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Check your privilege

Undoubtedly I enjoy certain privileges, used in this sense, simply because of where, to whom, and what colour I was born. I recognise that. But the culture of privilege checking makes me feel uneasy.

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There used to be an advert on television for the insurance company Privilege with the tagline "You don't have to be posh to be privileged". Now this was a very clever move, mainly because more and more people do think of the disparity between privileges that people have as existing only between posh, rich people, and non-posh, non-rich people. And the company is actually called Privilege. Genius.

In a turn of events which nobody could possibly have seen coming, this advert has (certainly accidentally) proved to be at least a half-decent social commentary. People do think that you only have special privileges if you're rich, and part of the minority elite. So much so that a movement to educate us otherwise has become prevalent recently, particularly online. Tweets, Tumblr posts, Facebook statuses and blogs about this are hard to miss as they invariably include the phrase "check your privilege".

It's difficult to find an exact, agreed-upon meaning for this phrase, but this seems to be the basic idea: you are probably more privileged than you think. If you're a heterosexual white male, for example, you have more privileges than a homosexual black female. Not through any action or beliefs of your own, but because that's just how society treats people. And if you have certain privileges, then you might not be best placed to comment on a certain issue, or an argument which you've presented may be unintentionally based on a presumption or bias which you've gained (again, through no fault of your own) because of your privilege. There are even handy checklists of privileges which you might have to be found online, put together by people who, for whatever reason, are accepted as knowers of things and recognisers of privilege.

Undoubtedly I enjoy certain privileges, used in this sense, simply because of where, to whom, and what colour I was born. I recognise that. But the culture of privilege checking makes me feel uneasy.

Part of the reason for this is an apparent misuse of the phrase "check your privilege". It's thrown around, often online, in an attempt to shut people up when they're deemed unfit to have an opinion on a given topic. This is not okay.

The first time it happened to me personally was during a discussion about abortion. Apparently, because I have certain privileges (or rather a lack of certain 'disadvantages') my opinion is invalid. Apparently, the morality and legality of abortion are issues to be opined upon only by women.

Well I'm sorry, but I completely disagree; this is a human issue, as is the treatment to ethnic minorities and the rights of LGBTQ individuals. It's like telling me not to think that women should be allowed to vote because it's none of my business. Everybody can and should have opinions on these issues because they're pretty important. I'm perfectly willing to accept that I have less experience of sexual harassment than I probably would if I were female, but that doesn't mean I can't talk about it. And if I claimed that women universally agree that a short skirt should be seen as an invitation to grope its wearer, but then a bunch of women told me I was wrong about that, do you know what? My opinion would change. And I trust women to be capable of this too - of exercising reason, listening to what I say about my own experiences and thereby forming a valid, well-founded viewpoint. Scratch that, I trust people.

We should all be able to trust each other in this way. There will always be some people who have genuinely had experiences so far from those they want to discuss that they just won't understand them. But then is telling them to check their privilege really productive? Or would it be better to just give them the information which they are - through no fault of their own - lacking, and let them do what they will with it. They might not land on the opinion you want them to have (incidentally I notice that I've only ever seen people be told to check their privilege if they hold the wrong opinion), but surely that's okay.

If with all the information and understanding that they could possibly have on the subject, somebody still doesn't think, for example, that paid maternity leave shouldn't be a legal requirement, then that is fine. Having differing opinions, reasoned argument, and respect for one another's views is how we progress as a society. But if you're so unable to accept an opinion differing to your own that you always have to resort to "check your privilege" then you're no better than the internet troll/self-proclaimed keyboard warrior who always falls back "that's what Hitler would have said".

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23 Comments

Dan Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

I got three lines into this and gave up reading. I've also just noticed he is the Deputy Editor. The talent pool must have been puddle worthy at that election

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Skanky Dan Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Deputy Comment Editor, Dan. Check yo' facts.

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Sophie Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

What an awful article.
Whilst I understand that people using check your privilege to shut down an argument is annoying, you haven't properly addressed this problem. Instead you've used your platform to moan about the fact that someone once told you that you might not know everything about women's issues because you are a man. Get a grip.

Suggesting that your opinion is invalid is entirely missing the point of privilege checking. It's not to exclude people from discussions but to ensure that everyone understands the angle that they are coming from.

Also:
Use of the phrase "a bunch of women" is really shoddy. We're not grapes mate.

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Janis Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2012/12/problem-privilege-checking interesting article on the NS along similar lines to this.

"Privilege-checking plays into the dangerous postmodern fallacy that we can only understand things we have direct experience of. In place of concepts like empathy and imagination, which help us recognise our shared humanity, it atomises us into a series of ever-smaller taxonomical groups: working class transsexual, disabled black woman, heteronormative male."

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Sam Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

I loathe you all.

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Kirsty Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Can't believe the York student newspaper actually published this.

Don't tell me what you think about abortion. I don't want to hear it and I don't care. It is not your place to EVER tell a woman what she can and can't do with her body. Ever.

Also your article is horrendous. There is no point to it apart from a white middle class straight (?) male whining because he got told off for sticking his nose into issues that do not concern him. It's like going up to a gay person and telling them that you don't mind they're gay. It's like me telling you that I understand how you feel when someone kicks you in the balls.

I'm in shock that a well-established university like York let this drivel get published. Please consider educating yourself and rewriting this pile of wank.

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TB Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

"Don't tell me what you think about abortion. I don't want to hear it and I don't care. It is not your place to EVER tell a woman what she can and can't do with her body. Ever."

I don't think the article is particularly great, but it was kind of a dumb dumb like yourself to stumble in and prove his core point correct.

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Pan Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

"It is not your place to EVER tell a woman what she can and can't do with her body. Ever." couldn't agree more. you can tell her what she can and can't do with another body though.

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Gary the Snail Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Oh wow! This piece was so eye opening! Really, it was like the Ludovico technique in A Clockwork Orange. And the imagery it conjured up wasn't dissimilar either.

Get over yourself.

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CB Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

This guy hasn't really thought his article through - there's not much point to it, the way he phrases things is very odd, and his claims that "trusts women" to be capable of exercising are incredibly patronising and offensive.

HOWEVER:

At no point did he claim that he had the right to tell women what to do with their bodies, only that all people, regardless of gender, are entitled to an opinion on matters such as abortion, and should be allowed to express that opinion without being shut down. He's not saying he should be able to tell women what to do, but he should be able to express his beliefs.

Secondly, complaining about his use of the phrase "a bunch of women" is just nitpicking. It's poor writing, but it's not offensive, could (and would) easily be applied to men, or people generally, or just about anything if that were the case. It's not good writing, but it's not poorly intended. Picking on stuff like this detracts from the genuine criticism of the author's entitlement and patronising attitude towards women.

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Gino Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

I found this article quite good. It took a phenomenon from the world (the privilege-checking fever), analysed how it is commonly used, said why this use is wrong, and then said the lesson we should get from the expression (how we should use it and how not).

I was very disappointed by (most, NOT all of) the comments section, though.
1. He is not using this as a platform to moan about something that happened to him. He has a proper analysis where he makes a point (although it could've been a bit more structured and readable, true). And, very admirably, he not only said that how it is used is wrong (a negative analysis), but also provided a guide to how we should use it and how not (a positive analysis). So I don't see how someone can say he is only moaning.
2. Actually, in the entire article, he is less emotional and more argumentative than many of the comments here. Why demand so much rigour when you're not even that rigorous yourself?
3. Don't even make me start about the bunch of grapes, which is completely irrelevant and taking things out of context. And don't even play the "oh, you're a misogynist pig, that's why you don't get it" card. I am a feminist, I have read authors like Natasha Walter, Nina Power, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others, I know perfectly well my feminism. Just in case you wanted to play that card.
4. He actually makes an argument, even if it's not very easy to decipher, as opposed to some people who wrote comments without fully explaining why they didn't like it, making it look more like a simple opinion than an argued comment. Which takes me to the next two points...
5. The elitism here is amazing. If I understand correctly, the readers are part of an elite, and they expect the organisers of this elite (the University of York) to stop anyone who the readers don't like from being in their elite group and censor any word that does not please them. Huh.
6. To use one of the comments' own words, "get over yourselves". If you don't like an article, say why you didn't like it, explain what could've gone better, and so on, instead of treating the author like rubbish, like someone who is many levels below you, who is very inferior to you.

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Tessa Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

I agree with your stance on 'check your pivilege.' Just a few issues with the rest of the article:

"And I trust women to be capable of this too - of exercising reason, listening to what I say about my own experiences and thereby forming a valid, well-founded viewpoint."

How wonderfully patronizing of you. Females can only gain a valid, well-founded viewpoint if they listen to what YOU say?

'And if I claimed that women universally agree that a short skirt should be seen as an invitation to grope its wearer...'

Then you would be most ignorant in your generalization. Are you still expecting females to listen to you?

'...but then a bunch of women told me I was wrong about that, do you know what? My opinion would change.'

'bunch'?! Is that deliberate objectification? Are you having a laugh?

'Well I'm sorry, but-' Excellent academic phrase. 10 points to you.

'There will always be some people who have genuinely had experiences so far from those they want to discuss that they just won't understand them.'

Read this sentence back to yourself, preferably out loud. What mean does it? (Yes, I did that on purpose)

You've targeted females throughout but privilege isn't exclusive to issues of gender. Race, sexuality, ability, and wealth are among a whole host of other factors that can be subjected to the 'check your privilege' shut-down. You barely feature these in your article at all.
You haven't researched and gathered all the information you needed. You haven't listened thoroughly to the opposing point of view (or presented it at all).
You provide no proof of your ability to reason.
So this, according to your own rules, doesn't exactly portray a 'well founded-view point.'

'Or would it be better to just give them the information which they are - through no fault of their own - lacking, and let them do what they will with it.'

Question. Mark.

And here's the ultimate piece of information you seem to be lacking: Empathy.

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Rebecca Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

I have to disagree. It is important to be aware of your privilege and be aware of what that means to those who don't have it. As a white cis woman I have many privileges that WoC, or trans* people do not get to experience. For example I have a whole movement famously dedicated to protecting my rights (feminism), while actively excluding people who do not fit their easy criteria (namely WoC and trans* people).

To know that you are privileged, and know that your experiences are a result of privilege is the first step to END privilege. How would I have realised that the beauty industry caters to women who look like me, only a small portion of women in the world, while using language that implies any person who doesn't look like that is "ugly" "dirty" or "manly", or whatever other insult that has young girls trying to bleach their skin and dream of more european features. Or how would I have realised the sexualization of PoC, i.e "once you go black you never go back" that black men have big you know what, or PoC are fetishised, and eroticised (east Asian women, for example).

Recognising your privileges, and realising where you have them is also understanding that something is deeply wrong in society. You are given a privilege as a white cis man (I presume) which no one else in this wold gets to experience. It sucks realising that, and it sucks to realise that you are a part of the people prepetuating these things, but you can't stick your head in the sand because it makes you uncomfortable or because someone for once told you that it's not your place.

White people, white men included, feel entitled to enter into every conversation and have "opinions". Spouting that everyone has a right to have an opinion but not understanding that it's not your place to state your opinion. You don't have a right to be everywhere, your opinion isn't wanted by everyone. Sometimes it's best to keep quiet, because you will hurt someone by stating your opinion.

When it comes to abortion you are welcome to have an opinion and chose partners after that (please, be open with your partner if you expect your partner to have or not to have an abortion, and see what they would do, don't come whining afterwards that they're tricking you into parenthood, or 'killing your baby'), however... do you have a right to state your opinion? That's a different question entirely. But yes, when your opinion is asked for. Otherwise... no.

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Caitlin Moran Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

"however... do you have a right to state your opinion? That's a different question entirely. But yes, when your opinion is asked for. Otherwise... no." Censorious bullshit of the worst kind. The notion that someone shouldn't express their opinion because someone doesn't want it is ludicrous. That's not to say that our expression shouldn't be tempered by those to whom we speak, of course it should. But any statements such as the above above having no right to an opinion when it isn't asked for are thick at best, and offensive at worse.

"White people, white men included, feel entitled to enter into every conversation and have "opinions". The condescending quotation marks around opinions encapsulate precisely why so many feel disenfranchised with some (and only some) exponents of feminism and their broad approaches. How dare these so called "men" have so called "opinions" with their so called "minds", fnar fnar bloody fnar.

"But yes, when your opinion is asked for. Otherwise... no." I know it's decidedly shaky ground to make broad-stroke statements about modern feminist so I hesitate to do so, but comments like this seem to represent in some quarters a seriously problematic inclination towards alienating and dismissive language. You're never going to win this way.

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Anonymous Commenter Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks.

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George Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

@ Rebecca: I hope you drop dead of an brain hemorrhage the day before your wedding.

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Alex Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

The very fact this got published is worrying.

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Student In The Know Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

The white man saviour complex is as old as my great-grandfather. If you are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.

1- From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.

2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

3- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

4- This world exists simply to satisfy the needs--including, importantly, the sentimental needs--of white people and Oprah.

5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

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Dan Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

How do you people get up in the morning? I did not think it was possible to over think something to such a degree. Are your lives so empty and pointless that this is your biggest concern?

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jessica Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

@Rebecca, THIS. I pretty much reflect what is upheld in society as an "attractive" girl, slim, blonde, well endowed etc. I know that this places me in a position of privilege in relation to other girls, some of who have spoken out about feeling discriminated against on the grounds of their looks. I also know that my looks might lead to better employment opportunities, attention from more boys (often considered attractive themselves) etc. So to all those who don't know, the fact that I publicly acknowledge this and am capable of being sensitive and supportive to others is called BEING AWARE OF YOUR PRIVILEGE.

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Chucklingabit Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

Poor Dan. I'll note that at least one pro legalized abortion blog explicitly invited its readers here to join the debate here. Don't worry, real life isn't actually this bizarre, it's just the internet ;-)

I'm frankly quite pleased that you mentioned this, even if I might disagree with how you worded a couple things. Using "check your privilege" to shut down debate, or "DO you have a vagina? No? Then shut up" is *incredibly intolerant*, and often serve as textbook examples of the genetic fallacy ("where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone's origin rather than its current meaning or context") or the argumentum ad hominem.

It doesn't matter if it's not as intolerant as some folks with privilege treat some folks without privilege (it's not! not even close.) But it's *still intolerant*, abusive and has no place in intelligent discussion.

It's also wrong. Or do two wrongs now (especially when they are often referring to the CLASS of people that have oppressed someone in some way, not specifically the individual) make a right?

Good job!

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Chucklingabit Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

"5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."

Read: even white folks who try to do nice things for people in other groups are really just showing how evil they are.

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Chucklingabit Posted on Friday 7 Aug 2020

""Then you would be most ignorant in your generalization. Are you still expecting females to listen to you?""

Do you think he was really making that claim about women? It was clearly an example. He said "would." He said "If." He didn't say "did" or "is." I might have accepted your "Then.." as merely being a response to his "If", but then you added "are you still accepting females to listen to you", as if merely using the example made him guilty of actually saying it!

""'bunch'?! Is that deliberate objectification? Are you having a laugh?""

Search google for "bunch of *". Notice, it's a very common idiom, and quite often is used to refer to all manner of people: heros (was the author of that domain name trying to "objectify" heros?!), "people" (are people being objectified? to control them and continue privilege over them? In fact, google "bunch of people" as well.)

Were the writers of the Brady Bunch, trying to objectify that family?

It is striking the number of assumptions that people make when trying to characterize their ideological opponents as flawed.

""Well I'm sorry, but-' Excellent academic phrase. 10 points to you.""

I don't get it. Can you elaborate?

""'There will always be some people who have genuinely had experiences so far from those they want to discuss that they just won't understand them.'

Read this sentence back to yourself, preferably out loud. What mean does it? (Yes, I did that on purpose)""

Are you merely pointing out his grammatical typo? Or do you think it was so unclear as to be hard to understand? If so, that's funny, because I understood it quite clearly. Let me know, I'm happy to spell it out.

"privilege isn't exclusive to issues of gender"

He didn't say it was. He merely selected a recent example from his own life, that was related to gender privilege. How is that wrong?

****

More generally, focusing on minor comments like you did, and trying to derive all manner of folk-psychological explanations from them, does nothing to improve your case. It actually *detracts* from it if repeated over time, because it is crying wolf. You may inadvertently lead people to come to mistrust genuine accusations of sexism (racism, etc), if you insist on treating the above like they are true violations.

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