check your privilege

There’s a lot of focus on privilege these days, and too often, it’s focused on other people’s privilege. There’s an expression: Check your privilege. It means (I think): “Consider how good you’ve got it.”

At least, that’s what it means in the best of intention. Most of the time it sounds like “Shut up, you’ve had your turn, take a seat.” Frankly, it is among my least favorite expressions. I find it rude and counterproductive.

And not because I disagree that there are plenty of people, myself included, who need to be more aware of advantages they haven’t earned, but because in an instance where a phrase like “check your privilege” is being used, “privilege” is being thrown like a weapon. I don’t find that useful.

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And what really gets my goat, burns my biscuits, twists my knickers, takes the jam out of my doughnut, is how often I see the “privilege” grenade being thrown by people who are very privileged.

A few years back, I found myself embroiled in an abortion debate with a group of college friends. A theme of the argument was that the men in the room needed to recognize their privilege and hold their tongues. Understandable, yes, that the women should want the floor on that particular matter. But as the discussion moved to tangential subjects, I couldn’t help but point out the obvious:

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We were all, men and women alike, very privileged. We had the standard ones that are always cited: White, cisgender, heterosexual. But we were also all American citizens, able-bodied, college educated (some of us with advanced degrees), employed, mentally capable, etc. etc. people in our early 30’s.

As I see it, many of us have our privilege and we have our disadvantages. I am very privileged in many ways, and less so in others. There are ways in which some people might perceive me as lacking privilege, whereas I can see certain advantages. And it’s good to recognize our own privilege, to recognize when we can use it to serve others, rather than ourselves. And yes, absolutely, many of us need to improve our sense of perspective.

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But what is not good is when we start being the privilege police, often based on surface information only. What’s not good is telling someone “what you think is wrong, and you think what you think because of what you are,” rather than asking “why do you think what you do?” or “look at how we’re different”rather than “where can we find commonality?” That abortion debate I mentioned? We all agreed on 95 percent of the points. It was the five percent that escalated things into an ugly argument.

That happens. It happens a lot. And it seems to happen often when we focus our energy on what someone else’s privilege is, and on how that person is misusing or abusing said privilege. It happens when we use someone else’s privilege as a weapon against them, and when we presume the root of someone’s perspective, and say things like “check your privilege,” while overlooking our own, and shut down the opportunity for open discussion.

As this very insightful young lady says, worry about yourself. 

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