Privilege Blog

Check Your Privilege, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:24am

Do you check your privilege before you speak? Huh? What does that mean, you might ask?

There’s a question on the airwaves these days, i.e. “How can you speak to an issue if personal privilege might color your opinion?” This article in the Guardian offers more detail.

Clearly, given the title of this blog, I believe that privilege exists. I also believe it should be discussed openly. So discussed by whom? And how?

Let’s first define our terms. Privilege means you get stuff you don’t have to work for. The concept of privilege in society implies that those without suffer injustice. Everyone on board with that? Despite the inelegant grammar?

If you rely on language alone, categories of privilege get pretty silly pretty fast. We move from white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, to thin privilege, and then on to hirsute privilege, good work ethic privilege, and so on. But we all know that easy riffing often ignores truths.

Add a little thought.

I always start with my own reactions, if only to clear thought space. For example. I have a strong bias toward simply getting on with things. I might be tempted to label discussing Privilege (other than for entertainment) complaining. I might blurt out,  “Could we all please Just Buck Up?” However, what about feminism? I’ve run into my fair share of harassment. To say nothing of myriad male attempts to seize power via gender attacks. It was worse in the 80s.

So I can’t deny the emotional reality of privilege as experienced from the other side.

Now what? Does logic support emotion? And how far? Let’s analyze the construct, the model itself of privilege and power. Back to the definition. Privilege, briefly stated, is stuff you get without having to work for it. But oh so many layers.

There’s genetic privilege, if you will. Born white, born male, born intelligent, born tall, born handsome. Yet the men I know who check all these boxes are markedly non-dominating. Nor can all genetic talents be defined as privilege. Resilience is genetic, and a priceless advantage,  but we attribute the virtues of those born resilient to, well, virtue.

Then there’s non-genetic privilege. Wealth, a functional family, fresh air, good food, education. As we know, these don’t follow automatically from genetic privilege. Rich kids grow up on junk food, tall people have cruel parents, little boys are badly schooled. To further complicate our analysis, someone had to work for that non-genetic privilege; at the very least parents had to say no to Cheetos.

So logic will take us only so far toward absolute rules for who has privilege, who doesn’t, and therefore who is allowed to speak.

Let’s approach this from another angle. Let’s assume that such rules are possible, that silencing those with privilege, feasible. In that case only voices of the dominated will be allowed. Taken further, (and assuming that lack of privilege confers as much virtue and self-awareness as privilege – which is to say Not Too Much) will we cast all experience in light of victimhood?

A poor outcome, in my opinion.

I’m going to come out in favor of freedom to speak, as long as we remember who might be listening, and what life they may have led. Checking not so much my own privilege as the hearts and minds of others as I go. Because I believe people are at heart good, I hope we the privileged get to talk as long as we try not to be jerks. As long as we ridicule no one.

I hope we don’t have to apologize, at least not more than once. Or twice. Or at the very most 10 times. I used to apologize all the time. Constant self-questioning turns into anxiety, and there’s enough of that in the world.

I also hope the idea of Just Buck Up keeps its value.

Power is one source of sorrow in the world, but there are others.

Let’s return to the realm of the ridiculous. Laughter is one of the great human identifiers, and we can get to funny pretty quickly. Take a quiz, referred to me by Ellemarcheseule. Or go reread Stuff White People Like. Only thing is, remember to laugh loudly at ourselves and gently at others.

Have a wonderful weekend.

39 Responses

  1. I don’t think that “check your privilege” means you should be silent, or apologize over and over. The ones who are exhorted to check their privilege are usually those who come into conversations and fail to imagine any other truth and lived experience than their own. One could as easily say “speak with awareness and empathy”. Which we should all be doing anyway, but especially when we’re in situations with a power differential.

  2. I agree with Cynthia’s point that “check your privilege” doesn’t necessarily mean keeping quiet, just being aware that our own experience and values derived from it may not be universal. That others may have faced struggles we’ve never imagined. I think it’s good to recognize and acknowledge the ways in which we are privileged, with grace and humor. And Lisa, you do that beautifully.

    Just Buck Up is valuable on the individual level, but it’s important to also be able to step back, look at the system, call an injustice an injustice, and be willing to work to change it. That to me isn’t victimhood. Victimhood is donning a cloak of powerlessness, but expecting the world to change to suit us. Just my two pence.

    1. Yes, I had started to make the point about institutional justice, and then thought, “One of my thoughtful readers will surely address this.” And so you did. Exactly.

  3. Having privilege does not mean having a voice, or being forced to feel guilty for having that privilege. Instead, I look at it as Spiderman did – “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Privilege, particularly unearned privilege, will exist as long as time exists. Once we’re aware of it, instead of being ashamed of it, we should make sure we’re not using it to perpetuate injustice in the world.

    When it comes to having a voice, those without privilege have more often than not been the ones silenced. History (among many other things) is written by the winners. It is not, then, that those with privilege should keep silent, but being aware of how much we are speaking and that we need to allow other voices to speak alongside us and listen to them, even if they come from a place we do not understand.

    Privilege is also something that can be used to break down walls and work towards justice. Tim Wise is a great example of this. As a white man, he is privileged in so many ways. But he uses his privilege to be easily heard to speak out and draw attention to other voices that may be dismissed.

    I love your Twitter tagline – “I try not to be a jerk.” I think this is such a great attitude to take. So many people turn to guilt instead, or to play Suffering Olympics and try to determine if they’ve suffered enough to make them exempt for the responsibilities of any privilege they have. I think just accepting that our advantages are an accident of our birth and not using them to hurt others, intentionally or unintentionally, is a better way.

  4. That first sentence should read “Having privilege does not mean NOT having a voice” – I should learn to proofread. :)

  5. “How can you speak to an issue if personal privilege might color your opinion?”

    One more step back from this quotation reveals a generic non-specific perspective that personal an-y-thing will color an-y-one’s opinion on e-ve-ry subject. No one escapes accumulating filters and distortions over a lifetime. So yes of course, let the whole distorted personhood of homo sapiens stand and speak. Stepping back into your quotation, and inserting your specific “privilege” still yields the same answer [ie to me, the Fuzzy Logic Queen], so yes speak right up from this distortion as well.

    I’m kinda glad your Guardian link didn’t work, it made me insert “check your privilege” into their website search field and….whew! I see what you mean, the phrase is everywhere now. No, I hadn’t come into contact with it yet. So thank you, I like being prepared for getting called out by the CYP-ers based on any of my distortions, including privilege. Bring it on.

  6. I agree with Flo–“no one escapes accumulating filters and distortions over a lifetime.” Well said, and no fuzzy logic there.

    What’s disturbing to me about the idea of “checking your privilege” is, first, that it’s a reductionist view of a complete human being: “You are defined by your privilege.” Second, it suggests a sweeping globalization: “All people who are privileged are X” (see following).

    Seemingly implicit in the idea of “checking your privilege” is the equation of privilege with qualities such as arrogance, entitlement, and insensitivity. Privilege is an external circumstance; arrogance, entitlement and insensitivity are character traits. The latter do not necessarily follow from the former.

    I move that all of us who breathe–privileged by the fact that we get to be incarnated and have the wild-and-woolly, wonderous and weird, experience of being alive–just do our best to be thoughtful, respectful, and compassionate in our interactions with others. The whole world would benefit, you can bank on it (and I’d feel privileged to be the one to deliver the check!).

  7. An interesting topic. I like the notion just buck up in many but not all situations.(Stoicism is a much under rated virtue in the 21 century, in my opinion. On the other hand it is equally important to speak out and act against injustice.)

    I have always thought that people are mostly good at heart,as you say. What is clear is that we are all born with varying abilities and I believe that the measure of a good society is how we care for its less privileged members. Which I suppose is another way of saying that with privilege (good health, happy family, whatever the form of privilege) comes responsibility.

  8. Sue, “good health, happy family” can be lovely privileges, but how often are each earned? I, for one, didn’t come from a happy family, but gave everything I had to raise one. Could another measure of a good society be knowing the difference between the less privileged and the less willing?

  9. I’ve gotten a lot of grief from some people over my name, and the house where I was raised. Yes, I was a child of privilege, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. It does colour everything I say and do, because it’s part of who I am. I try to use the advantages that I’ve had to help others, do good things, and make the world a better place. It doesn’t always happen, but I do try.

  10. “All men are created equal”…What do those words mean? They mean we all have equal worth as human beings but we will never share the same gifts and no one has a perfect life. Our choices make us who we are more than anything that might be given to us.

    1. Rachel, thanks for bringing this up. I firmly believe thatr it is our choices (which reflect who we are) that make each and every one of us important and special. It’s the value we place on others that allows us to use our “priviledge” to it’s best advantage.

  11. I am a middle class, middle aged, nicely dressed white woman, with silver hair. I am also a CASA (court appointed special advocate) and my foster kids are biracial teenagers. It hit home MY privilege when one of my kids, a 17 year old girl, and I went through security together at the courthouse. I breezed through, of course, because no one is more harmless looking than me. The girl was examined very closely. Her purse was run through the x – ray twice and then opened and examined. I was embarassed. The system showed its bias that day. We’ve all heard about prejudice, of course, but here it was in action.

    1. I wouldn’t argue that the courthouse may have shown bias to your charge, but they also displayed poor security practices. Mild-mannered middle-aged ladies need the same level of review as young gals with nappy hair – because in this day and age we can’t know who is dangerous and who is not.

    2. I think of all the “privileges” the privilege/injustice of race is the worst. At least in the 1st world, where women have access to birth control and wages. I am proud of the USA for having made the effort to clear our institutions of injustice, and sorry that people anywhere still feel right in racial hatred.

    3. I should clarify – they x- rayed my purse, and I had to walk through the metal detector like at the airport, but they didn’t go though my purse, or x- ray it more than once.

    4. My mother who is 75 with gray hair and a cane was pulled over by a TSA agent. I have seen one of our young veterans pulled over by TSA while a women in a burka(?) was never approached. Confused by the PC of it.

    5. I’m sorry that your mother was questioned by a TSA agent. My mother is 77, and I know that I would be upset if she were in that situation.

      But as to the experience of the young veterans and the woman in a burqa, there may have been good reasons the veterans were approached when the veiled woman was not. As Rose AG said on June 9 at 5:13 p.m., “In this day and age we can’t know who is dangerous and who is not.”

  12. I looked up several dictionary definitions as there was something about your qualification, “that you didnt have to work for” that didn’t quite resonate for me. Merriam-Webster’s is “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor”.

    I’ve known people with enormous privilege for which they •did• work, and eventually achieving positions of power and advantage.

    Whether privilege is gained via genetics, luck, affiliations or achievement, it’s useful to examine how it affects our values, attitudes and behaviour, whatever the degree or type of privilege we enjoy. To be heedless of one’s privilege is to engage in what the Marxists call “false consciousness”.

    1. I am specifically defining privilege as something we don’t work for. If you work for it, then it’s a reward, IMO, and you get a little more leeway in how you use it. My humble opinion.

  13. I’ with Duchesse in taking exception to the notion of “didn’t have to work for it.”
    At some point in time somebody worked for it. Whether that should endow their heirs with eternal elevation has been the debate of all time.

  14. Hm hmm hmmm. You are trying to say something and I don’t “get” it. I am almost sure, you could deliver the message in one or two sentences. I read and reread your posting and still, I don’t get it.

    I visited the website “Stuff White People like”. White people like to blog! ;-)

    1. I can’t deliver the message in one or two sentences. It’s quite possible that my points are so fine as to be invisible:).

  15. I feel that privilege is a very personal value. You are either born into it or you create your own.Privilege is not always a choice and I do not believe that we are born equals, so much depends on the geography, the family, the health. However we all have the inner conscience and will to influence our life. Privilege can be a wonderful thing or turn us into self centered human beings with a narrow vision of life. I embrace “privilege” by being allowed and able to lead a life of my choosing, but yet sharing that privilege with others.

  16. Thank you for this post, Lisa. I read that article on the Guardian when it first came out and was troubled by the use of the expression “check your privilege” as a way of shutting down discussion.

    It is important to me to recognize that some of us have been more fortunate than others and, as you say, to try not to be jerks. At the same time, our not having been born into certain less-fortunate circumstances doesn’t automatically disqualify us from thinking and commenting about them, as long as we are able and willing to exercise empathy, the greatest of human attributes and one that sadly seems to be in short supply in online forums.

    1. So much difficult discussion does get mangled by language. Your mama is a smart woman.

  17. privilege is a charged word in that it has come to be associated with wealth. I like the word “advantaged’ better.

    You focus here on ability or the appropriateness of speaking, but the next step would be in doing. If the disadvantaged, or those who have obstacles that they did not set up themselves, in life, are to have those obstacles removed, then many of us who enjoy advantages due to those obstacles will experience a loss of advantaged.

    How many with privilege are willing to give up that privilege in order to satisfy justice?

    For those who may have a hard time understanding what sort of privilege should, or could, be given up… lets take ‘legacy’ college admissions as an example.

  18. Love this post, Lisa. I appreciate it when people are tongue-in-cheek and able to laugh when their comments are “white privilege”, etc., but sometimes I do feel that it’s more of an apology than an acknowledgment. Or even worse, humble-bragging. I think you’re spot on…the best way to “deal” with it is to acknowledge that it’s real, to what extent we have it, and to be aware of it when interacting with others. Since it’s something you can’t help or work for, there’s not sense in apologizing for it. Might as well be grateful and find a way to make sure that it’s available to more people.

  19. Lisa, we are standing on common ground if you consider that ‘work’ is not always paid labour. (I could go into detail about some marriages.)

    Privilege as a result of work is not always a reward, it can also be achieved by luck. Nor does doing the work necessarily yield a reward. Reward implies that someone is deserving- sometimes, but sometimes not. “Deserve”- now there’s another fraught word!

  20. It struck me as I read toward the end of your post your thoughts on privilege and it reminded me of my dad and something he drilled into us. He was not a literary man, and yet he quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald about remembering that not everyone has had the advantages we’ve had. As the child of parents who came from extreme poverty and became greatly successful in the western definition of the word, I have a lot of ambivalence about privilege. As you point out, it is bandied about almost in the same way that the word “authentic” was in the spiritual circles I used to run around in…so diluted that it didn’t have much meaning at all. I love your solidness Lisa.
    xo Mary Jo

  21. At this point in life, I’m content to quietly enjoy abundance without saying much about it, and I do see it as a privilege, not a reward. Yes, I worked for it, but there was luck involved and resilience too, which as you say is a priceless advantage. Resilience isn’t a virtue in my mind though. I see it as a kind of deliberate willfulness. Or least this was so in my case.

  22. I’m bemused by the wide spread concern I see that people are being “told to shut up” and “discussion is shut down” by using “check your privilege”.

    In my experience it is the not privileged who are constantly told to shut up and their voices that are not only not part of the official discussion, hard to find even if you’re looking, but frequently immediately drowned out by the loud voices of those with privilege when what they say manages to get heard.

    1. I think the privileged are now feeling what it’s like to be shut down, and it feel horrible. As it does for everyone. All voices, if people keep their wits about them and try not to be jerks, should be heard.

  23. First, let me say I have been a reader of your wonderful blog for some time, although I have never commented before.

    This is a great post and a provocative discussion. I like your definition of privilege because it covers a lot of territory. By this definition, privilege extends beyond being raised in affluent circumstances or inheriting wealth. Intelligence, mental health and other genetic characteristics can confer unearned advantage. Having parents who love you, spend time with you and pass on the value of education are privileges that convey advantage. Not growing up in a war zone or drug infested housing project greatly increase a person’s chances of success in life. None of these advantages are earned by the recipient.

    In my mind, being privileged certainly doesn’t restrict one’s right to free expression. Hopefully though, those of us who have privilege will exhibit some humility, thank our lucky stars, and realize that “there, but for fortune [in the broad sense}, go you or I.”

    1. Very nice to meet you. And I swear I can hear in your “speech” patterns that you share my sort of family background;).

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