Don’t Check Your Privilege!

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Social media outlets such as Tumblr have been buzzing with words like “social justice blogging” and “white privilege” in recent years, with internet debates continually being linked back to race and social background. But what does it mean to tell somebody to check their privilege?

In short, privilege is, as the name implies, a special advantage that not everybody has. In the case of internet politics, this refers to whether a person has an “advantageous” race, sexual orientation, financial background etc. and if they do, according to social justice bloggers (those people on the internet who aggressively defend minorities), they are probably unaware of the struggles that some minorities go through. You can even do a ‘privilege calculator’ online to check whether you are privileged. For example, one privilege calculator tells us that being born in the Middle East gives you a score of -600, and being an investment banker gives you +25. If your final score is above 0, you are generally privileged.

Supporters of privilege checking argue that it educates people to see the struggles that minorities or the oppressed go through and to remind privileged people that they’ve had it pretty good so far, while critics call the use of privilege a way to positively discriminate against people.

Is it right to use privilege? Probably not, since it still counts as judging somebody on the basis of their character rather than the arguments they use. Everybody’s background influences their opinions, we largely have no choice in that. Somebody born in an Indian slum and somebody born in Beverly Hills are going to have different ways of seeing the world because they’ve had different experiences.

Social justice bloggers like to think they’re bringing everybody up/down to a level playing field where people are completely informed about issues and nobody has an advantage over another. In reality, social justice bloggers are judging somebody on the basis of their race, their gender, their social status. It’s not somebody’s fault if they’re born a white man, and they should not be penalised for it.

Of course, if somebody is making ignorant statements like “poor people are lazy” or “gay people are just promiscuous,” call them out. But call them out on the basis that their arguments are unsupported and false, not because they’re rich or straight. If you really want to educate people to see the point of view of the oppressed or the downtrodden, do it in such a way that doesn’t condescend them and alienate people from the debate. People shouldn’t have to apologise for not being oppressed.

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Discussion4 Comments

  1. avatar

    I’m the last person to leap to the defence of social justice warriors on Tumblr, given that the majority are as annoying and narrow-minded as the villains they claim to be dealing with.

    That being said, this article shows a fundamental lack of understanding of privilege as a concept. So, unfortunately, do many of the people using it as a component part of their arguments against discrimination.

    Acknowledging privilege is NOT about making you feel guilty because you are fortunate. It is not my fault that I was born white, straight and into a relatively wealthy family. However, if I wish to contribute to a discussion about discrimination, I must first acknowledge that these factors have influenced by world-view and double check any contribution I make against these.

    A failure to do so is nothing short of ignorance. I shouldn’t try to be involved in a debate about how hard it is to be black, before personally acknowledging that I haven’t endured a life of experiencing this first hand.

  2. avatar

    Following a similar line to the previous post:

    Firstly, although it would have been good to explore more detail its good to see a though provoking article written on the topic.

    I’d add though that in my view the idea of responding to, and understanding the ways in which you are privileged is as much about your actions as it is about how you contribute to debate (although both are relevant.

    The first step to equality is acknowledgement that everyone is not born equal. It’s tempting as a white, middle class, strait man to state that I see everyone as equal if only everyone saw it that way equality would eventually happen.

    However, by the luck of my postcode I ended up going to one of the highest performing state schools in the country, this provided me with a better education than someone growing up in another part of the country. This gave me a greater chance of going to University, and a better one than others may have gotten to, along with plenty of support for my personal statement, further improving my chances.

    I’m not gay, and so I never had to negotiate the social, and personal journey taken in a society which does not make it easy for most growing up like that.

    I’m also a Man, and so although I have had a child, I didn’t go through the trauma of childbirth, which means aside from spending time with my family there was no physical barrier stopping me from working. This puts me 6-12 month ahead of women who have children in my job, which through my career will be multiplied as I gain promotions and better jobs faster.

    All of the above and more makes me privileged, and that’s before even mentioning race, economic background, or ability/disability.

    I believe that simply saying that I won’t be racist isn’t good enough, instead I should recognise that I have a degree of privilege and that I should either use it to support others, or ensure that because of it I don’t drown out someone else’s voice who has not had the opportunity I have.

  3. avatar

    So aside from many other problems, you actually concede the point of privilege checking in your article. Because if:

    “Everybody’s background influences their opinions”

    And if we should:

    “call [people] out on the basis that their arguments are unsupported and false”

    Then an obvious way of doing so is to suggest that their arguments are false or unsupported because of the perspective they are being made from. This is basically the crux of privilege checking. So thanks.

  4. avatar

    “And so, there in that circle, on that street corner, we did a crash course on white privilege, structural racism, and oppression. We did a course on history and the Declaration of Independence and colonialism and slavery. And let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilirating. Every single time it is hard.

    But people listened. We had to fight for it, but it felt worth it. It felt worth it to sit down on a street corner in the Financial District at 11:30PM on a Thursday night, after working all day long and argue for changing the first line of Occupy Wall Street’s official Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. It felt worth it not only because we got the line changed but also because standing there, speaking up – carefully and slowly spelling out that I experience the world differently from him, that this was not about him being personally racist but about relations of power, that he urgently needed to listen and believe me about this – felt like a victory for the movement on its own.

    The line was removed. We sat down and re-wrote the opening of the Declaration, and it has been published with our re-write. And when we walked away, I felt like something important had happened, that we had just pushed the movement a little bit closer to the movement I would like to see, one that takes into account historical and current inequalities, oppressions, racisms, relations of power, one that doens’t just reinforce privilege but confronts it head on.

    Later that night I biked home over the Brooklyn Bridge and I somehow felt like, just maybe, at least in that moment, the world belonged to me as well as to everyone dear to me and everyone who needed and wanted more from the world. I somehow felt like maybe the world could be all of ours.”

    Manissa Maharawal, ‘Standing Up’, OCCUPY – Scenes from Occupied America, (2011)

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