What do people mean when they say “check your privilege”? Sometimes I see this battle cry used more to belittle someone for being ignorant than to initiate any real consideration. I’m hoping to create a more productive space for introducing this concept for people who aren’t familiar.
Reflecting on our privileges is an important exercise for any person. Some cringe-worthy stories that came out of the first women’s march showed us what it looks like when well meaning people choose to jump into the deep end before learning the basics. So, here goes:
My take on Privilege
Privilege comes in many different forms. A lot of it can be identified by understanding the burdens which inherently exist for some people but not for others. Don’t get it twisted: acknowledging your privilege does not imply that you never faced an obstacle, or that you should feel guilty for having it. It’s easier to think about it in the form of: “I’m privileged because I don’t have to ________.”
A few real-life examples:
- perform better than my male peers in a STEM class to be perceived as equally capable [Study]
- argue with a pharmacist to receive my doctor-prescribed medication when they hold personal objections to my legal, FDA-approved healthcare choice [ACLU Paper]
- think twice about calling the police to protect me from violence [NYT story + stats]
- worry about whether I can find a way to feed my family tonight [Food Insecurity by County]
- have my wedding invitation denied because my close friend doesn’t approve of my sexual orientation [experience shared by a loved one]
- hear vile slurs about my minority race screamed at me while I walk down the street [experience shared by a loved one]
- research the restaurant’s accessibility whenever I am invited to dinner somewhere new [experience shared by a colleague]
- represent my minority group if I show up late to a meeting, do poorly in school or need to ask for help [Not a summative anecdote, but I’d highly recommend White Like Me if you’re looking for more context around minority group representation]
The Burden of Representation as defined by Henry Louis Gates Jr:
These might not be the points of gratitude we record in our journals at bedtime. People with privilege, in any of these dimensions, don’t have to think about these things, and that’s the point.
Resources for Diving Deeper
This essay explained privilege in an effective way for me, so I like to share it when people are looking for resources:
it’s an excerpt from Peggy McIntosh’s paper on both white and male privilege:
there are also some adaptations that cover privilege around gender identity and sexual orientation:
Putting this Awareness into Practice
Being part of the solution means understanding where your experience fit into the bigger picture. Many of today’s political debates involve judgments about other peoples’ experiences. Our government is supposed to address market failures and protect vulnerable populations. As citizens it is our responsibility to invest time in understanding other populations before making our judgments. Privilege is just one thing that differentiates your own experience from someone else’s, but holding space for that acknowledgement can change everything.