How to Check Your Privilege in 5 Excruciating Steps

How to Check Your Privilege in 5 Excruciating Steps March 24, 2014

Recently, I changed my mind. Challenged over my uncritical reposting of a secular argument against abortion, I was forced to examine my assumptions, reflect on my identity, and consider how my actions might look from a different vantage point – in other words, I “checked my privilege”. The exhortation to “check your privilege” is common in discussions of difficult social topics where power imbalances exist between participants: it arises frequently during discussions of race, gender, and sexual orientation, for example. A white person discussing race, a cisgender man discussing issues relating to gender, or a straight person discussing queer issues might be advised to “check their privilege” if they make a comment which suggests some sort of cluelessness or unexamined assumptions about the topic at hand, stemming from their position in the structures of power which regulate life in each of those domains. Yet checking one’s privilege is an opaque concept to many, and difficult for us all to achieve. How exactly, do you “check your privilege?” What does the process involve? Below I excavate my own process during this recent shift in position and offer five steps you might take to check your privilege:

  1. Monitor your reaction
  2. Excavate your identity
  3. Exercise Moral Imagination
  4. Listen to Others
  5. Hew to your Values

1. Monitor Your Reaction

When you are told to “check your privilege” it is likely you will immediately have a series of emotional reactions. These reactions, if allowed to dictate your response, will likely be extremely detrimental to the processes of deep thought required to get a handle on how your privilege is affecting your thinking in a given area.

For example, when first challenged over my abortion post, I felt attacked, affronted, angry, upset, and a little bit afraid. I felt attacked because I was being criticized publicly; affronted because I thought I hadn’t done anything wrong; upset because I try very hard to ensure that my posts reflect my values, and because I want to be given the benefit of the doubt; and afraid because I was being criticized by people I like and respect, and with whom I wanted to maintain a good relationship. Clearly these reactions will affect my response, and if I were to respond in the heat of these emotions I would likely have made the situation a lot worse.

The first step in checking your privilege, then, is to monitor your emotional reactions and ensure that you are not allowing immediate gut-level push-back to determine how you eventually respond to the situation. This is a continual process: you will have to keep monitoring your reactions as they shift and change throughout the discussion and throughout the four stages below.

2. Excavate Your Identity

The next step is to excavate your identity: conduct a review of all the aspects of your identity which might be relevant to your response to the issue under discussion. For instance, when entering discussions of abortion I need to be particularly aware that I identify as male (and therefore am a beneficiary of social structures which privilege people perceived as male over people perceived as female), that I do not have the capability to get pregnant and carry a child (and therefore will never face the decision of whether or not to have an abortion), and that I’m gay (and therefore will not likely even be in a relationship with someone who might choose to have an abortion, and can choose to have sex with people of my preferred gender and generally not have to worry whether they will get pregnant).

All these factors are clearly relevant to my thinking regarding abortion: together they mean that I am unlikely to experience, or to have experienced, many important things which women and those capable of bearing children face. I do not generally experience (outside certain gay spaces – more on this in another post) the sense that my body is effectively communal property, and that  men can touch or proposition me at will regardless of the appropriateness of the situation. I have never had the scare of seeing a pregnancy test come back positive after a fling. I’ve never had to buy contraception and hide it from my parents. I am at much lesser risk of being raped. These sorts of experiences are highly relevant to how someone might experience and respond to a discussion of abortion, and if I do not take the time to consciously examine my identity and how that affects my experiences, I am likely to be led astray.

It’s particularly important that you examine both aspects of your identity which you think may blind you to aspects of the situation and aspects of your identity you judge might help you understand the situation. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but a little part of me, when challenged on this issue, wanted to respond “But I’m gay! I’m a friend to women! I’m not like those dastardly straight guys!” This, of course, would be an absurd reaction on many levels: there are gay men who are extremely sexist; some live their lives in almost exclusively male social circles; some display many of the same sexist behaviors straight men do. Being gay is no shield against sexism. But some part of me wanted to feel that being a homo gives me some special membership of the sisterhood, and that therefore I should have a little more insight into these issues than your average dudebro. This is dangerous: it can lead to a sort of self-righteous indignation which massively undercuts critical self-scrutiny: “Sexist? Moi?” You should always be on the lookout for identity-elements which encourage this sort of self-congratulatory narcissism. They’re the worst.

3. Exercise Moral Imagination

Next, start perspective-taking. There are at least two ways to do this, both of which I judge to be essential. First, try to imagine how your own comments and thoughts on the disputed topic might be received by someone directly implicated. In my case, I began to think “How would I feel about this discussion if I were a woman?” Trying to imagine what it might be like to read my own comments through someone else’s set of life experiences was an extremely valuable process because it got me out of my own head (which was filled with all the emotional reactions I mention above) and started to help me understand better the position of my critics. Analogizing can be valuable here, too: I tried to think “If this were a discussion of gay rights, and someone had just posted a “Secular Argument Against Gay Sex” simply for the purpose of sparking a debate, how would I respond to that? Would  be making the same sorts of comments as I am making here?”

Second, really flex your imaginative muscles and try to imagine what it might be like to actually experience the phenomenon you are discussing. For me, the real breakthrough in my thinking on this topic came when I lay awake one night trying to imagine what it would actually be like to be pregnant. Two (rather obvious) things struck me at this moment: first, that it would be a huge deal, and second, that I had never in fact tried to imagine this before. It was startling to me to realize that I simply had never tried to imagine myself into the situation of being pregnant – a profoundly significant part of the experience of much of the human species – and it made me wonder what else I might possibly be missing. Other things I tried to imagine included:

  • How would I feel if I was a woman who had wanted to have an abortion, but was prevented through social pressure or some other mechanism?
  • How would it feel to be a woman who has to protest her employer to ensure reproductive rights coverage from their employer?
  • How would it feel to have been a woman in the audience of the abortion debate I once did, with all those fetus pictures and the like?

I cannot stress how important the development of the moral imagination is for all aspects of ethical discourse and discernment, particularly in cases where you are making ethical judgments regarding experiences you have never had, and never will have. Use it!

4. Listen to Others

This is perhaps the most critical step: reach out to people who are affected by the issue you are discussing, and who do not share the privilege which you are being asked to “check”. You must do this sensitively, for sure, because such people have likely been asked to explain these issues many times, and may not wish to become a de facto spokesperson for whatever group in order to educate you on a topic which may be profoundly hurtful or challenging to them. But if you can find individuals who do not share your privilege who are willing to discuss the issue with you, their experiences and thoughts will often help you see what you are missing.

I found it valuable, in exploring my thoughts about the discussion of abortion, to speak with women, and I tried to approach them respectfully and in a spirit of openness, not assuming they would wish to speak to me, and not suggesting they have any responsibility to do so. You might use a script like this to reach out: “I wrote/said/did this, the reaction was as follows, and I am trying to figure out where I went wrong. I would really value your input. Would you be willing to discuss this with me?” If the answer is “no”, move on – don’t try to convince someone to talk about something they do not want to talk about! If the answer is “yes”, make sure you actually listen, and don’t go into the discussion trying to defend yourself. It is possible that you were right to do what you did, and the reaction is wrong – this is always possible – but even in that case you get nowhere if you are unwilling to listen to someone explain their experiences and reasoning. It may be worth seeing if you can paraphrase the person’s thoughts and say them back to check if you have really understood: “I heard you say X, Y, and Z. Is this accurate? Is that what you meant?” This active-listening practice will help ensure that you really understand what is being said to you, will make your discussion partner feel heard (and therefore more willing to continue the discussion), and will also provide you a nice buffer period between their statement and your response – which might forestall unfortunate angry reactions!

5. Hew To Your Values

Throughout this process it is critical to keep returning to bedrock values and to assess how your response measures up to them. The very worst thing you can do in these situations is to lash out as your pride hurts and your anger flares: you will embarrass yourself and, likely, have to make some sort of apology even if you still think you are right. Whenever responding to a call to check your privilege, sit on your response a while. Seriously: if the choice is between saying nothing and responding in the moment, say nothing. It may feel initially as if you are being “silenced”, but you are not: no one is removing your right to speak and to have your say. Rather, you are taking time to consider whether you are acting in accordance with your values. Ultimately, you want to respond to these situations in a considered way, rather than react to them in a knee-jerk fashion, and it is wise to take a self-imposed time-out to ensure you make a considered decision. The Facebook thread, blog-post, article or whatever will still be there tomorrow. Trust me: there are always more venues for discussion than you will have time to post responses. So sit on it, and consult your values.

In my example instance, I tried to ask myself the following questions throughout:

  • Am I listening to the people who are telling me I’m wrong?
  • Am I genuinely considering the possibility that I am actually wrong, even if I think I am right?
  • Am I accounting for my biases and privileges and temperament and identities?
  • Are my responses as I’m figuring this out fully respectful of the people in the discussion?
  • Am I responding to people’ emotional needs as well as to their intellectual concerns?
  • Does this seem like how a Humanist should act?

It is very difficult to do this sort of self-questioning in the heat of the moment, but it is something to aspire to. It is particularly important when issues of great personal significance are at stake, because regardless of who is right in the discussion, if you want to maintain good relationships with the people with whom you disagree it is critical that they feel respected and heard as you voice disagreement.

It is further difficult when values seem to be in conflict. As I initially experienced the discussion over abortion, for instance, I felt that my commitment to women’s rights and my commitment to free inquiry and open discussion of ideas were being brought into conflict with each other, and it was difficult to know what to do in the midst of such a tension. Ultimately, I realized that my bedrock commitment to human dignity (and therefore to the bodily autonomy of women) must come first, and that it was more important than the ability to engage in an unframed intellectual discussion on my Facebook wall. That realization seems obvious in hindsight, but the fact it was challenging in the moment speaks to how our emotions can affect our reasoning – which takes us back to step one!

Ultimately, this is a continual process, where all these steps should be happening at once. And it’s difficult: the amount of introspection required of us when asked to “check our privilege” is actually immense. It takes a lot of intellectual and emotional work to get where others are coming from when our experience does not match theirs. For all the difficulty, though, I think it’s worth it: checking our privilege makes us more compassionate and more reasonable people – both things I aspire to as a Humanist.

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