How to encourage people to check their privilege — and how not to
By: Matt Teitelbaum, Columnist
The once pedestrian noun “privilege” has become a loaded term. Like pretty much everything else these days, it has become politicized. Odds are that your immediate response to hearing the term, or more specifically the request or demand that one “check their privilege” at least partially exposes your political views.
For many liberals, checking one’s privilege is not only a valid concept, but an essential exercise in humility and empathy for those born under advantaged circumstances.
For many conservatives, checking one’s privilege is an overused or perhaps even invalid concept which only serves to play into the far-left agendas of victim culture and identity politics.
For me, privilege is a valid, albeit overused concept. Here’s my advice to anyone who wants to discuss the concept of privilege and actually be productive.
The Right Way: In polite, casual conversation
If you find that someone is unaware of their privilege or hasn’t really become familiar with the concept yet, explaining it to them politely during casual conversation can be highly productive.
By speaking casually, you avoid condescending the person you’re talking to and asking them to check their privilege won’t sound like a personal slight.
It’s very likely that when respectfully asked to reflect on the advantages they’ve had in life, almost anyone would engage in a healthy exercise of gratitude for what they were born with and sympathy for those less fortunate than them.
For instance, an able-bodied person might understand the privilege of being able to walk unassisted. Or perhaps a white person might appreciate that they don’t have to suffer from institutionalized racism and sympathize with those that do.
Here, “Check your privilege” takes the form of a polite request, but it can also take the form of an aggressive, condescending demand.
The Wrong Way: In a heated debate or argument
Unlike in casual conversation, asking someone to “check their privilege” in a debate almost always comes off as a personal attack rather than an attack on one’s ideas or argument. It comes off that way because it almost always is.
Arguments can’t be privileged, and thus they can’t be accused of privilege. However, the people who make arguments can be privileged.
So why can’t one say that the arguments of white men on issues of race and gender are hindered based on their privilege? The problem is the assumption that personal experience with minority and women’s issues somehow trumps the bedrock of any good argument, facts and logic.
When someone speaks from a position of privilege, all they are lacking is deeply personal, first-hand experience with subjects like race relations and gender equity. If their argument is predicated on things other than personal experience—like facts and logic—then an attempt to discredit them with the accusation of privilege becomes an ad hominem attack and a non-sequitur.
Using an accusation of privilege to attack an argument which is built on solid logic and credible facts, in lieu of personal anecdote, is like claiming a home with a perfectly built foundation isn’t structurally sound because the workers who built it don’t live in it.
Via this explanation, I like to think I’ve made a valid argument regarding the flaws in accusing someone of privilege during debate. However, on that specific topic, I have personal experience to boot.
When I wrote an op-ed two weeks ago, I was speciously accused of having an invalid argument because of my privilege as a cisgender, white, male. Very few of my critics bothered to actually address my argument with facts and logic, opting instead to attack my personal credibility via my “cis, white, male privilege”.
Furthermore, I can almost guarantee some will respond to this op-ed by saying “What is this white male, doing lecturing people about privilege?” To them I say, thank you for proving my point.