The website Robot Hugs has published a touching and thoughtful comic explaining what privilege is, why people should be aware of it, and how to be sensitive about your own privilege when interacting with other people.
But the comic reveals something else as well. Challenging people with the phrase “check your privilege!” isn’t just being strident and bullying; it actively works against the philosophy that it espouses. As a rhetorical strategy, it is worse than useless: it completely undermines the world-view from which is has supposedly emerged. It is essentially advising people to be courteous and polite in the least courteous and polite way imaginable.
Toward the end of the full comic there is some advice about how you can be responsible and mindful about your own privilege. Most of what it suggests is nothing more than common-sense advice on courtesy and respect.
Listen to people who have less privilege than you, and do not attempt to speak for them. Don’t merely respect other people’s perspectives, but really try to understand them. Don’t spend your time defending your own perspective or trying to convince others that they are wrong. Actively seek out and understand the perspectives of others, especially those who do not share the same privileges that you do.
None of this stuff is complicated, really. It means: be polite, be gracious. It means: approach other people as if you are the student and they are the teachers, and not the other way around. It means: assume that you might need to learn more about their point of view, rather than assuming that you need to teach them a lesson.
But here is the million dollar question: does the phrase “check your privilege!” follow this considerate, respectful mode of interaction that it is (in theory) advocating? Of course it doesn’t.
First, it is a command. Asserting commands over other people is inherently an act of privilege, as well as an act of dominance. Only those who have privilege in a particular situation are able to give commands and be taken seriously; thus, to issue a command and exert dominance over another human being is inherently to exercise privilege. That is why being mindful of privilege means asking questions, not giving commands.
Second, it is not respectful of the other person. The violence of privilege appears when anyone blindly approaches others with differing views as children or ignoramuses who need to be educated. The fact that you believe that another person’s acts come from a place of privilege does not excuse you from the requirement of being respectful of that person’s point of view.
Finally, commanding someone to “check your privilege” is not putting you in a position of being a learner and a seeker. And that is what you are really asking other people to do, isn’t it? When you ask people to be mindful of their own privilege, what you are asking is that they be open to learning from the world instead of imposing their own perspective on the world. Telling someone to “check your privilege” does not do that.
Never in the history of human interaction has the phrase “check your privilege” brought people together or resulted in greater understanding. It is a bludgeon of a phrase that people use when they want to shut someone up and put him in his place, which completely undermines the instructions it is giving.
No matter what your level of privilege, you should be courteous and mindful in conversation. When I say, “Talk to people as if you need to learn why their view is right, not explain to them why they are wrong,” many people react very negatively. They hate the idea. It feels submissive. It feels like giving in. “Why would I do that,” they ask, “When I know I’m right?”
The answer is simple: if both sides of the conversation do this, then it will be able to move forward. If both sides of a debate go in with a little humility, then it can be a rational conversation with learning and dialogue, instead of a pissing contest between two sides who refuse to “give in” to each other.
That’s why being mindful, in the sense of being courteous and polite, is always good advice; whereas “check your privilege” quite simply has to die.