The Problem with "Check your Privilege"

Julie Borowski | Liberty Without Apologies
Aug 24, 2013

The concept of privilege is discussed ad nauseum in liberal “social justice” blogs. White privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, the list goes on and on. These so-called privileged groups of people are believed to have inherent advantages based on their race, sex, or sexuality. More often than not, the concept of privilege is used to stop meaningful discussion and silence the alleged privileged person.

“Check your privilege” is an arrogant phrase that really means “I know more than you. So shut up.” This only creates division among people and makes people feel guilty about things that they have no control over. I am not a man, but I should be allowed to voice an opinion on Selective Service and the male circumcision debate. We will never be able to overcome ugly racism and sexism if we refuse to engage in two-way discussions.

The worst part about the concept of privilege is that it creates preconceived judgments about strangers. You cannot know someone’s full story by simply looking at their physical characteristics. As a woman, it would be presumptuous to conclude that a straight white male acquaintance has it easier than me, or is inherently privileged. Perhaps I should check my prejudice and acknowledge that I do not have enough personal information about this individual to make that claim. Perhaps he grew up poor? He has a learning disability? He is physically unattractive? He is battling a life threatening disease?

We probably all know the old phrase about what happens when you assume, and what it makes out of you and me.

Privilege puts people into groups, instead of seeing people as individuals. The concept tries to fit multidimensional people into neat little boxes. It doesn’t work that way.

I may have some shared experiences with other straight white females, but we have plenty of different experiences as well. We have different personalities, likes, struggles, incomes, cultures, intelligence, advantages, and experiences with sexism. We all have different opinions on what qualifies as sexism and what does not. Some may say they have never experienced sexism, some may say they experience it daily. Personally, I find it a bit insulting for someone to call me “oppressed”.

A woman in the United States has likely never experienced discrimination like a woman in Saudi Arabia. An American woman may find cat-calling on the street to be sexist, but a Saudi woman cannot legally drive a car or leave her house without a male guardian. The concept of privilege is Eurocentric and becomes inconsistent when applied to different locations.

Some say that privilege exists because “all else being equal” certain people are more privileged. But in the real world, when are two people exactly the same except for one thing? The ceteris paribus argument is false since the way someone is treated highly depends on the situation. Being a female may work to my advantage in some cases, but be a liability in other cases. The same goes for any race or gender.

We can and should show empathy for others, while understanding that we do not truly know what other people go through on a daily basis. I do not know what it is like to live as a gay man or a black woman. But here’s the thing: I will never know what it is like to be another individual. Period. No one on the face of the earth has lived a life identical to mine.

The world would be a better place if we did not make arrogant assumptions about people based on superficial classifications. Every individual faces different hardships and struggles in their life that no one else is able to understand. It’s important to take into consideration that your background differs from others, but keep an open mind and recognize that communication is a two way street. And remember to always keep your prejudice in check.