Privilege part 3 – The Nonsense of Asking People to Check their Privilege

Last week I took on those who do not tend to take the idea of privilege seriously. This week I take on those who take it seriously, but are also misusing the idea of privilege. In fact the real advantage of using the concept of privilege is to help others comprehend the way some people understand their marginalized social position. In time, and with better communication, we may be able to find solutions to our problems that take into consideration these unearned advantages and can set up a truly fair society. But those who misuse the concept of privilege in the way they interact with others not only do not accomplish that goal, but they usually make things worse.

A brief recap. Privilege is about the reality that some individuals have gained unearned advantages in our society. Those advantages are often invisible and thus those with these advantages often overlook them. This leads them to not fully understanding the challenges of those in marginalized groups. Intergroup communication becomes strained as those without the advantages, or privileges, struggle to explain their perspectives to those with those advantages. This is why it was important for me to last week address the argument that privilege is a myth. That argument is the very type of attitude that makes it so difficult for us to overcome the social and cultural polarization continuing to plague our country.

But it is quite obvious to anyone who lives in our society that the use of privilege to facilitate this conversation is not working. And it is not merely the fault of those who deny that privilege exists. The way we have talked about privilege has built unnecessary barriers to much needed communication. I am not the first one to notice the failure of the use of privilege to make the social changes we may want. Pheobe Bovy points out that calling out privilege has not led individuals to address the systemic structural issues behind social inequality. There is something about the conversation of privilege that does not bring the enlightenment its supporters believe it should bring. That reality must be addressed if we are going to be able to use this concept to its fullest extent.

The problem is that talks about privilege are usually not initiated to begin conversations but often are used to shut conversations down. There is nothing wrong with bringing up the idea of privilege to help someone understand why someone (perhaps yourself) cannot perceive an idea from a certain point of view or why the privileged person is missing an important concept. I have done this before as this is part of the process of communication. But it is counterproductive to use the concept of privilege to tell people that their opinion does not matter. Unfortunately that appears to be the most common use of the idea of privilege.

For example, how often do we hear someone tell someone else to “check their privilege.” Often what is meant is that those who disagree with the program need to shut up. This is not merely asking someone to question their own biases since this commandment for checking privilege is only aimed at certain people, and we all have biases. Some will say that the heterosexual white man has talked enough and that it is time that he let others speak. Is that really the case most of the time or is it used to say that the perspective of this heterosexual white man is not worth considering?

Let’s look at one explanation of the value of checking your privilege by Sam Finch. I am not picking on him since he may offer the best defense of the concept. He asked people to consider the plight of others and that individuals told to check their privilege may have suffered themselves. That is all well and good. But note how this stops short of having an honest mutual conversation. We are asked to uncritically accept the perspective of the person asking us to check our privilege. How they see our privilege becomes dogmatic truth. We have switched the power from the dominant group to the minority group, but we are still creating a one-way conversation.

And ultimately I really do not believe those asking others to check their privilege really believe that we should accept those accusations unconditionally. The evidence of the unfair treatment of Christians in academia is growing. If our responsibility is to be reflective about the difficulties some face then when Christians bring this up, should not non-Christians reflect on their advantages in academia? We know that this rarely happens. Those non-Christians will proceed to violate all of the protocols set up by Finch and criticize Christians for bringing the topic up. Now this does not bother me as long as we can have a productive conversation about privilege in academia. But we can only have that by not taking the advice of Finch and blindly checking our privileges. Furthermore, if progressive secular individuals do not want to be sensitive to the possibility that they have unseen, invisible privilege in academia, and they do, then it seems hypocritical to ask for that respect from others.

It is important to be respectful to the situation people find themselves in. If we want a productive conversation, those in marginalized groups have to also take into consideration the perspective of others. And before you say that the heterosexual white men always get to talk, let’s ask Bret Weinstein if that is always the case. Let’s be honest folks. No matter what was the original intent of developing the concept of privilege today, its most common use is to ensure that unpopular opinions are not heard or debated.

Nothing I have written implies that marginalized groups should shut up. I am offering them the same responsibility I am offering members of the majority. That responsibility is to learn from and work with others to reach a solution acceptable to most everyone (since no solution will please everybody). I want them to discuss privilege and use this concept to help members in the majority to understand their plight. But I also do not want the conversation to stop there. Instead I want to facilitate a give and take that may actually bring about that solution.

The concept of privilege has failed to produce the desired changes in social structures because it has been used to shame and humiliate others rather than to foster understanding. When people realize that they will not be heard no matter what they do, they will either shout back at their accusers or they will merely exit the conversation. When I am told what my experience is as a black, or even as a Christian, without an opportunity to clarify the statement, then I have to fight hard to remain engaged in that conversation. To be honest I usually do not remain engaged since it is clear that the other person has no desire to respect what I have to say. Likewise if one is told that he or she has privilege but not the right to question their own experience as a privileged person, then I understand why that person would not want to continue the dialog.

I am not arguing that privilege does not exist. Remember that last week I showed that the colorblind critiques of one detractor of white privilege are incorrect. But even though it is real, we must present it with an attitude of tack and sensitivity to get the greatest impact from our presentation of this concept.

I already hear the keyboards typing now. “I do not have the responsibility to educate heterosexual white men about my experience.” Yeah you kinda do if you want them to understand it. I am not Professor Xavier (nerd alert). I do not read minds. Only you can tell me, or anybody else, about your experience. You may be tired of doing so and that is understandable. But I will not be held responsible for knowing about your experience if you do not want to tell me. I have enough problems feeling guilty for the things I truly am responsible for. I am not going to feel guilty for the things I am not responsible for. And if you do not let me know about your experiences, then I am not responsible for knowing about them.

If you cannot tell by now, my big thing is communication. Whatever facilitates intergroup communication and helps us to overcome the barriers is something that I will support. If something does not help us achieve this goal, then I will tend not support it. I believe that the discussion about privilege, if done properly, can facilitate that discussion, and it is one of the reasons why I believe we should use this concept.

So if you are someone who wants to communicate with others about the privilege those individuals possess and have them gain more of an understanding about your social positon then how can we do this? I have spoken to many white audiences about the issue of race. Not all of these were highly progressive whites. I have spoken about privilege directly or about issues surrounding privilege. The feedback that I have gotten has indicated to me that I have developed some skills in helping whites see the way privilege works and open them up to looking at different avenues than colorblindness. So let me not just critique the “check your privilege” mentality but offer an alternative approach. If you are interested in conversation, here are my suggestions.

First, just as you do not want whites (I will just use whites for now since I am dealing with racial issues) to think they know your experience, a person of color should not think that he or she understands the experience of whites. This is not to minimize the real advantages whites have in our society. But when we become too overconfident in our knowledge of others, then we tend to create stereotypes. Believe it or not, those stereotypes come through when you are trying to communicate with whites, and they will stop listening. Such humility also helps us maintain a learning attitude rather than assuming that we know it all, and all whites have to do is obey us.

Second, learn how to speak in the language of the listener. We have all had those facebook discussions with someone we really do not respect and want to blow off. We do not even try to figure out how to reach them because we do not care. If you care that others understand where you are coming from, then you will work at saying things in ways that they can hear. Thus I have observed that talking about “white supremacy” rarely influences whites who do not already feel a lot of guilt but talking about a “racialized society” does. The average white cannot go beyond the “I hate the KKK so why are you equating me with them?” if you talk about white supremacy but can learn to understand racial advantages he or she may have if you use the concept of a racialized society.

Third, it is okay to acknowledge that there are different responsibilities between those who are marginalized and those who have privilege. But we also must acknowledge some similar responsibilities such as listening to each other and respecting each other. Honestly, I get tired of cleaning up messes whites have made when they are callous to the perspectives of people of color. But I also get tired of cleaning up messes made when activists have told a sincerely questioning white to “check their privilege” as if confirmation bias is only practiced by whites. Is it too much to ask that we treat each other decently even if we disagree with each other? Both whites and people of color share some degree of mutual responsibility to each other.

I think this is a helpful initial set of tips for the facilitation of conversation with each other. I expect that for many people, it will be a hard and painful conversation. Overcoming the social barriers and dealing with the institutional problems that have created the marginalization of certain social groups is going to take hard work. It is tempting to try to short circuit the process by misusing the very real problem of privilege in a way that forces a solution on the general population. How has that been working out? If you think it has worked out fine, then I encourage you to continue down this path. But if you, like me, feel that there is a better way to approach this issue, then I encourage you to consider the issues I have brought up and how we can use the idea of privilege to foster understanding instead of to end conversations.

In my next, and last addition to this series, I will touch more firmly on a truth that could bring us all down to earth as it concerns our conversations about privilege. Mainly that just about all of us have privilege and just about all of us have marginalization. Our refusal to acknowledge that may be the driving force behind some of the trends of ignoring or misusing the concept of privilege. But then I will also look at the nature of what privilege is and how understanding the nature of privilege that almost all of us have can lead to better understandings between social groups that are generally alienated from each other.


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