- Spreading Privilege:Ivanka Trump, a How-To on Architecting the Self1
"In business, as in life, nothing is ever handed to you."—Ivanka Trump
When Peggy McIntosh lists the items in our "invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day" (1989, 10), she never imagines what might happen if the contents are revealed, especially if they are revealed in ways that do not create insight and empathy, as McIntosh imagines, but in ways that shame and embarrass. The idea behind her proposal in "checking privilege" is that once we make privilege visible to ourselves, we can "redesign social systems" (12). The connection between this glowing self-awareness and social transformation is never established clearly. The problem for McIntosh is that we all thought we were living in a meritocracy when, in actuality, there are invisible social forces that are opening doors for some and closing them for others. Who knew? Now Peggy McIntosh has been hit by a hardball: she suddenly is stricken by the fact of social inequalities that were both hidden from her and glaringly right in front of her face, and so we all need to be reschooled. We all need to acknowledge how guilty of "unearned advantage and conferred dominance" our social position makes us, unbeknown to us (12).
McIntosh's proposal, however, did not lead to the growing enlightenment of improved institutions that she predicted. Rather, it led to a silencing of discourse, a public shaming that made some types of speech and acknowledgement subject to a ritual defaming. Other types of speech were required as an apology for one's identity and a dismissal of one's own experience. One should feel guilty, or, at the very least, one needed to act as though one felt guilt.
Our current neoliberal moment gives a special place to this politics of privilege checking. Not only does privilege checking assume that history cannot change so we perform the same oppressions interminably without even consenting; not only does it also individualize one's responsibility for [End Page 385] oneself and for all one's predecessors, promoting "work-on-the-self" as the cornerstone of social relations. Also, privilege checking assumes the subject as guilty, puts it on trial as already convicted. But the fact of guilt is really a magnification of one's power. As Nietzsche describes the distinction of the sovereign individual, "The proud awareness of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, the power over oneself and over fate, has in his case penetrated to the profoundest depths and become instinct, the dominating instinct" (1967, 60), or conscience, where conscience means "the right to affirm oneself" (60) with pride.
Also, checking privilege follows the logic of celebrity culture. As Jean Baudrillard wrote as early as 1970, "Underlying all aspirations, there is this ideal end of a status by birth, a status of grace and excellence" (1998, 60). Displaying privilege is, after all, what TV and advertising are all about and why the star system makes us envious. The checking of privilege, as McIntosh has it, may demand a reassessment of one's moral fiber in the accounting of other people's historical pain and present devaluation, but this display of privilege also functions as a lure, a shining crown of fulfillment. As Baudrillard says, displaying the marks of privilege calls into play and reaffirms the totality of the social structure, the "total order of differences" (61). After all, when advertising tempts us with pretty cars or diamonds to express our love, it is taunting us to play catch-up to acquire the distinctive markers of status that reproduce the social distance of privilege as a happiness we will never attain. In this reading, "privilege checking" preserves privilege. Privilege gives one distinction, and this distinction, even when apologetic, can serve as a powerful lever of social control.
In this paper, I explore Ivanka Trump as she checks her privilege. Ivanka understands her privilege as a responsibility which she intends to use wisely—that is, she does not accept that being born as a Trump makes it easier for her to achieve distinction...