“Checking your privilege” will be amazing once we stop calling each other names, judging each other, and deciding who is and who is not allowed to speak and instead focus on self-awareness and social cooperation.
As usual, Facebook conversations have got me thinking. A Facebook comment pleading that “call-out culture” was a necessary, if unfortunate step, in moral progress sparked me to write.
I thought I completely disagreed, all in all I did not believe “call-out culture” and a culture of acceptance, tolerance, and moral progress could cohabitate. Facebook has me thinking about the “check your privilege” meme/retort. Contrary to “call-out culture”, I believe the “check your privilege” meme/retort IS a necessary, if unfortunate step, on the road to moral progress.
“Checking one’s privilege” is necessary because there is a huge grain of truth that most privilege is taken for granted, subconsciously accounted for, and rarely acknowledged as a defining feature of who we are, and how we got to be where we are.
Until reminded, few of us actually remind ourselves of the privileges that prevents us from truly understanding other people’s experience of societal discomforts, obstacles, or prejudices — whether it’s because we are able-bodied, a member of the white “race”, a male, wealthy or middle-class, a native English speaker with no accent, educated, free of mental illness, etc.
Even the most empathetic of us cannot understand an experience we have not experienced ourselves. Furthermore, until reminded, the vast majority assume we are an “average person”, which means we think others would react the same way we would, even though we know the ways in which they differ from us.
A broad and global understanding of the concept of privilege, and the active mapping of that concept onto ourselves, is morally necessary. Not only to better understand ourselves, but to better understand others. This is how we begin to conceive of ways we can cooperate socially in full awareness of our everyone’s social position.
“Check your privilege”
Checking your privilege is an unfortunate step because a majority of people who say “check your privilege” are biased and judge you based on appearances. Then they proceed to extrapolate from their lives to your life, thoughts, and intentions. I’m being hyperbolic for effect, but the truth is that white guy being asked to check his privilege might actually be a black man “passing as white” and really annoyed his appearance means he automatically “doesn’t know anything about racism and is an asshole” if he tries to talk about it. Or that rich, strong black guy might actually suffer from severe depression. Or that white chick you just asked to check her privilege on the internet might be disabled and on welfare. Even if that white guy has all the privileges in the world, maybe he’s actually Jesus, but he’s tired of checking his privilege and doesn’t wanna save us all anymore.
I’m being more than facetious, so I’ll get to my point. My point is that the “check your privilege” meme/retort is rarely invoked as an honest means for dialogue and cooperation. “Check your privilege” is usually code for “shut up”. It’s belittling. I fully believe checking privilege is a good thing, but the way it’s done sometimes isn’t. It alienates allies. It negates critical thinking and individual thought. More importantly, it negates personal experience.
There is a wide variation of privileges between individuals, and shouting out “check your privilege” immediately places the recipient on the defensive; it immediately places the onus on them to pony up. Either prove they do not hold that privilege, and therefore have a right to speak, prove that they do not have a different privilege which might give them the right to speak (this is the most dangerous route to take) or simply bow out of the conversation and reflect upon the supposed shame that the exposing of their privilege has brought upon them.
Telling women to “check their privilege”
I hate being told to check my privilege, because I have some and there’s a grain of truth to the fact that my privilege potentially blinds me, or leaves me ignorant on a certain matter; but I’m highly self-reflective, so I tend to acknowledge my limitations freely. I do not hate “checking my privilege” just because I hate being wrong and that’s annoying. I really hate being told to check my privilege because some privilege doesn’t mean all the privilege and, gosh darn, I value my voice – even if it turns out I’m wrong. I’m okay with not knowing things and finding that out.
What I’m not ok with is not being allowed to speak about certain things – more often than not, because of the prejudices of the “checker”, I’m suddenly put in a position of having to counter or shut-up. I do not want to counter because then I have to talk about me (which the “checker” will rightfully point out, often in bad faith.) What I really want to do is debate the topic; and I do not want to shut up because what I really want to debate the topic.
Ironically, this insistence on wanting to have my voice heard stems from my own feminism. It is especially irritating to receive a “check your privilege” from a male, regardless of his sexual orientation or race. The thing is, I do not only want to be allowed to speak about “girl things”; conversely, I honestly do not only want to hear girl’s speak about “girl things”. I believe male allies are essential to feminism (perversely because men listen more to men) but I also think that “girl things” are really “human things”, and anyone with empathy, critical thought, reason, and something intelligent to say can say anything they want.
Actually, let me rephrase that, I think anyone can say anything they want about anything, and you just sort of have to deal by engaging them or ignoring them. But censorship, name-calling and “you have no right to speak because of your gender or race” is just not an option.
Why I won’t check my privilege publicly (but I do privately)
Often statements to “check your privilege” are laden with gross assumptions and prejudices made by the “checker” about the “checked”. This is not unusual since “check your privilege” is a meme, a social media fad, and 99% percent of times it is a complete stranger who will swoop in out of nowhere during a friendly debate to “check your privilege” – and suddenly an army seems to descend upon you. It is galling to have to face prejudices about privileges I’m assumed to have. It is undoubtedly less galling than having to face the prejudices that come with out having a privilege – but it does not make me want to be your ally.
Since “checking your privilege” has become a fad, if I speak about racism, I get called a white privileged racist trying to explain racism to People of Color; I do not see why it’s anybody’s business that my grandparents met at Auschwitz, despite my physical appearance. I have spent my whole life hiding the fact I’m hard of hearing because it’s nobody’s business — it does not mean my support of disability rights is borne of misguided guilt over my able-bodied privilege. There are just so many ways that “check your privilege” as a meme is offensive and unfortunate. You simply cannot get from a Facebook photo of me the sum of my privileges and experiences in life. You simply cannot get from a Facebook photo of me my right to speak about a given topic that is clearly important to me.
I do not check my privilege publicly anymore because I simply refuse to engage in these intrusive and disparaging comment wars, which do not seek to help me see your side but which seek to bully me into silence. Unfortunately, I do not speak as publicly anymore on any controversial topic that is important to me, because I just don’t want to be insulted, stereotyped, told I have no right to speak, or otherwise feel like having an opinion means I have to defend myself because you think I’m too white, or you think surely I’ve never faced poverty, or you think x, y, and z of me with absolutely no proof.
Victim-blaming. Who should “check their privilege”?
The “check your privilege” mentality is often used as political currency rather than fostering dialogue and understanding, and it often leads to a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance when the “checker” does not also check his or her own privilege but maintains that the “checked” must do so absolutely. This leads to under-privileged voices being arbitrarily silenced more often than not, not because of their spot on the privilege-hierarchy, but because they do not parrot a certain rhetoric currently fashionable within the circles of identity politics. The “checkee” is not checked because of their privilege, but because of their opinion. “Checking your privilege” is then used to silence opposition and avoid logical debate of a divergence of opinion.
We return to the question of ‘victim-blaming’.
I (and most women) have intimately absorbed the mechanisms of victim-blaming from the moment we first heard the word ‘slut’, had the lengths of our skirts measured in school, learned that going to the police or even our friends about sexual assault was to have the integrity of our character assassinated. I’m pretty sure I know victim-blaming when I see it, though I do not believe only women experience it.
I believe women have an “inside experience” into women’s issues, I believe they are not the only voice that matters. Just like I believe POC have an “inside experience” into racism, but they are not the only voice that matters.
Being told to “check your privilege” essentially for voicing a diverging experience may not be the best solution. That’s the problem with the “check your privilege” meme: it’s not meant to foster self-awareness and social cooperation, but it can and it should.
Straight cis white men
So what about straight cis white men? Assuming a straight cis white man holds all the privilege, is it not true that the whole point of “check your privilege” is to silence the dominant voices and allow for the expression of under-privileged voices? It is true that is the point, but I do not believe it is moral progress. I believe that allowing for the expression of under-privileged voices is without question moral progress, and the crux of the importance of the concept of privilege. But I do not believe that silencing any voices is moral progress. I cannot subscribe to any form of relativistic morality. There is a great difference between understanding the ramifications of privilege and subscribing to affirmative action on one hand, and creating stereotypes around individuals deemed to be privileged and endeavoring to shut them out of conversations on the other.
I do not see why white straight cis white men cannot be allies. I do not see why an ally has to parrot a certain rhetoric. I do not see why an ally cannot have diverging opinions and questions as to efficacy and method.
What actually prompted me writing this post is that a bunch of straight cis white men were quite gratuitously and publicly “called-out” on Facebook just for liking a post. It was claimed this was proof incarnate that the post itself had to be wrong. Because straight cis white men agreed. The lack of logic and the convoluted arguments, reminiscent of Ptolemaic epicycles, that followed the “call-out” tried to explain why straight cis white men basically were not allowed to have a social media presence “because of privilege” were completely laughable, yet they were so aggressive I didn’t feel I could just watch actual people being thrown under the bus literally just for existing.
I mean, it’s not complicated: this makes no sense to me. If all straight cis white men came to agree that gay marriage was right would that make it wrong? No. It is indeed difficult to come up with a universal moral code, but it is far less complicated than engaging in relativistic and Ptolemaic privilege arguments. To the aforementioned debate that led absolutely nowhere, except glib appeals to the unfailing authority in all matters pertaining race and confusion over who needed to defer their privilege in the matter of “victim-blaming”.
My response is unerring: it is no less morally wrong or right to murder people, even if you personally believe they are racists (unless of course it is out of self-defense). It is no less morally wrong or right to curb someone’s freedom of speech, even if you personally believe them to be a racist (unless their speech is directly inciting to violence). This might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but universal prescriptions have the benefit of protecting you, as well from someone deciding your murder is morally more acceptable because of your skin colour, or curbing your freedom of speech because of your skin colour. Which is preferable to each little social and cultural niche deciding what is right and wrong and for whom.
To get back to these straight white cis men. Of the “called-out” ones, I know have checked their privilege and have simply decided their voice still matters, they will still be allies even when they disagree with you, even when they are called out or shunned, they have decided they just won’t be bystanders in life because somebody who doesn’t know them decided they should just disappear because they are “straight cis white men”. In this respect, they share ideological similarities to those who check other people’s privileges and that’s probably a point worth
are actually really thoughtful, mature independent thinkers. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you always agree with your friends, you might be in a cult – something I strongly suspect of identity politics, “call-out culture”, and “checking your privilege” are veering into. It doesn’t seem to matter if it makes sense or not: the main commandment seems to be getting people to repeat after a few key leaders or shut up, barring which not only can you not be an ally, you are also guilty of racism, sexism, and other forms of aggression and hatred.
But it doesn’t have to be. When properly done, in a climate (or “safe space”) that is truly inclusive, “checking your privilege” can and should be the avenue towards better self and social-awareness. It can and should be amazing.
“Check your privilege” can and should be amazing.
To recap: I think the concept of privilege is important, truthful, and necessary.
I make no dice of it, for all my complaints, “check your privilege” as a meme might very well be a necessary moral step while we learn to yield this weighty and necessary concept. Progress is made with baby steps, in stages, including regressions (especially if you remember anything about Hegelian dialectics – the idea that history swings to extremes before settling back to a middling position that is not however the original position; but a position that is proper progress.) It’s an unfortunate one morally because it’s polarizing, confusing, shaming and silencing. It does not address the fact that privilege is complex and fragmented, burdens are usually invisible to the eye of the beholder, and that it forces people to either constantly prove their burdens or just turn around and walk away if they think it’s no one’s business and their ideas should trump their birth lottery (or lack thereof).
Most crucially (and I cannot stress this enough) it’s an unfortunate step because it hasn’t actually transcended the things we want it to transcend. We’re still stuck giving each other points based on birth lottery, even if we’ve reversed the criteria. We’re still stuck in a historical period of extreme reaction to the previous eras extremes. We haven’t let go of the thing that’s actually holding us back. We’re using a concept meant to gently give voice mainly to aggressively silence. I do not pretend to be surprised or outraged by this fact: it’s so very human. But I do not pretend to like it either.
The fact that “Check your privilege” is mainly used to advance a flawed ideology based on the more tenuous aspects of identity politics just makes it a moral double-edged sword, one I’m eager to see social progressives transition out of — but that’s probably for another post. “Check your privilege” will be amazing once we stop calling each other names, judging each other, and deciding who is and who is not allowed to speak and instead focus on self-awareness and social cooperation.
—V. Lynn Therrien
V. Lynn Therrien was once cited by Ilyas Khan of the British Wittgenstein Society, and yet she failed to respond to his personal letter. This is, she suspects, a metaphor for her life: she has poor social skills but generally pretty sound logic. If you want (and even if you don’t), she’ll happily tell you about all of the things she’s allergic to: the list includes cats, dairy products, and sophistry.