If you spend any time on social media these days, there’s a good chance you’ve come across comments that aim to take down a seemingly oblivious person. “Check your privilege,” is one way of saying it. Or perhaps you’ve seen the response, “Your privilege is showing.”

These barbs are meant to remind people that they need to become more socially aware; to acknowledge all the unearned privileges they possess. But Phoebe Maltz Bovy contends that just being privilege aware is problematic because it doesn’t really advance justice in the way it’s intended. “Very often, someone will acknowledge their privilege as an excuse to not really do anything about anything,” she tells us.

Maltz Bovy’s new book, The Perils of Privilege: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage, makes the case that the focus on personal privilege risks drawing attention away from bigger structural problems in society. To illustrate, she gives the example of a white man telling another white man to check his privilege. The accused “isn’t necessarily going to have some kind of epiphany about justice, but might get very defensive,” she says. “The conversation then switches to this individual and that’s not a very helpful place to go.”

In this podcast, Maltz Bovy discusses the “hypocritical tensions” of privilege projects on college campuses, how they shield unjust systems, and why checking your privilege can amount to little more than an exercise in manners. “Acknowledging privilege becomes this kind of ritual,” she says. It “has to do with etiquette and it doesn’t actually change anything.”

As part of a new initiative, Tiny Spark wants you to be part of our editorial process. If this podcast has raised questions about privilege awareness, now is your chance to put them to Phoebe Maltz Bovy. Send us your question using the form below, and Phoebe will answer them.

Additional Resources:

Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s website

Perils of Privilege excerpt in The New Republic

LA Review of Books: Sympathy for the White Devil: Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s ‘The Perils of Privilege’

Quartz op-ed: Liberals are so busy confessing and denouncing privilege they’ve forgotten to fix it

The New Yorker: The Origins of Privilege

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh

Maltz Bovy on Twitter

Featured Image: Philip Crozier