“Check Your Privilege”: You’re Not Using It Right


“Check your privilege” is an interesting new meme.

I’ve spent years in anti-racist activism and discussions, talking to others, yelling at neo-Nazis and libertarians. I’ve spent years in general as an anarchist, and I’ve self-identified as a feminist since long before I was politically conscious. Hell, I’ve been a feminist since before I got into Pokemon. (And stayed that way after I got bored of Pokemon; please don’t hang me up to dry, Pokefanatics). I have very much always tried to engage with people as to what privilege means.

But I think this concept is being grossly misused.

When you tell someone, “You’re being [or acting] privileged”, you are playing with fire. If you’re wrong, you are being fantastically dismissive and pretty arrogant. And even if you’re right, why in God’s name would they believe you? Peggy McIntosh called it the invisible knapsack for a reason: You don’t see it. To paraphrase my favorite webcomic, Basic Instructions: Privilege is like a big, out-of-style moustache. Those who have it don’t notice it, and those who don’t can barely see anything else.

And on the Internet, it’s particularly risky because we can never be sure that our interlocutor is what they say they are. Even on Facebook, we can’t be sure about their life story or background. The only way this becomes even in theory a good tactic is if they’ve self-identified as any category that bestows privilege.

Making someone see that the way they are approaching an issue may have to do with their privilege takes tact. It takes specificity. It takes identifying exactly what the privilege they may be ignoring is, and being able to express that in a way that actually will engage rather than turn off.

You can argue on the Internet and get mad at each other all you want, but don’t confuse that for activism. It’s not going to accomplish anything, and it makes you come off like an arrogant jerk.

So I’m proposing a new way people can use “Check your privilege”, and a way that people who hear it can engage with it.

Look at the phrase carefully. “Check your privilege”.

It’s like, “Check your lights” or “Check your oil”.

Examine your position again. Do a little bit of soul-searching. Doesn’t have to be much every time.

Ask yourself questions like:

“Am I thinking this because my racial background has predisposed me to have certain cultural assumptions that might not be true of everyone’s life”?

“Am I thinking this because I grew up either well-off or at least modestly okay, such that I have an understanding of what is available to people that may not be accurate?”

“Am I thinking this because I don’t have the kind of experience with this sort of discrimination to understand the barriers it may put into someone’s path?”

“Am I thinking this because my gender or sexual orientation has predisposed me to think certain ways about life?”

There are arguments that people can make that are fine and do not necessarily bespeak privilege.

Let me give you an example.

I do come from a middle-class family. But when I was growing up, my parents were not rich. I never was hungry and my clothes were always nice, but the first place I remember living in was a house that was not terribly well-maintained and was quite old. We rented one of the floors. In the foothills of Nevada City, that meant that I was going to be cold at night, because the insulation sucked in this old house.

My parents helped me with college, but I had to work to pay for high school debate that would allow me to get into college, to pay for some of my share.

And I had to make my own business, without much help from anyone in my social network, none of whom had the expertise I did in it.

This isn’t even to mention that I’m a first-generation immigrant (my mother being Quebecois and retaining her Canadian citizenship), which means I have first-hand experience with having people make fun of me and my family for the way we talk or think.

All of this is to say that I get how rough it can be to work at a Subway, to stay up at night worrying that you can’t make rent. I’m a freelance writer; trust me, I get it.

Society doesn’t provide good education and training. It’s difficult to get a job. Economic immobility and inequality is such that people who are stuck in a dead-end situation have to work with herculean effort to get out.

But I know so many people who are homeless or who are not doing well who are just not doing the work. They’re not making Craigslist ads (or checking Craigslist ads and e-mailing every single one they see), they’re not applying to every single place in walking distance, they’re not going to thrift stores to try to find cheap clothes that would be suitable for a job interview, they’re not applying for the kind of government aid that might let them barter for rides or pay back people who have lent them money, they don’t ask a friend to update or take a look at their resume, they’re not building a skill in their free time, they’re not going back to the places they’ve applied and asking to see a manager, they’re not asking their friends for places where they might be able to get a job. They just hang out at the park, or play video games.

These people often act with a sense of great privilege and entitlement. They think their parents just should let them stay with them indefinitely. They clearly implicitly think that they owe society nothing, or else they’d be doing work.

It can be very privileged to say, “I worked for this”, because other people in our society have also worked 60 hour weeks and taken care of a family and gone to school and they don’t have some of our advantages. There are working class and homeless superstars who just put tremendous effort out there, and it’s a Red Queen’s race where they run as hard as they can just to stay in the same place. Those people need help. And I have had privileges as the white heterosexual male child of two college graduates that many do not have. I have had educational enrichment at home that has given me not just job skills but also the confidence and assertiveness to engage with people.

Society shouldn’t be letting people starve. It shouldn’t be letting people go by without economic opportunities.

But that doesn’t change the fact that many people who are doing badly are simply not trying at all to improve their situation. And as much as we may give someone a break for hopelessness, I deal with hopelessness all the time too and it doesn’t stop me.

Now, as I am writing this, I think you can see that I’m checking my privilege. I’m making sure I’m not ignoring some aspect of what it’s like to be poor or homeless. And if someone did offer such a corrective, I’d engage with them. I’m trying to be empathic and see the issue from multiple perspectives.

That’s what checking privilege should be. It should be a brief plausibility check, a stress test for our ideas.

Who we are isn’t something to be ashamed of. I should not be ashamed of being white or heterosexual or male. That’s not what “Check your privilege” should mean. We all have different perspectives and different life paths that make us view issues differently. Adopting and defending our own position with empathy and care is just as crucial as being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

And what is more privileged than thinking that other people should just adopt your political opinion because you typed three words at them?

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