6 Productive Alternatives to Privilege-Checking
Regardless of your political affiliation, the call to "check your privilege" is by now a familiar one. Phoebe Maltz Bovy, author of the new book The Perils of Privilege, asserts that calling someone out is not the most productive way to affect social change. Read on for six alternatives to privilege-checking that promote social growth and discourse below.
It is a sad but unavoidable fact of life that people with unearned advantages give little sign of realizing that they were born with an edge. Whether willfully or inadvertently, those who’ve had it easy in one area (or several) have this frustrating tendency to present themselves as just ordinary folks, oblivious to the many benefits of being white, male, straight, upper-class, and so on.
Sometimes it seems as if all of society’s problems could be solved, if only the privileged understood that they’re the unwitting beneficiaries of structural inequality. This is, alas, a fantasy – wealthy people who realize they’ve won life’s lottery don’t generally seek to shed their advantages; so, too, with the other, less readily shed forms of privilege.But it feels as if getting the privileged to confess would accomplish something. Thus the calls to ‘check your privilege,’ or the observation that someone’s ‘privilege is showing.’ There are now regularly letters to advice columnists on how to get friends and loved ones to acknowledge their privilege. I’m thinking especially of a letter to New York Magazine advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, from a white woman not convinced her (also-liberal) white husband is sufficiently outraged at the state of post-election America: “[H]ow can I help my husband unpack his privilege?”
If someone has hurt your feelings, or been oblivious towards a group you in fact belong to, and “check your privilege” feels right, then by all means. Frequently, however, on the left and right alike, the person flagging another’s privilege is just as privileged, in just the same way. These call-outs exist in a nebulous overlap of self-righteousness and well-meaning activism, crossed with, at times, just the tiniest hint of jealousy. And it’s those instances I’m focusing on here. If you feel a “check your privilege” coming on, in a context along those lines, you may wish to reconsider. Below are six steps that may lead you in a more productive direction.
1) Spell out what the person you're speaking with has said that upset you, and why.
Yes, even though that will mean using fraught terms like “racist” or “sexist.” Whether your aim is mainly getting your hurt across or more about getting an apology or otherwise improving this other person’s future behavior, precision helps. Someone accused of “privilege,” but not told which sort, may genuinely not know what they’re being criticized for. Defensiveness that ensues may be confusion, and not an unwillingness to take criticism on the topic at hand. They may hear “privilege” and assume they’re being called wealthy, or generally lucky in life, and may (rightly) question those assumptions.
Conversely, a call-out’s recipient may know perfectly well that they have unearned advantages… and have zero desire to shed them. Or — and this is a big one these days — they may see the world differently and imagine that they are, in fact, the real victim. In such cases, there’s nothing to be gained by framing your criticism as an earnest attempt at education.
2) Consider your own privilege.
If you share the form of privilege you're inclined to call out (say, if you're a man calling out another man’s male privilege), it’s generally a good idea to recast the argument in a way that doesn’t tie their mistake to their identity… which you happen to share. Along those lines:
3) Consider your motives.
Are you attempting to fight back against an individual’s bigotry? To push back against a more general injustice? Or is the call-out serving some other function? A recent study in Nature, presented in the New York Times, showed what common sense (and the expression “virtue signaling”) had long established: “expressing moral outrage can serve as a form of personal advertisement.” Anecdotally, I’d say this is especially true when the outrage in question is at a wrong that did not directly impact the person calling it out.
While the researchers make clear that this is “not conscious motivation,” it’s entirely possible to be conscious that virtue signaling exists, and is has potentially hurtful repercussions, before joining a social-media pile-on where you’d be the 50th person to tell someone that they were wrong about something that wasn’t a pile-on-worthy error to begin with. If you take a moment to reflect before you post, you’ll be able to keep calling out serious wrongdoing (and to step up where you think your voice is needed), without entering debates that are resolving themselves just fine without your participation.
4) Focus on systemic change, rather than individual stance or self-awareness.
This can mean educating a friend on an issue, leaving their recent foolishness out of the conversation. But it can just as easily involve knowing where to prioritize on social media. Rather than spending hours explaining to a stranger with ten followers why something they said may have offended a theoretical member of a marginalized group you’re not even a part of, try posting about an upcoming protest or worthy cause.
5) Find words other than “privilege” to describe suffering that could be worse still.
If a friend is diagnosed with a serious illness, you can express sympathy without explaining how they’re actually privileged because they have good health insurance. Find ways to advocate for improved access to health care that don’t involve describing your friend’s situation as a luxurious one. Not only will such approaches likely be more effective, but they won’t add unnecessary hurt to an already painful situation.
6) Think of privilege acknowledgement as work individuals must, by definition, do for themselves.
If someone understands both that they’ve said something racist, and that society is systemically racist, they can, on their own, put together where their own whiteness fits into the story. Trying to compel others to make the connection tends to backfire, as in a Stanford Business School study showing that white people who believe white privilege is real will nevertheless make excuses to explain why they, personally, don’t profit from it. Demanding others to, in effect, perform self-awareness leads all too often to just that: a performance.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of The Perils of 'Privilege.'She has a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University, and is currently the Sisterhood Editor at the Forward. Her writing has appeared in publications including the New Republic and the Atlantic.