Dylan Byers and the Scourge of Privileged Defensiveness

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry recently apologized, quickly and sincerely, after a lighthearted segment on her eponymous show veered off the rails and ended up in an insensitive place, with panelists mocking Mitt Romney’s adopted grandson, who is Black.

In response, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a nuanced defense of Harris-Perry, calling her “America’s foremost public intellectual.” That turn of phrase didn’t sit well with some, most notably Politico media critic Dylan Byers, who tweeted:

dylan byers tweet

The condemnation of Byers by #BlackTwitter and other media figures was swift. But Byers dug his heels in, writing an article rebutting Coates, in which he was extremely defensive. Byers claims he was “berated on Twitter as ignorant, racist and worse,” and claimed that the people criticizing his tweet were “blind.”

As Coates noted, it’s fine for Byers or anyone else to disagree with his opinion that Harris-Perry is America’s foremost public intellectual, but implying that this view undermines Coates’ credibility was a bridge too far.

Based on this exchange, I have a new rule for 2014: The people who benefit from the most privilege—whether based on their race, gender, orientation, economic status, or ability—need to resist the initial impulse to be defensive when called out.

Pointing out a person’s privilege is not an indictment of their character or integrity; it’s about calling attention to the benefits a person is granted based on their station in society and how they act on those benefits, not who they are in their heart.

Privilege is the flip side to discrimination in many respects and manifests itself often in the form of blind spots.

For example, in October I wrote an article arguing that journalists who were being hyperbolic about the problems with the Obamacare website—full-time journalists who generally have health insurance through their employers—may have been letting their privilege cloud some of their reporting. If you already have insurance, you might be less patient with a glitchy website than someone who, like me, was uninsured before I signed up for Obamacare. Many of the responses to my critique were mostly off the mark because they were defensive in nature, even going as far to imply that I was bitter. 

As Coates put it, with regard to Byers:

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.

It’s not about racism, it’s about privilege. And Byers’ response demonstrated his lack of understanding of how privilege works. Byers writes:

I do not believe Harris-Perry is “America’s foremost public intellectual,” meaning that of all the public intellectuals in this country, she is not the most influential or important. What I suggested was that stating as much called one’s own intellectual credibility into question, because it would take leaps and bounds to come to the conclusion that Harris-Perry occupies a more significant place in American intellectual thought than the towering figures who wear that title. That those figures are all white men is certainly an unfortunate result of America’s troubled history.

It should occur to Byers that Harris-Perry’s influence differs depending on which demographic you ask. It’s likely true that her influence among women is stronger than it is among men in Byers’ station. That he doesn’t consider her on his list of top public intellectuals doesn’t mean those people who do lack credibility.

This incident illustrates an important problem that people without privilege encounter all of the time: People in a position of privilege frequently have blind spots for the work, achievements, and culture of people who are different than them. Certainly, it’s true that we could never understand or know everything about cultures and people with whom we differ, but it’s privilege that allows the privileged to diminish those without it, based on their own lack of knowledge. In a subsequent tweet, when asked who he would consider as “America’s foremost public intellectual,” he tellingly described her as an “MSNBC weekend host,” overlooking the fact that she has a tenured position at Tulane University.

Even without ill intent, privilege can blind a well-meaning person to someone else’s struggle. Many men dismiss complaints about street harassment and view catcalling as a “compliment”—a view could only be held by someone who has never experienced persistent, unwanted harassment for simply existing in the public space. Men can walk around and not have to think about catcalling or being called a “b*tch” or a “c**t” on their morning commute, because street harassment is something they are privileged to not have to think about.

We do not live in a meritocracy. People of color know this all too well, but white Americans, and particularly those who lean conservative, often repeat the notion that hard work and personal responsibility will lead to success, even with a mountain of evidence to the contrary. People of color and women who do beat the odds and make it to the top of their fields are frequently dismissed and diminished for their laudable accomplishments.

Byers’ own “Journalists to Watch in 2014” list provides a perfect example of this. You will be unsurprised to hear how many people of color appeared on that list:


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  • anotherintellectual

    While I do not usually come out on this side of the argument I would say that discounting Coates’ description of Harris-Perry does not automatically mean he is speaking from a position of privilege or does not recognize truths particular to a community. I am a black woman and think the statement was way off. Harris-Perry is opening up dialogue on MSNBC that is wonderful and has historically been marginalized especially on mainstream media and for that I applaud her. But our foremost public intellectual? No. I have no idea what position Byers is coming from with his comment, but I do know that I agree with him. There are intellectuals in this country, who also occupy marginal positions in our identity hierarchies, that are worthy of such a title. Perhaps we should take a moment to look at the veracity of the statement, rather than the position that it comes from.

    • John H

      There’s a difference between disagreeing that Harris-Perry is the foremost public intellectual and considering such an opinion so unjustifiably absurd that it’s valid to question someone’s intelligence if one thinks she is. The second one is MUCH more likely to be driven by racism than the first. Byers was basically saying that there is no possible perspective from which one could legitimately view Harris-Perry to be among the top public intellectuals – he’s universalizing his own perspective and dismissing any from which such a view could be valid as intrinsically, necessarily illegitimate. That’s a privilege-blind dick move, probably based on a combination of racism and sexism.

  • Expatmom

    I love MHP. My husband watched her show with me & was very impressed. And he’s a grumpy ole white guy!!!

  • Honey Badger

    I find it hard to believe anyone beside Coates thinks Melissa Harris-Penny is the top intellectual in America.

    • JillGuccini

      I do. I know many other people that do. Is your mind blown?

    • BBWeekly

      There are people out there who consider someone like Rachel Maddow to be intelligent. To each his or her own. In today’s day and age, with our extreme differences and polarity bordering on the conflict that existed in the 1850s, you are unlikely to find more than ten percent of educated people agreeing that any one person is our foremost intellectual.

  • http://townhousekid.wordpress.com/ KJStJ

    I thoroughly enjoy Melissa Harris Perry’s show — finally, something that has fun, real discussions, and barely any raised voices. I’ve been kinda lost on Sundays after Tim Russert passed, but I’ve found my breakfast buddy on MSNBC.

  • Spectricide

    Had he said “one of” America’s…… this would’d never have been talked about. Assumptions and absolutes always loose.

    • John H

      But if she’s “one of” the top intellectuals, then one could presumably make a case that she is THE top public intellectual, depending on the criteria one considers most important for determining the “top” person. Byers implicitly dismisses that point as well – in his view, Harris-Perry is so far down the list that anyone who thinks she might be near the top is self-evidently an idiot.

      • Spectricide

        But that was not the case he was making. Byers is not a MHP hater. And in context he said America’s so how do you quantify that? If you go by ratings/ audience than she is not # one. That’s all this was ever about IMO. I loves me some #MHP

  • emilyrose_tcb

    I do not understand the logic behind this argument, in general. Dylan Byers finds the assertion that Melissa Harris-Perry undermines the credibility of another intellectual, because he so thoroughly disagrees with the statement as a whole. Because Dylan Byers’ opinion of Coates’ intellectual credibility has changed slightly, he is automatically and irrefutably ignorant, blinded by his own privilege, and [as implied] sexist and racist?
    If you are standing against Byers’ blanket statement about Coates’ ‘intellectual cred’ – which is a valid argument – it doesn’t make any sense to proceed by hurling duvets, quilts, and comforters on Byers in retaliation.

  • http://www.friv2friv3friv4.com/ friv 2 friv 3 friv 4

    But if she’s “one of” the top intellectuals, then one could presumably
    make a case that she is THE top public intellectual, depending on the
    criteria one considers most important for determining the “top” person.