In the past few years, conversations around privilege have become more common. As talk about privilege increased, new terms were created to describe it. One such term – “Check your privilege” – has generated considerable discussion. This entry will discuss what it means to “check” one’s privilege.
Privilege: An Overview
As explained in a prior post, “privilege means membership in a group or groups that define the dominant culture.” Membership in the dominant culture matters because the dominant culture makes society’s rules. In the U.S., dominant groups include white people, men, Christians, heterosexuals, cis-gendered persons, and those without disabilities. So, in the U.S., people outside of these groups – women, people of color, and LGBT persons – have been kept from voting, marrying, or otherwise fully participating in society, as has been the case for many people with disabilities
Two important features of privilege must be noted. First, privilege is not absolute or universal. Every person is simultaneously a member of many groups. So, a person who is privileged in one area may lack privilege in another. A wealthy white man has race, class, and gender privilege. However, if that same man used a wheelchair, he would not be privileged in that area of his life. Similarly, a married, African American, Christian, woman could clearly not claim privilege based on gender or race. However, she would be privileged relative to non-Christians and LGBT persons.
Second, privilege is automatic. A person need not earn it nor do anything to activate it. They just have it. As Peggy McIntosh wrote in her seminal essay on white privilege, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” In other words, having privilege makes succeeding in society easier, while living without it makes success more difficult.
Check Your Privilege
The invisible and weightless nature of privilege means that those who have privilege often fail to realize it. So, when people say, “Check your privilege,” what they are really saying is, “Take a moment to think about the systems and biases that work in your favor each day.”
Indeed, the first step to checking one’s privilege is to reflect. Does society teach people to view those who look like you positively or negatively? Are stories featuring people like you considered mainstream entertainment? Can you easily go to any store and find the produce, spices, makeup, and haircare supplies used by people with from your culture? Asking questions such as these are essential to uncovering one’s privilege.
While there is no one quiz that can identify one’s privilege, here are some questions to consider:
- Have you always attended schools or lived in neighborhoods where most people looked like you?
- If you walk into a room, can you safely assume that those in the room will look like you?
- Have you ever been told to watch what you wear to avoid unwanted sexual advances?
- Have you ever been told to avoid walking alone at night to deter sexual attacks?
- Did you attend college? If so, were you the first person in your family to do so? Did your family pay for your education or did you take out student loans?
- Have you ever hid a love interest from others to avoid disclosing your sexual orientation?
- Are the religious holidays you celebrate not treated as holidays by local, state, or federal governments?
- Have you ever had difficulty navigating a public building due to its lack of ramps, elevators, or other equipment?
- Have you ever refused to reveal a fact about your physical or mental health for fear that others would treat you differently?
- Do you speak with an accent?
- Is English your first language?
- Are you a citizen of the United States?
Again, these questions are not exhaustive. But asking oneself questions like the ones above is an important step toward revealing the places where privilege exists in your life.
Dos and Don’ts of Privilege
If someone asks you to check your privilege, you may feel sad, angry, or shocked. In the moment, you may not know how to react. But there are some responses that should be avoided.
- Do not reject the claim out of hand. Despite your efforts, the person may have identified one of your blind spots. The experience can become a learning tool, but only if you listen carefully.
- Do not defend your actions. Defending oneself is a natural reflex. However, by doing so, you are telling the person who spoke to you that their feelings are unimportant. No one wants to think that they’ve offended another but be open to the possibility.
- Do listen – quietly. Rather than talking, when asked to check your privilege, listen to what the other person has to say. Their words can provide you with valuable insight, but only if you truly hear what they have to say.
- Do think about your relationships with those from other groups. Do all of your friends share the same race? Religion? Hometown? Take a moment to think about how often you interact with those truly different from yourself.
Checking your privilege is an important first step toward creating better interactions with others. To learn more about privilege, culture, and other equity, diversity, and inclusion concepts, please consider enrolling in The Equity Toolkit. This progressive course will give you the tools they need to communicate, talk, and work in an increasingly diverse world.