Reframing the idea of “checking privilege”

Photo by Casey Gomez

In recent years it has become common in casual political conversations to instruct someone who does not fully empathize with the suffering of disadvantaged peoples to “check [their] privilege.” The idea is that certain people in society are granted rights which others are not for arbitrary reasons, and that the people who do exercise these rights are more privileged than others.

The underlying sentiment of this idea is valid; minorities and other disadvantaged groups are often treated differently in ways which deprive them of rights that others take for granted. The trouble is that collectively calling these rights “privilege” implies that those who exercise them should not.

The problem which needs to be solved to address inequality is generally not that groups have rights that they should not, but rather that disadvantaged people are not given the rights to which they are entitled.

If a white person were to argue that people should just follow police officer’s instructions if they do not wish to be subjected to police brutality, one might respond that he should check his privilege. After all, he is failing to acknowledge that his relationship with police is different from what it might be for an African American because he is granted rights that African Americans are often not.

The social issue which needs to be corrected here, however, is not that white people enjoy the unjustified privilege of not living in fear of police brutality. The problem is that African Americans are not granted the right to live free of that fear. Like with most social issues, police brutality is not a zero-sum game; making the relationship between police and African Americans better does not mean making that between police and white people worse.

If one instructed police to subject more white people to police brutality, he would solve the inequality, but he would do nothing to improve the experience of the disadvantaged class.

Like with the issue of police brutality, the solution to most social problems which are labelled as issues of privilege is not to deprive the privileged class of rights, but rather to ensure that those rights are extended to all people and are not limited to certain groups.

This is not to say that we need to address all groups equally when solving social issues; we should of course be looking to achieve equity. All I am arguing is that we need to reconsider the way that we frame social issues rhetorically.

It may sound at this point like I am arguing about semantics. These are just words, so why does it really matter what we call it?

The truth is, how we frame these problems has an effect on how we think about them. Progressives can sometimes get too caught up thinking about privilege and start looking to tear advantaged classes down rather than lifting disadvantaged ones up.

Even more significantly, the term is alienating to those who supposedly possess privilege. In order to succeed in addressing problems of privilege, we need to engage with privileged classes and get them involved in the solution. When these people are accused of having privilege, however, they begin to believe that the goal of the progressive movement is to take away their rights rather than to simply extend them to others.

To make matters worse, solutions to problems of inequality typically focus on creating programs which benefit disadvantaged groups without impacting privileged classes. This further creates the impression that something is being taken away from those with privilege.

Conservative populists want their supporters to believe that social issues are a zero-sum game. When white voters are scared that they will lose their rights, it benefits Donald Trump. When progressives talk about privilege, it plays right into the hands of those that benefit from fear.

This is why it is time for a rebranding. No more telling people to check their privilege or blaming their ignorance on their privileged status. I honestly do not have any ideas for what to replace the term with, but in this age of memes I’m confident that somebody will come up with something eventually. In the meantime, we can all do our part in repairing our divided political landscape by making an effort to stop telling people to check their privilege all the time.