Op-Ed: The futility of "check your privilege"

Thursday, October 12, 2017 - 9:37am

As seen on The Michigan Daily's Facebook page and website in the comments of my article about the importance of having spaces for straight men to grapple pressing issues facing minorities, many people dislike my opinion, and that’s OK. However, it worries me that many of the responses devolve into demeaning insults that are anything but constructive. Anything that silences conversation and the exchange of ideas only hurts the position that marginalized commenters advocate for because they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from this approach. The worst of all is telling someone to “check their privilege.”

First, what is privilege and how does one check it? Privilege is the combination of social identities that grants someone unearned advantages, like being white or male in the job market. To check one's privilege is to acknowledge that society "grants unearned rewards to certain people based on their race, gender, sexuality, etc." and “the role those rewards play in one's life and the lives of less privileged people.” On the surface, there is nothing wrong with you asking people to acknowledge that others are less fortunate than another.

However, checking one's privilege is complicated. Let me be clear: Individual men need to learn to understand perspective, and marginalized people should continue calling them out for it. But if you agree that privilege blinds people from understanding marginalized perspectives, then it follows that the privileged must be educated about these perspectives in order to see them. In other words, how can someone expect you to “check your privilege” if you don’t know what’s wrong? And just as importantly, why would you?

The harsh reality is that people in a position of privilege benefit more from ignoring marginalized perspectives than listening to them. As one GoFundMe humorously shows, engaging with intersectionality and feminism strips white men of their very real privilege to “acknowledge that (they) have unearned privilege but to ignore what it means.” On top of that, the structural systems of oppression blind them to the struggles others face, leaving it up to marginalized voices to force their way into the conversation. The conversation is biased against marginalized people from the get-go. However, shutting down the conversation by saying “check your privilege” is a counterproductive way to approach the situation.

It is counterproductive because when you use this phrase you intentionally or unintentionally express frustration and arrogance — frustration because you shouldn’t have to educate peers about this in the 21st century and arrogance because it implies an “I know better than you” attitude. The problem is that the people who are told this phrase are rarely the people who look up privilege in their free time. In this case, if you want someone to understand their privilege, you have to lay it out because it is the privilege itself that prevents them from seeing it for themselves; it’s a Catch-22, one that hurts marginalized people more than those whom it afflicts.

On the other end, people who are subject to this reproach are frustrated by this lack of understanding and, from an argumentative perspective, it’s a cop-out. The phrase implies an argument for something they did wrong without revealing to them what it is; because they don’t know what they did wrong, they can’t begin to understand or correct their error. This putdown is easiest to unpack, but any other comment that fails to directly address something problematic has the same effect.

Consider these comments, including quite a few comments asking me to “check (my) privilege:" “Yes, please tell me more about how hard it is to not comprehend actual systemic oppression,” “How about you all grow the f*** up,” “Go talk to ur straight white men!!!” 

Besides perhaps therapeutically releasing frustration, none of these comments are productive to public dialogue, which was the point of my article. This type of reply leaves no room for conversation because there is no way to respond to a problem when they don’t know what the problem is. That’s like trying to fix a leak in a boat without knowing where the hole is. Similarly, if you want those with privilege to understand what was wrong with their comment or action, you must deconstruct their error instead of just shutting them down, even if that is not your intent. 

If you want productive political change, then you must start with yourself and your own tone even though that’s simply not fair. It’s not fair that you have to police your own emotions and privileged people don’t. It’s not fair that you have to keep the conversation open but they can disregard you. It’s not fair that they have privilege and everything is stacked in their favor so that they don’t have to care but you must. That’s the cards that were dealt; the rules suck, but this is how to win the game. 

We live in a world where people who you disagree with will be wrong, and they will come out on top. It is not enough to be right, even when you are. White men may still disregard your logic, but if you truly want them to “check their privilege,” it’s better to open a conversation on the off chance they listen than to shut it down from the get-go. Using the term “check your privilege” only further alienates men who may put in a real effort to understand.

Yes, many do not. But in the cases where they do, shutting down conversation only hurts your cause. 

Ben Bugajski is an LSA senior.