I Checked My Privilege and Found it Lacking

Hanging around in the social circles and online communities that I do, I hear the phrase “check your privilege” a lot.  Of course, this pisses me off, and I end up writing about it here.  Strap in, this is going to get ugly.

For those of you who are a bit out of the loop, here’s the rundown on this particular use of the word “privilege”.  While it wasn’t the first time it was used, a fair amount of the cultural awareness of the term goes back to a 1988 essay entitled Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,  which applied the feminist idea of male privilege to race.  The general idea is that a person representative of the dominant class- be that racial, gender, socio-economic, what have you- is largely unaware of the particular benefits they gain simply by belonging to that class.  Among the 50 benefits of being white given in the essay are these examples:

  • 34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  • 35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  • 36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
  • 37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
  • 38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

Another writer explains some of the benefits of being male:

  • 9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
  • 10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.
  • 11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent.
  • 12. If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.
  • 13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.
  • 14. My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.

Now, privilege is a very real thing, and it is a very significant obstacle to equality and good relations between people of different backgrounds.  It’s very hard to understand the effects of discrimination when the most common examples are completely alien to you.  Anyone can understand lynchings and segregation, but it takes a bit more to understand why black children are raised to never argue with police not out of respect, but out of self-preservation.  We can understand rape or being made to wear a burka as sexism, but it’s a little harder to grasp the subtlety of a fictional character existing solely in relation to her male counterpart.

So it’s not the concept of privilege itself that I have a problem with- It clearly exists.  It’s a useful model when describing the subtle effects of discrimination, and it’s a pretty hard concept to argue against.  I’m not claiming to be above it- I am, after all, a heterosexual, literate, white, adult American male. I am very aware of the many benefits my social status gives to me.

And, yet, I am also very aware of the benefits it fails to give to me.  Now, I have no problem admitting to my own privilege or understanding the privileges others lack-  What I find intolerable is the assumption of privilege.

Because here’s the thing: Privilege stacks, and being privileged in one way can be negated by being oppressed in another.

If you’re a man, you benefit from gender in all sorts of ways.  If you’re a gay man, a good number of those benefits go right out the window.   If you are both female and latino, you’re doubly screwed in the privilege department.  You may lack things we take for granted if you’re handicapped, but if you’re also rich, you can easily work around many of those obstacles.  Hell, just being poor outweighs a whole lot of being white or being male- not all of it, but a lot.

Now, we could argue about who has more or less privilege: A wealthy black man, a handicapped white one, or a transgendered person with an ivy league PHD, but really, there are only so many hairs I’m willing to stand around and split.  It’s not a contest.

As for myself, I’m a straight (bonus!), white male (jackpot!), with long hair and tattoos (strike!) who follows a minority religion (strike two!) and grew up as the poor kid in a rich town (strike three and out!).  I have checked my privilege and found it lacking.  Not that I’m claiming Buzzfeed to be any kind of expert opinion, but they tell me I score a lowly 32 out of 100.

It’s true that I happen to be the same color and gender as 67% of congress, but out of all 535 of them, not one shares my religious views, and a significant portion of them believe those views should actually preclude someone from holding office at all.  I don’t care what color they are- My interests are not being represented.  There is nobody like me in my government.

But that’s not the point.

If a person of color wants to call me out on something I say as racist, I’m fine with that.  In fact, I’d love for it to lead into an honest discussion about what I am or am not getting.  After all, asking honest questions about our assumptions is the only way we’re ever going to make any kind headway.  There are things that I just don’t understand about transgender people- Not that I don’t want to, and in fact I’ve had some pretty enlightening conversations with transgender friends- but however much I can understand on an intellectual level, the idea of feeling that out of place in my own body is just too alien for me to really, truly grok. So if I slip, and say something out of ignorance, I’m happy to have them correct me. I am absolutely willing to accept someone else’s pointing out the gaps in my understanding. I’m aware that I do benefit from some privilege- That’s not what bothers me.

No, It’s when an anonymous commentator on a message board erroneously calls me out for something I know from firsthand experience.  It’s when they place their assumptions about me above my own life experience- That’s where I draw the line.

Again, it’s not about privilege, it’s about the assumption of privilege.  That because a person is X, they automatically have all the benefits that come with it, and no idea what it’s like to be Y- Which they often assume without even verifying that X is, in fact, accurate.

You see that I’m white and immediately assume that I’m blinded to the advantages race gives me, without ever asking if maybe, just maybe, I’ve had a life that mitigates some of that privilege.  How do you know I wasn't raised in the Dominican Republic by a Latino stepfather? Or whether I have an African wife and mixed-race kids?  For that matter, how do you know I don’t merely pass for white unless I tell you about my family tree? My mother was briefly engaged to a man from Senegal- One slight twist of fate and I very well could have been raised by a black family.  That wouldn’t have magically erased my white privilege, but it would have dramatically changed the context.

My town wasn’t poor, I was. In fact, it was one of the most affluent areas within three states. My off-brand K-Mart clothes and brown bag lunch stuck out like a boner in sweatpants.  I grew up knowing full well that when I was robbed, assaulted, or harassed that the teachers, police, or other authority figures would always take my assailant’s word over mine, and nobody was going to do me any favors.  I always had to be careful because I knew that I could be suspended or arrested for the same offence that the rich kids could commit with impunity.

So you are correct in asserting that I don’t understand what it’s like to be black- but what it’s like to be harassed or assaulted or arrested just because you look like you don’t belong in that neighborhood?  Yeah.  I’ve got a pretty fucking good idea what that’s like, and while it was motivated by class instead of race, I resent the assumption that I don’t understand something I lived through.

And that’s the crux of the matter right there.  I’m fine with checking my privilege- But not when the suggestion comes from someone who harbors false assumptions about what I’ll find.

This becomes a particularly thorny issue when we discuss feminist issues dealing with violence or discrimination.  Firstly, there are a lot more transgendered people that you realize, and a very large percentage of them are not open about their birth gender.  You can no longer be entirely sure that the man you are talking to wasn’t raised female.  It may not be common, but it is no longer rare.

It is also grossly, dangerously, presumptive to make the assumption that because someone is male that they have never been raped or abused, or that they feel they can walk down the street safely, or that they have never been harassed.  The number of men who were molested or abused as children is nearly as high as the number of women, and the incidents are far more likely to go unreported because men, even boys, are expected to be able to defend themselves.  For a man to admit to sexual abuse is also to call his masculinity and his sexual identity into question. Police are likely not to take a report seriously, and there are few shelters for men to turn to. Homophobia can be a real threat, even when the victim is completely heterosexual.

In fact, because of the social stigma, most people are shocked to see the actual numbers:  That 1 in 10 men have been raped or stalked by a partner.  That 1 in 7 has been the victim of severe physical abuse by a partner- According to some sources, while 85% of reported abuse is against women, the actual number is actually 60%.

Again, this is not intended to minimize or detract from the real issues that women face, but to remind you that unless someone has told you their life story, you don’t know what they have or have not experienced.  While we can admit that male privilege certainly exists, we cannot pretend that every male benefits from every privilege normally associated with their gender.

Likewise for white privilege, for the privileges conferred by social or economic standing, or especially those available to the able bodied, as many serious chronic and mental illnesses have few visible effects.  We can not assume that because a person looks privileged that they are.

So, yes, I will check my privilege.  And I suggest that you check your assumptions.