Books and Code · A Miscellany

On privilege


Note: This was written in response to this article in The Atlantic.

I’m wary of people eager to opine about “privilege.” (But of course I would be, wouldn’t I?, being a white male…) By her logic, she should learn to write in a different language because English writers are extremely privileged.

Yet granting the premise, I’m skeptical that the solution is for white dudes to “use [their] privilege to humanize and valorize everyone, instead of just [themselves].” This might work occasionally (eg. Joss Whedon), but more likely it would be seen as abusing their privilege and misappropriating the oppressed (or simply getting it wrong). There’s an odious paternalism behind this notion.

Consider blues music. Not a day goes by where The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, et al aren’t criticized for stealing from the musical tradition of an oppressed people. It is unclear what, if any, this did to advance the future of African-American music embodied in R&B, hip-hop, and rap. With Jimi Hendrix a notable early exception, African-American artists and audiences have largely ignored the rock genre. Certainly, the intent of the appropriation was to cater to a privileged audience not a marginalized one. Yet, this is precisely the sort of misappropriation that this author would condemn! Whether white appropriation advanced the development of black music is unclear (IMO, not much), but if it did it was incidental. The tradition had to develop on its own terms, speaking to its own audience, and the privileged have no difficulty finding value in it in droves.

I think we do need more diverse voices, but the solution is never going to be the privileged writing what they don’t know (or worse, their self-flagellation as penance for inherited sins). Marginalized people need to write what they know. If they do it well, either:

  1. they will build an audience with other disenfranchised people or
  2. just as the marginalized have found value in the literature of their oppressors, so will the privileged find value in theirs.

If her description of the situation is accurate, there should be a vast audience out there craving to read something not about a white male. Give it to them.