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2020 in Review
Kim Kardashian and the Year of Unchecked Privilege-Checking
December 23, 2020
We have already, I think, exhausted the subject of Kim Kardashian West’s birthday bash earlier this year. But allow me a brief recap: “40 and feeling so humbled and blessed,” she wrote on October 27th, six days after her special day, captioning a series of Instagram photos showing the Kardashians and company bronzed and professionally lit at an indistinct, beachy location that one might have assumed was Malibu. It was not Malibu. “After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time,” the message continued. “I realize that for most people, this is something that is so far out of reach right now, so in moments like these, I am humbly reminded of how privileged my life is.”
What was so risible wasn’t Kardashian West’s defensive posture; many of us have, in the past year, sprinkled similar apologia into tales of our own covid-19-era outings. (“Six feet apart!” “All wearing masks!”) I’ve come to think of these as a kind of verbal tic of the pandemic, an oral asterisk assuring others of our consideration and responsibility—very unlike those
heedless people over there. But the “privilege” so dutifully acknowledged in Kardashian West’s statement stared dumbly, blinking, at the phrase “right now,” spinning a phantasmagoric version of the world in which the pandemic was the main obstacle preventing the rest of us from jetting our own inner circles to a private island. Nor did it seem to occur to the universe of Kardashian West’s sentence that, in the eternal words of her own sister Kourtney, spoken years ago at another island getaway, “Kim, there’s people that are dying
.” Kardashian West’s was a sentence that so badly wanted points for trying but maybe also didn’t give a fuck; her name-check of privilege was a feeble Cheeto against the battering ram
of wealth, gaudily flaunted. In one photo from the festivities, Scott Disick, Kourtney’s ex, clutched their son Mason in the foreground of a dinner-party scene while, in the shadowed background, a masked waiter prepared to serve.
It is inevitable that phrases diagnosing social conditions in situ will mutate over time. “Performative” has just about lost the executorial function that the British philosopher J. L. Austin established, no matter how many valiant e-mails the professor Judith Butler may write. “Intersectionality,” a term created by the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to address a special sort of legal negligence that leaves Black women invisible to grievance, is now more typically applied to those who lie at the crossway of two or more discrete identities. “Privilege,” though—which was not created by, so much as attributed to, the scholar and educator Peggy McIntosh
—hasn’t dramatically changed. The advantages of maleness and whiteness captured by McIntosh’s image of the “invisible knapsack” have been joined, in our current usage, by other politically significant traits: cis-ness, thinness, an absence of disability. But privilege has retained its capacity to affix an affirmative charge to dynamics that would otherwise be discussed strictly in terms of discrimination and oppression. Privilege gives everyone something to talk about: the downtrodden can articulate society’s injustices without salting their own wounds, while those on the cushier side of things can sidestep an inhospitable language of struggle and instead gaze inward.
2020 in Review
New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.
But the urge to make one’s self-awareness known seemed driven to excess by the events of this year. Over the summer, as the artist and writer Hannah Black recently wrote, “The riots saved social life by proving that it was possible, with masks and moving air, to spend time together outdoors without getting sick.” Yet the more that radical possibilities unfurled across the country, the more predictable racial discourse became. In the face of cities on fire, invocations of “privilege” proliferated, joined by its helpmates “fragility” and “antiracism,” a fountain of means-well liberalism. Such words were a civic foil to the wan corporate statements paying lip service to “systemic racism,” proffered as measures of repair against the catastrophe of silence. The confessions poured out on social media and in op-ed pages and interviews: the anthropologist who’d been arrested for using an allegedly counterfeit bill, in the nineties—privilege, he now knew, had saved his life. The baseball player who realized how privilege had emptied his empathy for his Black colleagues; the Dallas man who was taking the opportunity to
“teach his young sons uncomfortable lessons about the privileges their family enjoys because they’re white.” A “check your privilege” challenge had its day on TikTok, its creator, Kenya Bundy, beckoning participants to hold up their hands and “put a finger down if you’ve been followed in a store unnecessarily,” and so forth. These broadcast testimonies swirled among more private expressions that also wanted to be heard, as acquaintances and estranged friends, family members and hookups, came out of the woodwork, confessing a privilege that they hoped to be comforted for. One began to realize that for some people there must be ecstasy in saying, over and over, for whomever would receive it, “I am . . . ,” “I am . . . ,” “I have . . . ,” “I have . . . ”
Take, for instance, Jameela Jamil, the British actress and TV host. In late September, on Instagram, someone complimented her skin, and she took the comment as an opening for this three-part reply:
My skin is currently clear because:
A) Privileged people have more access to good quality nutrition and also our lives are significantly less stressful than the lives of those with less privilege. I also get to sleep more because of this. All of these things keep my hormones in balance and I’m able to address food intolerances easily.
B) I believe that trans rights are human rights. 🤓
C) I exfoliate twice a week.
She was not wrong, exactly, but how grating was the bulletin? You might have detected a secret gloating there: someone whose needs we might already assume were being met and exceeded, what with her being a celebrity, going on and on about how her basic needs were being met and exceeded. A different kind of sleight of hand was performed earlier this month, when Olivia Jade Giannulli, the daughter of the Operation Varsity Blues delinquents Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, confabbed with Jada Pinkett Smith and the other women of the online interview show “Red Table Talk.” Giannulli, swathed in the feminine armor of gold hoops and fuchsia silk, pronounced herself “the poster child of white privilege,” but it was Pinkett Smith who helped frame Giannulli’s privilege as a predicament. Pinkett Smith said that she was reminded of her own daughter, Willow, who was also born into the kind of wealth that can preclude sympathy from the masses. “People go, ‘Your kids are going to be fine because they’re rich. We don’t care,’ ” Pinkett Smith said. “And that’s painful.”
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Copping to a better life without insight is its own mark of entitlement, of course. A more pedestrian example, only recently called to my attention, was published all the way back in June, in O, The Oprah Magazine
. Written by the magazine’s deputy editor, Deborah Way, the essay, “What the Black Lives Matter Movement Has Taught Me About My Whiteness” (another response to murdered Black people, etc., etc.), is notable only for its painstaking obliviousness. Its author might not have been implicated in a national admissions-fraud scandal or commandeered an island, but she nonetheless felt compelled to unburden the sins of her privilege, in public and at length. In breathless detail, she wrote about the time she flagged down a Black police officer to ask if she was in the process of committing a crime (stealing signs she considered an eyesore), and the time she got up close with trees on strangers’ lawns (for gardening inspiration). These “liberties,” as she calls them, she attributes to—of course—the privilege of whiteness. “I trespassed, I stole, I expected no consequences,” Way writes, sounding a hairbreadth from smug. The liberty she took in writing a two-thousand-or-so-word, unself-conscious reënactment of these realizations doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind. “I’m deciding that from now on when I take one, I’m also going to take three additional actions,” she writes. But even in this promise she cannot imagine a reduced entitlement, only penance added for liberties taken—a naughty tax for privilege enjoyed, then lamented. A cycle repeated ad infinitum. It did not occur to many people in 2020 that unbosoming can be worse than silence.
2020 in Review
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