Check Your Privilege

Many of my students at Morehead State in KY were in situations as dire or almost as dire as those recounted by “Birgit Umaigha RN MEd”–students struggling to find computers or internet hook ups for online work, working two or three jobs to pay for school, caring for siblings because of addicted parents, going through one death in the family after another, fighting off crushing anxieties. Everything became worse after 2014, but most students continued to do very good to excellent work even as my basic mantra was reduced to “do your best.”

I’m thinking about “check your privilege” as part of the intersectional perspectives that became prominent in the late 80’s and early 90’s. “Intersectionality” was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw to express the way that black women were subject to both racism and sexism. Neither Crenshaw, Angela Davis, bell hooks, or Patricia Hill Collins believed that black women were the only group suffering from multiple, intersecting oppressions and ideas of intersectionality were quickly applied to economic class, immigrant status, disability, sexual orientation, and other hierarchies as well. Within intersectional perspectives, there developed a sense of being obligated to recognize both the fullness of the many ways in which a sector of the population could be oppressed and also the ways in which people could be “privileged” by advantageous positions in the social hierarchy. In this sense, intersectionality has always been associated with an obligation to recognize the full humanity of others.

At the same time, intersectionality has become associated with an ethics of self-recognition that is summed up with “check your privilege.” One element of checking your privilege is to be aware of one’s privilege which with intersectionality means being aware of the full range of social locations that give a person advantageous positions in the hierarchy. In my case, I would have race, gender, cis, educational, class, and ability privilege but would soon be coming up against the disadvantages of extreme age now that I’m almost 68. Within intersectional thinking, all of these privileged locations are identities in the sense of being social facts of my existence and also in defining my ways of perceiving the world, modes of action, etc. The idea of “checking your privilege” undermines the hegemonic white ideology of individualism which views individual attributes (“will,” “hard work,” “intelligence,” “talent,” etc.) as the only relevant source of one’s advantages and disadvantages in life. Consistent with the intersectional obligation to recognize the fullness of other persons, “check your privilege” pushes people, especially people in privileged locations, to engage in a full self-reflection on the nature of their own social locations.

“Check your privilege” also obligates those who are privileged to think, act, and speak on the combination of their reflections on the advantages conferred by various kinds of privilege and how their privileges oppressively affect other people. To “check your privilege” means that people in positions of privilege stop interacting with the world in terms of the social instincts, modes of perception, and cultural norms associated with their advantageous positions. In the case of many wealthy white persons for example, that would mean refraining from acting on their views of themselves as “well off” instead of rich, distinctions between their cultivated taste and middle-brow taste, and assumptions of various kinds of racial hierarchies. In this sense, “check their privilege” involves a critical self-reflection that puts a person outside the culture into which they have been socialized but does not put them into an alternative web of cultural assumptions. There is what Victor Turner called a “liminality” to the obligations involved in checking your privilege. For Turner, “liminality” was primarily a matter of cultural transition in which a person would leave one status prescribed within a culture without having yet adapted another status. “Liminality, in terms of social structure and time, is an intermediate state of being “in between” in which individuals are stripped from their usual identity and their constituting social differences while being on the verge of personal or social transformation.”┬áIn the case of “check your privilege,” the obligation is to suspend the cultural modes associated with privileged locations without having another set of cultural modes to adapt. The obligation of people to check their privilege entails a long-term state of liminality.