‘Check your privilege’ is corrosive to our politics

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Source: Vancouver Sun

In a memorable moment during the televised debate last Tuesday night, provincial party leaders John Horgan, Sonia Furstenau, and Andrew Wilkinson were asked by moderator Shachi Kurl about how they had “personally reckoned” with their privilege as white politicians, within the context of ongoing experiences of institutionalized racism and violence by racialized communities.

The question generated sundry responses. You may know the content of their answers already, as they have been the subject of significant media analysis and Twitter conversations.

What struck us most about that moment was not what leaders said — it was the missed opportunity. There was a missed opportunity to discuss how their parties, if given power, would address racial oppression. In other words, we wished to find out from our leaders what justice looked like beyond knowing the right buzzwords. Beyond what, for so many of us, has come to mean ritualistic self-admonishment, and mostly empty gestures. Unfortunately, those opportunities to genuinely wrestle with and offer solutions to current social and material inequalities were primarily sidestepped.

To those hearing the question at the debate, the term “white privilege” may have been a familiar one. For example, “check your privilege” has become a famous turn of phrase in progressive culture and now palatable to the mainstream. It is used to describe the recognition of one’s individual unearned advantages and a commitment to giving power to those with less or little privilege. (For example, to be white, heterosexual and male is considered constitutive of overlapping forms of privileges.) By “checking your privilege,” one is invited to strive for justice by individually reflecting on how one can “be” and “do” better.

Personal behaviour and interactions are important to recognize and correct when required. We also believe that there are broader issues at play here that need focus in our politics. Here is an example of popular understandings of “white privilege”: a white, middle-class, able-bodied man is considered to have “privilege” because he has a high degree of freedom from state and other forms of violence and discrimination. He has the freedom to be a full human being worthy of dignity and respect.

The language of privilege implies excess, or a surplus of something that needs to be taken away. But the right to live a life free of oppression is not an indulgence, rather it is an existence we should all be able to enjoy. Let us be clear that we do not begrudge those who have lived their lives free from racial and other forms of discrimination. We just hope that they are fighting alongside us for a world where that fundamental tenet of human dignity is secured for us, too.

We believe these basic conditions for a safe and decent life, which are now largely being framed as privileges, must be reclaimed and demanded as universal rights.

We also find that conversations of privilege often bypass a deeper understanding of how power operates through policies and structures that cause harm on a massive scale. Questions about privilege tell us nothing substantial about what political leaders need to do to tackle problems meted out to vulnerable groups. We need to address racism in the health care system, access to clean drinking water on reserves, police violence and the criminalization of marginalized groups, the privatization of the public sector, and starvation wages. “Check your privilege” can so quickly devolve into empty gestures — having the sheen of progressivism, but ultimately offering nothing of substance to back it up.

So how do we move beyond the narrow limits offered by the politics of privilege? We move beyond it by upending it. We must re-commit ourselves to the progressive story of mutual liberation, a story progressives used to tell in order to convince people to sign on to their political project. We move beyond it by convincing others that justice can only be achieved by raising the floor, not opting into the fallacy that we should have to fight each other for scraps. We move beyond it by no longer seeing the conditions so fundamental to living a decent, dignified life as privileges.

We need to fight for a rights-based approach to social and economic justice. We deserve and should accept nothing less.


Cara Ng is a substance use researcher and resident of Vancouver; Khelsilem is an elected First Nations leader with the Squamish Nation. 

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