In the wake of responses to Tal Fortgang’s “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Privilege,” I want to think, very briefly, about what kind of locution “Check your privilege” is. What do we mean, and mean to say, when we say it? What’s at stake for me, as should be obvious and as is usual around here, is not coming to an apologetics for a terrible bourgie racist, but rather honing the efficacy of a key instrument of today’s anti-racist repertoire—which is to say, interrupting the process by which an anti-racist technique becomes functional for racial liberalism.
As is evident in his essay, Fortgang responds to the charge “Check your privilege!” as a misinterpellation. That is, the locution charges him (by “reprimand[ing]” him, as he puts it) to inhabit a position with which he cannot identify. The reasons for this inability to identify are in part ideological (meritocracy is a thing for him) but are, more robustly, biographical: “So to find out what they are saying, I decided to take their advice. I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence, to empathize with those whose underdog stories I can’t possibly comprehend.” His move, basically, is to oppose his privileged present with his family’s underprivileged past. To be sure, Fortgang’s recourse to narration disavows the privilege entailed in inhabiting legible and stable kin structures, structures that transmit themselves in and as time, but let’s let that slide for the moment; it’s the method that I want to think about. Interrupting privilege talk’s synchronic present with the temporality of a family’s history, Fortgang’s point is to mark the gap between contemporary modes of mapping structure and lived relations to it. For Fortgang, the locution “Check your privilege!” violently closes this gap. It’s not for nothing that he figures its use as a high-speed missile, a missile to be lobbed from a drone—“The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness”—for the locution traverses the space between structure and subjectivity that he cannot cognitively or ethically travel. But the phrase, as a missile, misses what it hits; or, rather, it hits by missing. For Fortgang is not privileged, no, not a bit, for his roots are with the underprivileged, the unprivileged, and he lives his relation to the world as such.
If Fortgang were to give a linguistic term to this locution, it would be “insult.” I’ve written about the insult before; what I want to return to here is how insulting functions precisely through the lack of fit between sign, referent, and signified. As Agamben puts it in his little essay on friendship, an insult “is effective precisely because it does not function as a constative utterance…it uses language in order to give a name in such a way that the named cannot accept his name, and against which he cannot defend himself.” For Fortgang, the performative locution (“Check your privilege!”) is underwritten by an unearned constative (“You have privilege.”) that, in his case, converts privilege-checking from a mode of regulating discourse to a form of insult. An imposition of an improper name, a forced inclusion into an improper set. Put differently, an alternative title to his essay could easily have been “Why I am not an Asshole”—for Fortgang, the linguistic operation of privilege-checking and name-calling are functionally identical.
Fortgang’s inability to accept “privileged” as a proper naming of his social position can help us think through some limits to how privilege checking functions today. We can see these limits, for instance, in one Salon response to Fortgang, which begins, “A college student who doesn’t believe in the existence of structural racism or white supremacy wrote an essay about why he would “never apologize” for his white privilege…” We see them again in Jezebel’s response, “To the Privileged Princeton Kid,” which takes the form of a letter, a second-person address intended to educate this “kid” into an alternative form of subjectivity. In both cases, what’s at stake is inducing an imaginative relationship (he “doesn’t believe”) or an ethical relationship (the proper “you” who would non-allergically get his privilege checked) to social and political structure. The problem is that Fortgang’s point persists: he cannot maintain an imaginative or ethical relationship to structure. And with good reason. After all, he’s being asked to claim authorship for, and mark his authorization by, a structure that he didn’t will, a structure that exceeds his capacity to will—a political structure that is indifferent to the ethical relationship one establishes with it. In other words, Fortgang’s anti-liberal reception of “Check your privilege!” usefully marks the disarticulation between the ethical and the political, between an individual’s lived relation to the world and the political structures that sustain or constrain it. When Fortgang asserts the excessiveness of history to privilege’s present, what he’s saying is: I can’t do shit about it. And he can’t.
The problem with the kind of privilege-checking that Fortgang critiques is that it asks subjects to maintain an ethical relationship to a dispersed structure that exceeds the practical or phenomenological horizons of the ethical. Fortgang’s allergic reaction to privilege-checking is the mirror image of white anti-racist liberal voluntarists—the kind we all love to critique—who posit their reformed ethical relation to whiteness as a politics. In either case, the substitution of the ethical for the political obscures the fact that it’s not possible to maintain an ethical relationship to whiteness, because whiteness is nothing less—as we get from Fanon—than the dissolution of ethical relationality. Just think: What would it actually mean for someone like Fortgang to maintain an ethical relationship to his whiteness, his maleness, his money? Why would we even want him to? Put in phenomenological terms, I can only live right with my whiteness when I live against it, but this counter-action is never derivable from myself. It comes from outside, in the establishment of an oppositional political relationship, one that exceeds my individual capacities of cognitive, imaginative, or ethical relation.
And it is maintaining a political relationship, I think, that the locution intended from the beginning, from its origins in activist practice. “Check your privilege!” is an activists’ tool for activists. It functions less to put power into an ethical relation with its own terribleness than it works to keep our counter-power free from residual traces of the world we’re trying to destroy. It’s not a locution intended to traverse the friend/enemy divide in order to call the powerful to dubious acts of moral accountancy. It’s neither a reprimand nor an insult. Rather, “Check your privilege!” is a speech-act that intends the maintenance of anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-capitalist groups against the persistent threat of auto-corruption. One only says “Check your privilege!” to comrades, to those with whom you co-incline. It’s a locution that keeps political lines of communication clear from all of the fucked-up shit we bring, and can’t not bring, to our collectivities. In Jakobson’s terms, the function of “Check your privilege!” is phatic, a way of saying, “I can’t hear you; you’re adopting an idiom unintelligible from the perspective of our politics.” That is, the locution informs the addressee of the conditions under which his words will be legible as a communicative act, and does so after those conditions have been broken. The point of the locution is to repair a political relation that has been interrupted, not simply to regulate discourse or inspire an ethical consciousness that can never actually be ethical. And it only makes sense within this political frame, where it works powerfully. Otherwise, it’s just a liberal moralization of the political.
A simple way of putting this: One checks the privileges of one’s friends. One destroys those of one’s enemies. One does the former in the service of the latter.