Checking Your Privilege 


"Check your privilege."

You hear and read that phrase more and more these days, usually in reference to a white person being unaware of issues that affect people of color. Often, the response from the white person to the remark is defensive, something along the lines of "I'm not privileged. I've had to work for everything I've got." While that may be true, that's not the issue.

Checking your privilege isn't about being forced to acknowledge you've had an easy life. It's about recognizing that there are certain struggles that you won't ever encounter, problems and challenges that are specific to certain groups.

If you're white, you're "privileged" in countless ways, many of which you've probably never thought about. You (and me) are the "norm," the baseline. We don't have that little frisson of tension when entering certain stores or restaurants or when being pulled over by a cop or applying for a job. We'll seldom if ever be discriminated against for our skin tone. Acknowledging that reality won't hurt us. It makes us better humans.

In fact, there are many types of privilege, including gender, economic status, appearance, celebrity/notoriety, age, and health, to name a few.

If you're male, for example, you're privileged in ways you've likely not considered, but most women could enumerate them for you: your salary, your confidence that you'll be listened to when you speak assertively and not be considered "pushy," the knowledge that you won't be critiqued for your "outfit," and that you won't be sexually harassed or raped.

If you're straight and not aware of your privilege as measured against those in the LGBTQ community, you need to open your mind. Imagine growing up gay in a small town and keeping it a secret — from everyone. Imagine not being able to hold hands with your loved one. Imagine not being able to get married. Imagine being in fear because of who you love or how you look. You have to imagine it — acknowledge it — because you'll never live it.

Wealth is another massive kind of privilege: the privilege of never worrying about your lights being cut off or about having to eat the cheapest food available or paying the rent or getting your kids to school or getting your car fixed. You can travel, buy what you want, when you want it — live in ways poor folks can only dream about. No matter how hard you worked to gain your wealth, it's still a privilege.

Appearance can also be a kind of privilege. Observe the difference in how a beautiful woman or handsome, well-dressed man is treated when entering a business or restaurant, as opposed to how an unattractive, poorly dressed person is treated.

Celebrity also has its privileges: VIP seating, no waiting in lines, the best service possible. And age ... If you're too old, people overlook you and relegate you to insignificance. If you're too young, people don't take you seriously. Even health is a privilege, and if you ever lose it, you'll quickly realize that.

So, would you rather be an attractive, wealthy, black female lawyer or a poor, old white man who works wiping down cars at Mr. Pride? Both have privilege of one kind or another; both are disadvantaged in some ways.

There are no easy answers, because the concept of privilege itself is complicated. It may help some folks understand if instead of saying, "Check your privilege," we said "Count your blessings."

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