3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything


I went to college in the '90s at the height of political correctness. On our first day of school we were taught a list of words that would not be tolerated. They were offered as examples of "hate speech." One of those words was "girl." In this heightened atmosphere, a classmate of mine asked if it was OK to say the word "Jew." (In case anyone's still wondering, yes. Yes it is, provided it doesn't follow the phrase, "Let's murder that dirty ___.) Y'see, context is everything, and there's always a danger in trying to divine someone's intent merely from their ability to adhere to the selected vocabulary of the day.

3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything
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For example, did you know "Findangos" is a slur against Finnish people?
Well, I mean it is now because I just made it up and said it on the Internet.

Over the years, I was pleased to see some of the worst forms of knee-jerk political correctness die down. People seemed to stop assuming someone was a Klansman for saying "black" instead of "African American." Some women started self-identifying as "girls" in certain contexts, which never happened while I was at school. But now we have a new kind of political correctness, which in many ways I think can be more harmful to the cause of mutual respect and understanding: "Check your privilege."

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Unfortunately, there's not yet a reminder light on your car's dashboard to "check your privilege," so you'll have to rely on people who hate you.

"Check your privilege" has become the standard refrain of people who accuse others of holding opinions that are somehow hostile to the underprivileged or, at least, outside of the ruling class. It's a way of saying: "You, sir, come from a place that has predisposed you to see the world in a self-centered and incorrect way." It is meant to fight the abuses of the rich white patriarchy and point them to the proper path. And the worst thing about the "check your privilege" movement is it does none of that. It helps no one. It fosters no understanding. It fails horribly to move society forward in any way.

Did you hear that last part? Although I know I am setting myself up for abuse, this is NOT an article about poor white men feeling like they're under attack. I don't care about poor white men. Or rich white men. I don't care about protecting "the patriarchy." I care about the same agenda supported by many of those people who throw "check your privilege" around like it's some magical defense against the dark arts. I'm talking to those people. Because if you really do care about building a better planet, filled with respect for and appreciation of differences, then there are three things about "check your privilege" that aren't helping you reach your goal.

"Check Your Privilege" Makes Assumptions

The first problem with "check your privilege" is the most stated one: It makes assumptions. Whom do you say it to? Just anyone who disagrees with your point on race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or socio-economics? Or do you just say it to white dudes who disagree with you? Cisgendered? Or whoever looks like the power elite on whatever topic you're fighting about?

3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything
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Safe bet?

But OK, let's say you're arguing over one of the many things people love to fight about and your adversary has expressed an opinion directly opposite to what you believe to be true. What does "check your privilege" say? It says you believe the root of the disagreement is your adversary's background. He or she feels this way because they're white, because they're straight, because they're rich.

In a very odd way, "check your privilege" is kind of racist, because it assumes someone's background dictates their opinions. Of course, we are all products of environments, but do you really think you can sum up someone's entire argument, if not existence, by referring to their background? You may not call it their race, gender, orientation, or social stratus. You call it their "privilege," but, ultimately, that's just code for saying, "Hey, your opinions are wrong because you're ___."

Aside from the dangers of assuming someone is privileged based on appearance, you're also assuming that background leads to only one conclusion. You're judging someone based on where they're from. Assuming why they believe what they believe. It's behavior beneath the dignity of someone who allegedly cares about prejudice and discrimination.

3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything
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"Yeah, some dude was disagreeing with me about Obamacare, but he was a white dude, probably rich, so y'know what he's gonna say ..."

"Check Your Privilege" Is Cynical

Let's say you had your little disagreement, and based on your adversary's appearance or speech patterns or whatever, your assumption that he/she was "privileged" is correct. Now what? What is your point? You feel one way. Your adversary feels another. Now you've pointed out he grew up richer, straighter, whiter than you? And?

3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything
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"This is not a rhetorical question, reader. And????" (Please speak your answer aloud.)

Ideally, the "check your privilege" movement is about encouraging others to understand how their own backgrounds might blind them to larger issues, but I see no evidence of that. Instead, if someone of a different background disagrees with you, and your retort is merely "check your privilege," then all you're really saying is: "You're not like me, and therefore you're incapable of empathy."

We are all from different places, all from different backgrounds, but who would want to live in a world as bleak as that? Who would want to overlook our common humanity? Yes, no one can know your experience as intimately as you. No one can fully appreciate your scars or pain except those who have precisely the same suffering, but how far can you take that? Even two Jewish Puerto Rican transsexuals cannot be assumed to have identical war wounds. At some point, each of us must take a chance that while others might not have experienced our exact pain, they have the capacity to understand. Humans can empathize, and spouting a three-word catchphrase does not make the world a better place by discounting that possibility.

3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything

"Check Your Privilege" Ends Conversations Instead of Starting Them

By now, you're really getting pissed off. You're positive you know who your enemies are, and you're positive their background prevents them from agreeing with you. You feel I'm distorting the whole point of "check your privilege." To you, the phrase is noble. The phrase is simply beseeching the wrong-minded power elite to engage in self-reflection and see how their socialization has led them to be narrow-minded, oppressive, and wrong.

I've had friends explain that to me -- "check your privilege" is only trying to start a dialogue. That's almost the equivalent of saying that "check my cock for your wife's lipstick" would start a dialogue about the state of one's marriage. The phrase is insulting. It's a shortcut allowing you to dismiss the opposing views of your adversary. It does absolutely nothing to illuminate.

3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything
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"Look, I explained why you've been socialized to understand nothing and always be wrong. What's the problem?"

If you're a black transsexual woman arguing with some white cisgendered male and you truly want to explain how his "privilege" prevents him from understanding your point, your struggle, or simply you, then spouting "check your privilege" isn't going to help. "Check your privilege" fosters no mutual understanding. Why not talk about you? Explain you? Share you?

What do you want: to be an understood, accepted part of the world with an equal chance for happiness and success, or just to tell the people you perceive as privileged that they're wrong? What is your goal? What is your endgame?

3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything
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"No, not checkmate, White King. More like you're so white and male you don't even get the game."

If you intend only to dismiss opponents, then great. However, if those behind "check your privilege" really want to foster a better world of mutual respect and understanding, I'd encourage them to share information with those they view as their oppressors. Share and explain your identity instead of merely tearing down others. And if you do that, and the reaction you get is hostile, shortsighted, and cruel, well then, at least you tried, and you can hate them with a clear conscience knowing you did your part to make the world a better place beyond speaking three simple, useless words.



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