they feel bad about it, but they may as well just type #blessed. The privilege confession is one without redemption, it’s an admission of guilt where there should be none. Instead of spilling your shame over things about yourself that you can’t control, be kind, accept people where they stand, and don’t judge individuals based on appearances, or perceptions of group identities.