- Super Deluxe Whiteness:Privilege Critique in Paul Beatty's The Sellout
In 2016, Paul Beatty became the first American author to win the Man Booker Award (Dean 2016). The distinction was the second award he received for his 2015 satirical novel The Sellout; the first was the National Book Critics Circle's fiction award (Alter 2016). While receiving high accolades upon publication, the novel saw a "small release," and although academic scholarship has yet to thoroughly engage with it, The Sellout is a novel of primary importance that wrestles with the dialectic of racism and class inequality in a neoliberal climate (Dean 2016). With discussions of these systems of oppression in mainstream political discourse having become fraught and absurd, Beatty's narrator, Me—who is later nicknamed Bonbon—"whisper[s] 'racism' in a post-racial world" (Beatty 2015, 262), in order to reveal the absurdity in the idea of a "post-racial" anything, and through the novel Beatty skewers white supremacy, class oppression, and the privileges that derive from such oppressions in our contemporary, neoliberal moment. In that light, the novel provides a more effective lens for exploring the critique of privilege because it illuminates the larger social order and the ways in which privilege is actualized at the individual and systemic levels.
In The Sellout, Bonbon resides in a fictional Los Angeles neighborhood called Dickens. His goal is to regain official recognition of Dickens because it has been removed from the city map. Tellingly, Dickens was removed from the map because the city's power structure deemed it insignificant due to its poverty and nonwhite population. Bonbon decides to take drastic action: he advocates for the re-segregation of his home town, putting "whites only" signs on bus seats near the front, supporting an all-white school, and painting a boundary line along Dickens' border, with the area outside it labeled "White America" and "The Best of Times" (99). Such absurdities in the text reflect the absurdity of the racist institutions that segregate populations. As Chester Himes argues in his autobiography My Life of Absurdity, "If one lives in a country where racism is held valid and practiced in all ways of life, eventually, no matter whether one is a racist or a victim, one comes to feel the absurdity of life" (1976, 1). Himes' commentary on racism correlates to Beatty's project in the novel: a thorough examination of the absurdities of the [End Page 417] social order. In tandem with these absurdities, Bonbon also ponders what "blackness" truly means and so his re-segregation efforts double as both a way to get his home back and also ponder his ongoing alienation from the African-American community at large, a feeling of disconnect he has felt since his childhood. Along the way, Beatty ruthlessly attacks racism and other forms of inequality in the status quo, and the concept of privilege becomes the focus of one of his more pointed critiques, simultaneously critiquing both white and male privilege and the popular critique of those privileges.
Through the inclusion of his commentary on privilege, Beatty enters the long-standing discourse on privilege critique. Privilege theory is perhaps most famously explored by Peggy McIntosh, whose concept of the "invisible knapsack" of privilege only goes so far to address systemic oppressions, instead alluding to them only subtly, and without emphasis (2003, 148). However, toward the end of her argument, McIntosh asserts that "Disapproving of the systems won't be enough to change them. … Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems" (159). McIntosh acknowledges the limitations to the attempts of combatting systems of oppression through individual attitudes and actions. Her sentiment is echoed by Beatty in The Sellout, which points out that our efforts must reach beyond the level of the individual and move into the level of the systemic if legitimate change is to be actualized.
But when McIntosh states that "systemic change takes many decades" she shows her view of praxis as one operating at a mundane sense of the political (159). Such a loose gesture toward systemic oppressions seems to be a limitation of privilege critique overall. In 2003, Michael S. Kimmel and Abby L...