Who is the Literary ‘Privilege Disclaimer’ For?

Earlier this week, I sat down at a coffee shop with a recently released, newly purchased book. I’m a chronic re-reader, and when I do read new fiction, it’s usually a galley for review purposes, but this one was unfamiliar to me. I’d plucked it off the shelf at my local bookstore because I’d been drawn in by the title, but barely a chapter in, I found myself exhausted. Not by the content of the book itself, which was more or less what the cover and blurbs had promised, but by the self-described “white, cis, thin, middle-class” (et cetera, et cetera) author’s constant deployment of what I’ve come to think of as “privilege disclaimers.”

If you’re wondering what the hell a privilege disclaimer is, don’t worry: It’s more commonly used as a legal term denoting potentially protected information, but it’s the phrase I’ve chosen to describe a literary assertion of systemic good fortune that necessarily colors the author’s perspective or sets them apart from others who might share at least one aspect their experience. While the oft-derided trigger warning is intended to alert the reader to the presence of sensitive material, the privilege disclaimer feels more like an attempt to balance the narrative being presented.

At its best, a privilege disclaimer can function as a deeply relevant acknowledgement of positionality, a reminder to the reader that the author’s history does not necessarily line up with that of others in similar circumstances; in its worst and most repetitive distillation, a privilege disclaimer can feel like a get-out-of-jail-free card, a means of deflecting criticism in the post-2020 protest era without actually reckoning with it.

One example of a recent, textually useful privilege disclaimer I can think of comes in the prologue of adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, when she writes: “In the writing and gathering process, whenever I came to one of my edges or limitations, I reached out and gathered in a comrade who knows more than I do.” Of course, brown’s book isn’t fiction or even memoir—it’s a collection of essays, making it easier for each contributor to speak only within the bounds of their own experience—but I still find brown’s practice of “gathering” (and devoting significant space to the voice of each person she draws in) a vibrant and genuinely meaningful way of engaging with ideas and perspectives beyond her own.

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