Bouncing the Privilege Check

So I guess the thing all the cool kids are saying lately is “check your privilege.” Which I would be totally behind, had it not been shaped into some kind of weapon some people wield over others like a cudgel. And that happens far too often lately. Worst of all, it’s the kind of weapon that only works against people who are near allies.

For anyone who doesn’t know, privilege is the concept that by virtue of your race, gender, socio-economic status and other factors, you are granted an unasked-for and unearned advantage over other people. Example: as a white person, I can generally be assured I won’t be followed around a store by security for no good reason. Contrast that to a store manager I had at a job I worked at in high school, who flat-out directed me to follow groups of black women around the store. I could be the biggest shoplifter in the world, yet I’d garner less suspicion in that store simply because I’m white.

Absolutely, privilege exists. To say otherwise is to be willfully ignorant or woefully unempathetic. And being aware of whatever privilege you have is a good thing. If for no other reason, because it helps you understand the struggles other face and shows you where there’s still work to be done.

I know privilege exists, but I never witnessed it so blatantly as recently when Evangeline (who is black) and I were staying in a hotel in New Orleans. On the morning we were checking out, we were in the process of packing up our room and taking our bags to our car. We don’t travel light, and wherever we go, we have massive amounts of luggage. I was in the courtyard, piling everything onto a trolley, while Evangeline was inside our room – door open – taking one last look to make sure we weren’t leaving anything behind.

Just then, the door from the room across the courtyard opened up and a white man emerged. He took one look into our room, saw Evangeline, and announced, “I’m done with my room,” and walked away. He assumed that because she was black, she was the maid. To my detriment, I watched him walk way, mouth agape. I was so shocked by what I’d just seen, I didn’t know how to respond. By the time I looked over to Evangeline to make sure she’d just seen the same thing, he was already several feet away, and by the time I turned to follow him, she was telling me to let it go. I should have said something. He should have been told.

That was one form of privilege. But here’s where it gets even worse. In thinking about the incident, it occurred to me that an even more insidious form of privilege was the assumption that it was somehow wrong, shameful or lesser-than to work in housekeeping. I was angry because Evangeline was presumed to be one of them, when in reality, there is no shame in working in hotel housekeeping at all. It was as though being thought to have that job is an insult, when it is not.

So I was a mix of angry and ashamed, and the whole thing left me aware of how quick we are to judge others without thinking of what we’re doing at all. If anything, that was a good moment to check your privilege.

But sometimes, privilege is turned into a game that becomes a parody of itself.

I once had the opportunity to take part in a privilege walk. The concept is simple. Everyone participating begins at a starting line. The facilitator reads a series of statements, such as, “Both my parents went to college; take a step forward if that describes you,” or “Growing up, we needed food stamps to get by; take a step backward.” Sometimes the categories made little sense to me, such as, “I had to travel to another country to visit my family; step backward.” That described me, but spending summers in Europe and going to great cities, such as Amsterdam and Munich and Vienna, wasn’t exactly a lack of privilege.

Anyway. Here was the funny thing. When people had to take a step forward, you could see people move forward as little as possible. When taking a step back, they would lunge backward. It was as though they were literally in a race to the bottom, trying to be seen as coming from the most disadvantaged background as possible. To be ahead was to be ashamed. Not for me, because I got something of a perverse kick watching this dynamic, and decided that I was going to “win” the privilege walk. (Not to say I didn’t value the exercise, because I did, but the way the real contest became to be the ‘biggest loser,’ so to speak, just amused me so much.)

And this is what privilege has come to mean amongst a set of people. The only way to be seen as truly authentic is to claim as many disadvantages as possible. And if you can claim several disadvantages, that becomes a weapon you can use against opponents. Being extra super disadvantaged gives you a better vantage point from which to launch an attack.

Here’s how it is working today. A group of women wants to have a woman-only space where they can be free to share experiences, explore their commonalities or do whatever they want with the assurance that in one place, for a little while, they won’t have to even think about men changing that dynamic. As a disadvantaged group in society, they say they rarely have that luxury.

But some object. For example, some male-to-female transgendered people object to “women-born-women” rules and press for inclusion. They argue that as trangendered individuals, they are doubly disadvantaged, and say women organizing these events are unfairly using their privilege to exclude them. Or, ridiculously, some men’s rights advocates go so far as to claim that is men who are truly disadvantaged in society, and use that assumed lack of privilege to say women-only places are unfair to them. Twisted logic to my reasoning, but that’s people for you.

That’s how privilege gets twisted into a weapon, like a ploughshare beaten into a sword, on a grand scale. More mundanely, though, privilege is simply used to try and shut someone up.

Don’t like what someone has to say? Claim an extra disadvantage and shout, “check your privilege.” But you better be shouting it to someone else who actually cares about things like privilege, or else they won’t give a damn in the first place. The only time privilege checking as a weapon works is when you use it against someone is more friend than foe. Stupidity.

What a great way to warp something important into a battering ram. What a fantastic way to create a game where the only way to win is to lose.

Because it is a losing game. When it comes to a contest of who has suffered more, no one wins. I don’t know how you’d compare the wrongs of American slavery, say, to the wrongs of the Holocaust. How do you compare the wrong of girl infanticide to the wrong of violence against transsexuals? It’s all wrong. I don’t know what scale you could use to measure and compare them all. And say somehow you determined you actually did suffer the most. What then? Does that somehow grant you an advantage over everyone else who has suffered slightly less?

Say we decide to agree that somehow we can measure that transgendered people are more disadvantaged than women. Does that then negate the need some women have to be in women-only spaces that don’t include male-to-female transgendered people? Can trangendered people have transgendered-only spaces, or do they not yet lack enough privilege to do so? Does having a greater disadvantage mean you can negate the needs of someone who is just a little less disadvantage?

I don’t get what the point of this game is.

So, absolutely, be aware of your own privilege. And explain to someone why you think they don’t see how their own background makes them blind to the reality of your life. But the minute you start using privilege checking as a tool to beat someone over the head, your privilege check has bounced. You lose. Cut it out.

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2 comments

  1. Really interesting reflection.

  2. Yep. Fully agree with all of what you’ve written here.

    The trouble with privilege-checking is that there’s a fine line before it becomes just an ad hominem. “You are male/white/straight/cis/able-bodied, therefore argument invalid” should never be an appropriate retort.

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