Beyond “Check Your Privilege”
Privileges are a sensitive subject: on all sides of the coin. Those who are not so privileged inevitably experience it every day. But even those who experience more privilege are not necessarily comfortable with it. In this article, I will try to provide a perspective on the topic of privilege that invites possibility despite the discomfort around it.
A privilege (plural privileges, from Latin privilegium “exceptional law, entitlement”) is an advantage granted to an individual or group of individuals.
Privileges are often a sensitive issue
Especially in groups and subcultures dedicated to transformational work, privilege is often an issue that is associated with a lot of tension and discomfort. Many people in these movements recognize that privilege in our society is by no means distributed equally or even according to the needs of individuals. Therefore there is often an effort to do something different, to treat people more equally, to break down privilege. This often leads to privileged people being told to “check their privilege.”
While there is nothing wrong with repeatedly reminding oneself of the social position one fills without having done anything for it, “check your privilege” often comes with a subtext. This subtext says: “The dominant culture* values your existence higher than that of other people, so now, in this emancipative space, you have to subordinate yourself. Also, it would help if you were at least a little ashamed of being so privileged.” I’m not suggesting that this message is intended by those asking more privileged people to be aware of their privilege. But that is what often arrives. It’s also perfectly normal. Who wouldn’t feel at least a little bad about recognizing their own completely unjustified privileges, when their own aspiration is to contribute something to a livable world for all?
On the other hand, it would also be more than understandable if less privileged people felt threatened when more privileged people join emancipative movements, which were after all often created by underprivileged people out of sheer necessity, as a refuge from the threats from dominant culture. To make this very clear: the discomfort of recognizing one’s own privilege is nothing compared to the pain felt by people whose lives take place at the intersection of various categories of oppression. What I am concerned with in this article, however, is outlining a liberating and productive perspective on privilege for everyone. For this, it is also necessary to acknowledge the, comparatively mild, discomfort of those who enjoy privilege even though they disagree with its existence.
Privilege causes discomfort in transformational work, both for those who have more of it and for those who have less. The reasons are understandable. Nevertheless, a weird aftertaste remains, the feeling that there should be a better way to handle this topic.
Guilt as an “easy way out”
It’s easy for privileged people to feel guilty for their own unearned privileges. It doesn’t take a lot of time or concentration, you can just say “I feel terrible for having so much” or “I’m so sorry you have so little.” And because it’s so easy, it doesn’t do much good. The world doesn’t become a more just place because I feel guilty. But I don’t feel so uncomfortable anymore. After all, through my self-accusation I declare that I don’t agree with the distribution of privilege either. But this distribution does not change one bit by my not agreeing. Only when I act, when I take action in physical reality and behave differently than before, something changes. But that is uncomfortable. If I want to behave differently, I must first observe my previous behavior and recognize how it contributes to perpetuating the structural inequality of privilege. This can be painful, because who wants to admit to having actively — if unintentionally, but still actively — contributed to reproducing sexist, racist, ableist, classist, etc. etc. structures and dynamics?
So actively confronting one’s own privileges is uncomfortable and at the same time a necessary condition for doing something different. That’s why it’s so tempting to blame yourself: it feels like you’ve solved the problem. In reality, however, nothing changes.
How do you act when you feel guilty?
How little useful (in the sense of a livable world for all) this behavior is, you can recognize easily. Feelings of guilt do not open up any possibilities for action, nor do they motivate people to take a serious look at their own behavior. Those who feel guilty act, if at all, out of the motivation to preserve their own reputation, their own (emancipated) external image, or to “make up for the guilt”. However, a fundamental paradigm shift in dealing with one’s own privileges does not take place.
A more useful perspective
The following perspective, I offer to you as an interesting alternative to “I am guilty of injustice”. Try putting yourself in this mind-space the next time you feel guilty for a privilege.
I recognize that due to circumstances for which I am not responsible, I enjoy more social capital/financial resources/better educational opportunities/psychological health/general freedom than many other people who also aren’t responsible for the circumstances. I also recognize that in the past I have contributed to maintaining this imbalance through my behavior, if nothing else by limiting my perspective to that of guilt. I find it significantly more interesting to explore how I could behave differently. So I keep asking myself the question: what would a person with my social capital/financial resources/educational opportunities/mental health and a vision of a livable world for all, do next? That is to say: How can I use the privileges I now have to do transformational work? How can I contribute something so that at some point it is no longer a privilege to be outside alone at night without being afraid, to have a warm home, to be physically and psychologically healthy, to have a stable social environment, to live carefree sometimes?
Incidentally, a useful perspective can sound something like this even when we realize that we are on the “losing side” of a privilege. Instead of wondering why the world is so unfair, or looking for a culprit, the following is often more productive:
I recognize that due to circumstances for which I’m not responsible, I enjoy less social capital/financial resources/better educational opportunities/psychological health/general lack of care than many other people who also are not responsible for the circumstances. It is my goal that no one will have to suffer from “lack of privilege” in the future. So, what would a person with my social capital/financial resources/educational opportunities/mental health and a vision of a livable world for all, do next? **
So the idea is: take things as they are, look reality in the face and then make the best of it for everyone. This is uncomfortable and requires courage. But I am certain you have everything you need to do the right thing in the face of reality!
If you liked this article, if you want to discuss it, if you see things differently, or if you want to take the idea further, please contact me. By mail, Linked-In or Twitter. I look forward to your message!
*I borrow the term ‘dominant culture’ from Şeyda Kurt. She writes about this in her book “Radikale Zärtlichkeit — Warum Liebe Politisch Ist” (p. 25, 2021): ‘Often in debates about discrimination the term [mainstream] society is used […]. I find the term problematic because it pretends that political inequalities in societies are questions of majorities and minorities and not also of power and domination relations maintained by rules, norms and institutions. […] So it is not exclusively about numbers and majorities, but about which cultural categories and attributions dominate. Hence I speak of dominance society or dominant culture.’
**I write this paragraph knowing that there are not many privileges where I, as a white cis male, a child of the Central European middle class, am on the “loser side” side. Still, I hope my perspective is helpful to less privileged people. If you want to talk about it, or feel I’m being inconsiderate about this topic, I would appreciate you reaching out so much! (see above for contact info)