One day in my high school feminism class we were discussing a segment from Cherríe Moraga’s Loving in the War Years. The piece we were describing was about Moraga’s multiple and intersecting identities and her ideas about how different types of oppression should be linked. At one point, the discussion turned to the idea of privilege. From Google, the definition of the word “Privilege” is stated as follows:
a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.
My teacher, in this discussion about people having privilege, used the phrase “checking privilege.” This phrase intrigued me, as that was not the first time I’d heard it used.
The phrase “Check Your Privilege” has found most of its prominence on the Internet, one of its first appearances being on the social justice blog “Shrub.com” in 2006. The phrase has come to be recognized as a “motto” of sorts for supporters of social justice.
Now, to understand this phrase we need to determine what it means. Keeping in mind the definition of the word “privilege” we can come to determine that if one were to “check” their privilege, they would be analyzing and keeping track of the “special rights, advantages, or immunities” that they have. The analysis of these privileges involves dissecting and acknowledging the aspects of one’s own identity in an intersectional manner. To put it simply, one needs to analyze how much privilege they have, and how little others have.
But this isn’t necessarily easy. If it were, some white people wouldn’t believe that we live in a post-racial society, and some men wouldn’t believe that rape “isn’t that prevalent.” A lot of people with white privilege do not see racism and a lot of people with male privilege do not see sexism. In fact, not seeing the struggles of the oppressed is a privilege in and of itself.
Now if you’re reading this blog post and you’re still not entirely sure what I mean by privilege, I’m going to help you figure it out now. I’m going to help you “check your privilege.”
I’m going to do a spin on the popular piece about a teacher asking his students to throw a ball of paper into a garbage bin. Let’s say you are sitting in a classroom in the front row when your teacher pulls out a dart board. They hang this dartboard at the front of the room and give each student a single dart. Your teacher then asks every student to try to hit the dartboard with their dart without moving from their chair, and if they can do so they will get an automatic A in the class. Now, it’s safe to say that since you are in the front row you have a pretty good chance of hitting this dartboard. In fact, the same could be said for everybody in your row. You’re most likely on your way to an easy A.
Now, let’s assume you are sitting in the back row. As soon as this challenge is proposed to you, you might be inclined to say that it isn’t fair. You are inherently farther away from the board than your peers, and as such, it is more difficult for you, and for anybody in your row, to hit the board.
This kind of example is exactly what privilege is like. People with privilege generally have an advantage over those who don’t, and because of this advantage they don’t see the unfairness of the system they’re in. People in power such as white men generally don’t see our world as sexist or racist because they simply have not experienced these forms of injustice. They are not truly exposed to these horrible institutions, and therefore the concept of sexism and racism doesn’t exist to them. Meanwhile, the people in the back row are chanting for a fairer chance, but nobody is listening.
So then what is checking privilege? Well, checking privilege is acknowledging that women are less likely to be paid, more likely to be raped in a public or private space, and more sexualized in the media than men. Checking privilege is realizing that a black man is more likely to be harassed by police than a white man. Checking privilege is understanding that a transgender person has an internal struggle every time they have to use a public restroom while a cisgender person does not.
We cannot end these biased and unfair systems until we acknowledge that they exist. And that’s all that checking privilege is. Realizing that the world is unfair, and you might have it a little better off than some other people because of things neither of you can control. Realizing that people are treated differently based on who they are is the first step to ending that very notion.
The response from some people after this realization may very well be guilt. People may feel as if they are being blamed for their privilege, or that by them being a certain way that they are part of the problem. I can’t help but exclaim that this is not true. Nobody is inherently bad by being who they are. What checking your privilege is meant to do is get you to help. When you check your privilege suddenly you gain a power. You have the power to speak out. You have the knowledge that can allow you to fix problems and make the lives of millions of human beings so much safer, fairer, and better.
You can turn around to the people in the middle and back rows of your classroom. You can call out to them and help them hit the dartboard. You can bring them to the front row with you, and get everyone a fair chance at landing that A.