History professor Oliver Lee Bateman checks the various privileges symbolized by a single flaming chili pepper.
Recently, I wrote an essay about my brief tenure as an Abercrombie & Fitch manager—a piece that had the misfortune of going viral. I use the term “misfortune” in the previous sentence because a) the article concerned a period of my life that was extremely unpleasant and b) it’s assuredly going to remain the most-read thing that I’ll ever write. I gave that story the requisite happy ending, explaining how my departure from Abecrombie launched a decade-long odyssey that concluded with me accepting a position as a tenure-track professor. Yet one final issue remains to be addressed: my flaming chili pepper on the Rate My Professors website.
I was only a B- by Abercrombie & Fitch’s lofty employee-grading standards, so RMP’s assessment is quite generous. Perhaps I should be grateful, given that research shows a positive correlation between an instructor’s appearance and the evaluation scores awarded by his or her students. Or perhaps I should be wary, given how Robin Wilson, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has noted that faculty are “hot at their own risk.” But I’m neither–I’m just perplexed. And privileged, all too privileged.
Princeton undergraduate Tal Fortgang achieved Jerry Sandusky-like levels of blogosphere notoriety after publishing an essay about refusing to “check his privilege” when dealing with less fortunate peers. Fortgang’s piece, a gene yuss bit of trolling on a par with some of Ann Coulter’s best work, likely secured him an internship at The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, Win Ben Stein’s Money or any other right-wing forum where he had been seeking employment. The furious response that followed would serve as a valuable reminder of why privilege checking, though sometimes caricatured and tut-tutted by clueless old grumps who also have problems with trigger warnings, has been a salutary development in polite discourse.
A salutary development yet also an extremely complicated one, since any human being embodies (quite literally) a host of privileges. Some, such as race and gender, are evident at first glance. Wealth, education, and health might be more difficult to discern. Privileges can be context-dependent: a heavier-than-average cisgender female in Mauritania might benefit from that society’s dramatically different beauty standards, but residence in Mauritania brings with it a host of disadvantages. And privileges are subject to fluctuation: that same cisgender female could arrive in the United States, and, by drawing on reserves of wealth and education, lose weight through a carefully-programmed exercise routine (the ability to exercise is itself privileged, for various reasons). If that cisgender female should become a transgender male, the privileges and disadvantages would once again shift, further complexifying any efforts to arrive at a one-size-fits-all conclusion about this individual’s place in the social hierarchy.
The flaming chili pepper symbolizes a form of social privilege. Some students–admittedly ones who also compared me to fictional serial killer Dexter Morgan and erstwhile presidential candidate Jesse Jackson–clicked the “hot” button when faced with a question about my attractiveness. And my sheepish, aw-shucks recognition of this fact…isn’t it every bit as slyly, smugly superficial and narcissistic as admitting I was hired on sight by Abercrombie & Fitch even though I was eventually deemed only a B- by my wretched paymasters?
However, the flaming chili pepper means far less to colleagues and peers, quite a few of whom probably regard it as further proof that I’m a bozo and a meathead. My aesthetic and intellectual capacities certainly weren’t cultivated at the same prep schools and Ivy League colleges that have nurtured so many of them–a fact of which I’m reminded of at academic conferences when, to quote fellow yokel-turned-academic Josiah Royce, it becomes blindingly obvious that “I remain more barbarous as to matters of taste and quality than can be easily suspected.”
How simple life would be if you could write your privileges and triggers (the ones you’re aware of, anyway) on a notecard*, to be shared immediately with each new acquaintance. My card might go something like this:
“I grew up in an underdeveloped rural area and did not attend highfalutin schools, but I’m white, male, reasonably attractive (i.e., I have a flaming chili pepper), healthy, well-educated if one’s measure of education is the number of degrees received, and a fully-documented U.S. citizen who earned a good-but-not-great government salary last year. I’ve suffered a host of vicious traumas that I’d prefer not to discuss and that are unlikely to impact my performance during today’s interaction, seeing as how I’ve overcome these traumas through a work ethic developed via intracultural interactions with successful mentors and complemented by the various privileges that operate in my favor.”
But even with all of that laid bare, something would be missing. “My appearance doesn’t tell the whole story,” Tal Fortgang wrote, and neither does this hypothetical notecard. It certainly fails to capture the damage wrought by the exercise of privilege: injuries inflicted by words carelessly said, accomplishments achieved at the expense of others…a trail of tears going back dozens of generations. The past, Walter Benjamin observed, is but “one single catastrophe”–a wreckage-pile that grows ever higher as the casualties of human progress continue to mount. Privilege-checking to the historian is a terrifying and serious matter indeed, the recognition of one’s embeddedness in an ineluctable process from which there can be no respite.
In light of this, it’s worth reconsidering physicist Stephen Hawking’s recent remarks about artificial intelligence. “Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history,” he and two colleagues wrote, “[but] unfortunately, it might also be the last.” Why would this be unfortunate? Perhaps Nietzsche was right; perhaps humanity is something to be overcome.
Or perhaps Nietzsche was just bitter that he didn’t get the 19th-century equivalent of a flaming chili pepper on his University of Basel profile. Six of one and a half-dozen of the other, amiright?
*Video games such as Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim have “class type” and “character type” selection menus that, by forcing players to choose one set of limitations or another before they begin playing, serve as extremely ham-fisted examples of this–not that most players, or even any (myself included!), ever really conceive of them this way.