Privilege. It’s a loaded word. Put other words in front like “white,” “male” or “American” and you can amp up the angst factor exponentially. “Check your” adds napalm and TNT to the fire. There has been much recent backlash against the idea of privilege and more specifically “checking” your privilege, such as in articles like this and this.
After reading Tal Fortgang’s op-ed from the Princeton Tory (cited above), I identified with many of the feelings he expressed. I am a seemingly plain ol’ white female (who actually is a member of the Cherokee Nation, has strong links to Mexico, etc.) who has also had “check your privilege” spat out at me as an ad hominem argument to shut me up as I expressed a thoughtful opinion. It stings to be told that I can’t possibly be intelligent enough to come to the correct decision about something, simply because I’m white. It’s racism—as much as me telling someone they can’t be right because they are of color. I posted the article, and various people responded. Most of the responses were like mine—commiseration for being piled into a group and discredited because of our race, heterosexuality, etc. However, one friend took me to task, and resulting thoughtful discussion made me eager to delve into the concept of checking one’s privilege, and the idea of privilege in general. Is it even something worth worrying about, or just something I can put to the back of my mind as another liberal idiocy (sorry, liberal friends)?
So. What is this “privilege” that’s got everyone in an uproar? The straight dictionary definition for the context I am addressing is “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” For example, I would say to my teen son, “A driver license is a privilege granted to those who earn it, not a right.” From the viewpoint of the “check your privilege” crowd, privilege is the idea that “some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory…. (Rothman).” Women’s Studies guru Peggy McIntosh is credited with popularizing the concept of white privilege in the eighties. She describes privilege as a sort of invisible, weightless backpack full of tools and supplies that one group carries, without knowing it, and other group does not. For example, if I turn on the television, for the most part I will see mostly my own race in starring roles in network shows. If I were male, I would never know what it was like to have to hold my keys in my hand as a weapon as I walked to my car in the parking lot of a grocery store after sundown. The ideas go deeper than that, and get more disturbing (men will never know what it is like to be sexually assaulted and then blamed for it because they were wearing their clothing too tight, etc.).
I get stuck between being angry at people who don’t know me, correcting me because they see my (insert anything here… race, sex, sexual orientation, hair color) and assume that I have certain privileges or advantages based on those things, and being concerned that I am missing some fundamental lesson in not recognizing my own privilege and thereby marginalizing my brothers and sisters of the human race. My friend used the analogy of two fish swimming, when another comes by and asks, “How’s the water?” to which the first fish ask, “What’s water?” By not acknowledging that I have certain advantages due to my own unique situations, and also that others have certain disadvantages due to theirs, I am not making those conditions nonexistent, I am merely denying them, and by acknowledging them, I am not saying either of us is better or worse than the other.
It’s a great concept, if that’s where it stays—I call it empathy, and seeking to understand others. It’s the “platinum rule”—rather than treat others how we would want to be treated, we take the time to learn how others would like to be treated, and then treat them that way. From a religious standpoint, it is to try and see everyone through our Heavenly Father’s and our Savior’s eyes—for who they are, for what they have been through, for who they can become—and then show compassion and love for all.
Here’s where it gets sticky, though. “Check your privilege” has gone from being a call to advance understanding and inclusion, to a cry to silence dissent from those who do not agree with particular progressive thoughts. If I am having a discussion about welfare, crime, gay marriage, or any of the many hot-button topics which have even a flavor of “otherness” from my own identity, my debate opponent can (and often does) cry out “Check your privilege!” as a means to say, “What you have to say doesn’t matter, because you are (white, female, heterosexual, whatever) so all of your arguments are null and void.” Proponents will say that is not the case, but I can testify that it is. It has happened to me. It is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing, “I’m not listening!” instead of taking the time to understand. Yes. Understanding can come from both sides of the argument.
What are my conclusions about checking my privilege? First and foremost, I believe that YES! Every person, regardless of your race, gender, size, sexual preference, marital status, shoe size, ring size, head circumference—EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. should be checking their privileges. What I mean is that everyone should:
1) Count your blessings. What has God given you that has helped you be who you are today?
2) Realize that not everyone has what you have. Try to bless others.
3) Be compassionate and caring, striving to understand others instead of condemning. Instead of drawing little circles around ourselves to keep others out, like some cosmic Venn diagram, why can’t we find ways to lift others so that our privileges, our blessings, can be used to bless others as well?
Lastly—while everyone should be doing the above, NO ONE should be sanctimoniously shouting at someone to “check your privilege” unless the person you are lecturing is looking back at you from the mirror. One of the reasons why the discussion on privilege is getting so much backlash is become it feels like an attack—it has been described as the Privilege Olympics—only the gold medal goes to the one with the most disadvantages, and the losers are made to feel ashamed, as if they don’t deserve success because they didn’t really earn any of it. “Judge not” has no caveats.
It occurs to me that the direction we are looking as we are checking privilege determines the effect. Honestly checking my own privilege, or counting my own blessings, will lead to a sense of gratitude and inspire me to help those less fortunate. It will help me to be empathetic. Instead of judging someone based on my own paradigms, I will begin to understand that they walked their own path to where they stand. That path began in a place they did not choose, and not having traveled where they did, I have no standing to judge them. Looking inward should inspire me to be a better human being.
The opposite—looking outward to check out the privileges everyone else enjoys that I do not, will engender a different result. If I look at male privilege, tall people privilege, skinny people privilege, what have you—I start forgetting what I have. I become ungrateful. What’s worse, in the world we live in, where we are being conditioned to believe that if someone has more than we do, then they owe us something, I run the risk of feeling entitled. I am behind in the game, so someone else should make it up for me. On a political scale, this has happened already, and it is what makes the discussion of privilege so testy in the national arena. It feels like an attack, because someone else is deciding who has more privilege, and wants to take from them to “even the score.”
Personally, I am fully aware that I am extremely blessed. First of all, I was born in the United States in a relatively technologically advanced time. Medically I had what I needed. I have never gone to bed hungry. School was awesome for me. I was teased, maybe not particularly popular, but I wasn’t really bullied. I have ALWAYS been blessed with wonderful friends. I had parents who were always around, always available. I didn’t have to worry about work instead of homework, and so I did well in school. I was raised with Christian beliefs, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have excellent work ethic, which was taught to me by good parents. I have never had to fear for my safety while I slept. I could go on. You get my point. I know how many blessings I have that others do not, and I know that they shaped many of my successes.
What I have to do, then, is be compassionate of others who do not have those advantages. I shouldn’t judge others, because I don’t know what they have been through, what disadvantages or trials they have had, or to what extreme. For me, it comes down to truly living Christian principles as well as I possibly can.
I know that sounds extremely Pollyanna-esque to think that this will solve all of the “privilege” problems. I know that this is not the world we live in. But instead of all of these systems we set up to pit ourselves against each other, to compare ourselves and condemn each other, these pharisaical rules of political correctness, why can’t we just follow the great commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves? It’s simplistic, I know. I cannot make anyone else do it. But I will commit to do a better job of it, and in the name of doing so, I will “check my privilege” to see how I can better show that love to those who may not be as blessed as I know I am. I am just one, but I’m the only thing I have true control over in my desire to make the world a better place.
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/05/the-woman-who-coined-the-term-white-privilege.html (Posted by Joshua Rothman)