Privilege. If I had a nickel for every time I heard that word, I’d probably be a Koch brother by now. But they don’t give you nickels for interrogating power. That’s actually the direct opposite of why they would ever give you nickels. You know, “they,” as in “the man.” But I digress. Back to privilege. What is it? And why are we so often told to check it? Simple. Intersectionality, people. Because oppression doesn’t work in a blanketed way, but it affects different intersecting identities in very specific ways. Because you don’t know everything. Because you don’t experience everything. Because there are other perspectives, other experiences, other identities, and they understand the world in distinctly different ways than you do. Privilege. Sometimes, you just need to check it, be quiet, and listen.
So then, what is privilege? Privilege is the favor you receive, whether wanted or not, based on an identity that you hold. Privilege is the value of your voice, just because of a certain identity. We live in a system that privileges white, heterosexual, middle-class, cisgender, Christian men. If you’re white, you are privileged. If you’re heterosexual, you are privileged. If you’re a man, you are privileged. If you’re middle or upper class, you’re privileged. If you’re cisgender (a non-trans person), you are privileged. If you’re Christian, you are privileged. If you exist within any of these identities, yes — you are privileged. I have lived my life as a white women of economic privilege in the United States. That is the perspective that I have. Have I experienced discrimination? Yes, I have. But that doesn’t mean that I understand all discrimination, all oppression. That doesn’t mean that I exist in a vacuum of social power dynamics. I am a white, straight, cisgender woman in a heterosexist, racist patriarchy.
Checking your privilege is understanding that, while I may not want to benefit from being a white person, I do. I have a voice that is more likely to be heard, respected, valued. It’s not because I want it to be that way; it’s because we exist in a society that perpetuates racism and devalues the voices, perspectives, and lives of people of color. Checking your privilege is understanding that you exist in an advantaged social space and the knowledge that you do not experience oppression and discrimination in the same way as other people.
Checking your privilege is listening, not posturing. When a woman of color says that she finds something racist, I accept her feelings on that. I don’t need to challenge her interpretation of what’s racist because, let’s be real here, I don’t know. I have never been discriminated against on the basis of race. A person of color has more legitimacy and more of a right to assert what is and isn’t racist because they have that lived experience. They understand racism in ways that I never will.
Sometimes, when someone is told to check their privilege, they respond defensively: “But, because I’m not a black woman, I don’t get to have opinions? I’m just trying to help! I don’t get to help?” Shush. First of all, no one needs your “help.” Support is not the same thing as help. You’re not a savior. As Melissa Harris-Perry so keenly noted on her show today, there already exists a groundwork of people resisting, organizing, challenging discrimination on their own behalf. If you want to be an ally, check your identities — scan your privileges — and take a back seat, a supporting role.
Checking your privilege doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to have an opinion, a thought, a feeling. It just means that you are aware that your opinions, your thoughts, your feelings are not the only ones, and they are influenced by your privileged position. Checking your privilege means that you accept that you don’t know everything, that people who experience a certain kind of discrimination and oppression firsthand have the right to assert their opinions, thoughts, and feelings. They have a distinct perspective and should be heard. Checking your privilege also means acknowledging that the voices of those who don’t occupy a privileged position are often silenced and sidelined, or co-opted and appropriated by those in privileged positions. Checking your privilege often means shutting up. It means listening. It means learning. It means valuing those voices and perspectives from non-privileged positions.
So when someone says to you, “Check your privilege,” try not to get defensive. Try to understand where it’s coming from. It’s not an assertion that you are a terrible human being, that you have nothing to contribute, that you’re necessarily racist/sexist/heterosexist/cissexist. It’s a call to reflect on your privileged identities and the favored social space those identities permit you to inhabit.
In the immortal words of Ice Cube, check yourself before you wreck yourself.