Your Privilege: Check It

A white cis male recently informed me, with a straight face, that he was very good about examining his privilege “when asked to do so.”

I thought “oh, cupcake. This is not how it works.”

But instead, I said nothing. Because, I mean. Really. How do you respond to that?

Over the summer, I wrote “Let’s Talk Privilege,” about this thing, privilege, and how it affects us all. Every single one of us! And, you know, there are a few things to unpack about the idea that 1. someone could accurately self-assess whether or not ou is examining privilege successfully and 2. that privilege should only be examined when it is asked.

Let’s tackle that first one. There’s an idea which some people have that if they name themselves “good allies” they are allowed to assess their own behaviour, and that they can even do so accurately because, you know, they are good allies. This is a fallacy. It’s a fallacy in part because even the very best allies mess up. Sometimes royally. Allies are like banks, then: You cannot rely upon them to regulate themselves. In part, it’s in their nature, in part, it’s because it’s really hard to self-regulate because you have no distance and perspective.

I mess up on a pretty regular basis. And I don’t rely on myself to know when I mess up. It’s awesome when I can figure out on my own that I messed up, but I don’t assume that I am doing something right just because I think that I am doing it right. I trust the people around me to tell me when I am behaving rightly, because they have the perspective to step outside the situation, and I do not. I cannot. I am inside the situation. I also don’t necessarily assume that because no one has said anything, I haven’t done anything wrong.

So, you know. Failure number one is that assumption that you can accurately and honestly assess yourself. One of the problems with this attitude is that it implies that introspection is sufficient. If you measure up by your own lights, then, clearly, you measure up, which means that input from anyone else is not necessary and may in fact be suspect.

Then there’s this assumption that people should only check privilege when asked.

No. People. No.

Privilege is something which needs to be checked constantly. This does not mean that you need to lie in bed staring woefully at the ceiling and thinking about your privilege. Or that you need to write long, meta blog posts with much handwringing. In fact, please do not do either of these things.

But as you move through the world and take actions and say things, think about the ways in which your privilege has an effect on your life. I, for example, can afford to be insouciant to police officers because I am white and I have reached an age where I am no longer assumed to be Up To No Good just by nature of existing. I think about this when I interact with police officers. I also have the privilege of knowing that I will be generally respected and listened to in a mixed group because, again, I am white. My words carry more weight. Thus, it behooves me to use my words with care.

I need to use my words with care, not when someone asks me to, but because I need to be aware of my privilege, and I need to weigh that when I am taking actions. If someone has to ask me, I am already messing up.

The whole thing about a privilege check from someone else is that it should not need to happen. If someone asks you to examine your privilege, it means that you are doing something wrong. It doesn’t mean that you are a bad person! But it does mean that you undertook a wrong action, and you need to think about the circumstances which led to that action. Arrogantly asserting that you always examine your privilege well when asked to do so shows me that you are actually not doing that. I would be tempted to ask you to check your privilege, because that’s the sort of sense of humour that I have.

This attitude puts the burden on the oppressed to inform the oppressor when the oppressor is doing something wrong. It’s another function of privilege, the assumption that one must be going along and doing things right at all times and thus that one only needs to examine privilege when it is pointed out.

The thing about privilege and interactions with people living in marginalized bodies is that we don’t really want to bother pointing out, all the time, when your privilege is showing. We will do it when it’s really obvious, or when we need to for a conversation to continue, but, honestly, it would be a lot more work than it already is to have to keep telling you every time you need to examine your privilege.

We need you to do some of the work for yourself, here. This is not because you are a bad person. It’s because we have a lot of things to do, and we are tired of being told that we must carry the responsibility. We must be nice. We must have the right tone. We must protect ourselves. It’s all about what we need to do for you, and not about you taking initiative for yourself.

No. This is not how it works, cupcake.

You need to share the burden. If you want to be called a good ally (because it is up to the people you are trying to be an ally to, to decide when you are a good ally), you need to not make us do all the work.

2 Comments on Your Privilege: Check It

  1. “Privilege is something which needs to be checked constantly. This does not mean that you need to lie in bed staring woefully at the ceiling and thinking about your privilege. Or that you need to write long, meta blog posts with much handwringing. In fact, please do not do either of these things.”

    Hi, I love you. This line made me giggle, because I love the way you phrased it. However, it is SO. RIGHT.

    That last sentence I wrote, in fact, can be applied to the blog post as a whole. (Note I am referring to the entirety of the sentence, not just the word “RIGHT”, even though I have isolated that word w/ a period). I feel like I might end up linking people to this post in future…

  2. Ooo yes. I get a lot of practice at this (and do a fair amount of failing and doing better next time) what with my wife being black and me being white. I do okay. All I’m really trying to do is be a better partner and not step on things that hurt her just because I can.

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