Privilege is not enough to end all discussions


Cheyenne Cohen | Staff Illustrator

By Tim Nerozzi / Columnist

“Check your privilege” is a statement that says: To move forward in conversation, one needs to give up ownership of their own ideas and attribute them to the circumstances of one’s birth.

The problem with this belief and the fight against privilege is the ramifications they have on meaningful discussion. What started as a thought experiment for individuals to look back on their own experiences and think about how their own race, gender, religion and other circumstances could have affected their lives, has gone too far.

Constantly checking privilege has become a counterproductive mentality that boils down entire groups of people based on generalities and presumed life experiences. If you’ve ever heard it in a debate or discussion, you know what comes next. Either the accused party kneels down, hands clasped, and begs the old gods of social justice for forgiveness for their transgression, or the discussion immediately becomes an attempt to convince the accusing party that the accused is not blind to everything happening outside the realm of their life experience.

Privilege is a messy term with countless qualifiers typically attached to it. From “white privilege” to “thin privilege,” it seems like just about everyone falls into some sort of privileged category, so we should probably know what it is supposed to say about us.

The dictionary definition of privilege — “a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people” — does not clear things up very much. We live in a free country. There are no inherent hierarchies of privileges, as our rights are clearly outlined in our country’s Constitution, and its subsequent amendments. To deny someone their rights is a punishable crime.

Instead, we need a sociological definition, as the soft sciences are where this term has entered a new life.

The term was first truly brought to the forefront of American academia in 1988 by Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, who said, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

While this completely disregards individual experiences and amalgamates every person with pale skin into a giant group and judges their lives collectively, it is not a bad thought experiment.

Whether you believe in privilege or not, asking yourself, “Has my appearance helped me in life?” can provide a lot of insight into race relations. Have you ever received preferential treatment because of your race? Has society ever held you back because of your race?

From these genuine instances of self-reflection, we spin off into the fantastical world of hundreds of privileges, all claiming to give you a leg up at the cost of those unlike yourself. Thin privilege, heterosexual privilege, cisgendered privilege, monogamous privilege, Christian privilege, native English-speaker privilege, neurotypical privilege — these are phrases thrown around online on sites like Tumblr, which thrive on victim complexes and social groups based on self-declared social transgressions.

Is being monogamous a privilege? No, it is your fundamental choice about with whom you would like to be in a relationship, which happens to fit in line with the majority of society. Is being neurotypical really a privilege? Of course not, it’s normality — the lack of a problem in your brain. A person with depression is not being systematically discriminated against. They have a mental health condition that needs treatment.

Instead of talking about the possible benefits old institutions can give to specific people and withhold from others, the dialogue about privilege has shifted. It has become a laundry list of complaints leveled at anyone with even minor conveniences in their lives, regardless of whether it was a result of lifestyle, hard work or even just luck. It’s not a meaningful socioeconomic insight, it’s a witch hunt.

This is the result of taking privilege as a concrete, real social dynamic and not looking at it as a theoretical social philosophy that cannot be applied to every individual. When we take privilege as a “sins of the father” situation — an inherent mark on someone denoting them as a member of a privileged class they cannot escape or reject — we stop seeing people as people. This compartmentalizing of people based on external appearance and inherent traits is the exact same line of thought that feeds racial prejudice, sexism and anti-gay sentiment.

When a term like privilege is brought into real world situations — situations with men and women of all sectors of humanity —  it cannot be used to make generalizations, or else this problem will continue. Every person is different, and trying to pretend like you know anything about their lives or lived experiences by simply looking at their appearance or learning about their religion is ridiculous.

You can make generalizations all you want, but there will always be people who break those stereotypes. The white girl growing up in a broken home in downtown Detroit is not going to fulfill your fantastical idea of a white person’s “invisible knapsack of privilege.” People are more complex than that.

Some argue that it’s not discrimination, and that telling someone to check their privilege is only asking them to self-reflect, not to feel bad about being given the irrevocable mark of privilege. The rhetoric, however, is inconsistent.

Mia McKenzie, writing in Black Girl Dangerous, a website featuring voices from queer and transgendered people of color, suggests, “If you are a person with a lot of privilege (i.e. a white, straight, able-bodied, class-privileged, cisgender male or any combination of two or more of those) and you call yourself being against oppression, then it should be part of your regular routine to sit the hell down and shut the eff up.”

Ah yes, of course. Any person who is white and able-bodied needs to “shut the eff up” while the disadvantaged talk. What is to be gained from shutting people out of dialogue based on who they are? Every human is capable of looking at race, religion and other complex humanistic issues.

We can empathize, and even though we may never truly know what it’s like to be any one other person, we can try. No matter who you are, your facts and arguments are either good or bad. No person should have their ideas discounted because of something as stupid as the circumstances of their birth.

If your ideas are scrutinized and your worldview isn’t being accepted, falling back on privilege and claiming the other party could never have a meaningful understanding because of who they are, you are not debating. You are not furthering discussion. You are squashing all dialogue. The people who see other humans in terms of race, gender, sexuality or other privelege qualifiers and not by who they are as individuals and try to squash dissent by telling them to be silent are not progressive. They are bigots.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking about privilege from time to time, reflecting on who you are, where you’ve come from and what has helped you along the way. It’s an important part of introspection. Just don’t let anyone try and tell you what your life has been like.

Timothy primarily writes on free speech and media culture for The Pitt News.

Write to him at [email protected]