Not because it asks too much — because it asks too little
Acknowledging your own privilege or encouraging others to check theirs can be a great starting point for conversation and vehicle for consciousness-raising. But when it comes to meaningful social change, it is not close to enough.
It is not enough to pay lip service to the idea that you are privileged and others are not, and then go about your privileged life ignoring those who lack the basic rights you take for granted. “I acknowledge my privilege” is the new “I’m not a racist, but.” It lets people go through the verbal motions and feel virtuous, even if they are not just unhelpful but actually part of the problem.
We need to talk in the language of rights, not privileges, if we want to make any systemic change.
“Check your privilege” started out as a reminder that not everyone’s lived experience is the same. It is a way of ensuring that a diversity of perspectives is represented in dialogue. As Sam Dylan Finch at Everyday Feminism explains:
When someone asks you to ‘check your privilege,’ what they’re really asking you to do is to reflect on the ways that your social status might have given you an advantage — even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it — while their social status might have given them a disadvantage.
I have no problem with privilege-checking in the context of academic discourse or social justice debate. It is useful a way of opening someone’s eyes to a perspective they might be missing because they have never experienced a certain kind of discrimination or disadvantage.
Where I think the problem lies is in extending the discourse of privilege from theory to action. Activism aims to change the status quo, to make the world better. And yes, it is perfectly true that eradicating racism and sexism and homophobia would also get rid of white privilege and male privilege and straight privilege. But that way of looking at things puts the emphasis in the wrong place.
The goal of activism is not to take privileges away from those who have them, but to extend rights to those who are denied them.
The discourse of privilege is problematic because it demands too little in the context of activism. The issue that needs to be addressed is not that those on top do not understand how much better they have it. A little knowledge and self-awareness is not enough to fix the world. The problem is that there are some groups of people who have been systematically denied their fundamental rights.
Language matters, and a “privilege” is, among other things, the opposite of a right. (As in, students don’t have a right to participate in this extracurricular activity, and if they misbehave that privilege will be taken away.)
But the things activists mean when we talk about privilege are not like that — they are rights. The right to be equal pay, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to a presumption of innocence, the right to police protection.
Calling these things privileges instead of rights does not take seriously enough what is being denied to people who lack them.
Another colloquial meaning of “privilege” that makes it a difficult way to talk about injustice is the idea of living a privileged life, as synonymous with a life of luxury. I see this all the time — a person of color tells a white person he has white privilege, and he responds by saying that he’s not privileged because he’s poor. And they’re both right.
Obviously, a poor white man has privilege in that he reaps the benefits of being white and male — like not being stopped by the police for innocent behavior like black men and not living in fear of sexual violence like women. But at the same time, he is not living a “privileged life,” because he is working two jobs to make his rent payments and can’t afford proper health care. Although he has the privileges of whiteness and maleness, he lacks other privileges like those of wealth.
The discourse of privilege creates false dichotomies and unnecessary tension among people who actually agree with each other. If, instead of demanding that the poor white man must acknowledge his privilege, we remind him that other people are being denied their fundamental rights, he may wholeheartedly agree and eagerly join the movement.
I once had a long discussion with a friend about who had more privilege — a white woman or a black man. We never did come to a resolution, because we were dealing with a fundamental incommensurability of goods (or bads). But really, who cares who has more privilege? It’s not a contest. What black men and white women have in common is that each group is denied a set of fundamental rights. They are denied different sub-sets of rights, but both groups are entitled to the full set.
Focusing on privilege makes those who have more rights feel guilty for the rights they enjoy (or angry and defensive at being made to feel guilty). But the guilt of the privileged is not only insufficient to create change, it is actively a bad thing. Everyone has the right to be heard, the right to be considered beautiful, the right not to live in fear.
We should be angry that some people are denied those basic human rights, but no one should ever feel guilty for having them.
Of course, many of the things that get referred to as privilege are not actually rights, but unfair advantages that would cease to exist in a just society. For example, the privilege of being the only voice taken seriously in a conversation, the privilege of being elevated over job applicants of other races or genders, the privilege of having your culture be the dominant one. Those things are not fundamental rights — they are the flip side of oppression. Encouraging people to recognize those privileges makes sense, because it is another way of pointing out oppression. And the recognition of enjoying a privilege of that sort should lead to a certain amount of guilt, and more importantly, a corresponding drive to eradicate such unfair advantages.
But I think the distinction between these unfair privileges and actual rights has gotten muddled, to the detriment of protecting the rights of the persecuted.
The discourse of privilege is originally and fundamentally about education — teaching people to see the world from perspectives other than their own. That’s wonderful, but it also has its limits.
We need to hold people accountable for their actions, and not only for failing to recognize their privilege.
Men who objectify women or minimize sexual assault are not just in possession of male privilege — they are sexists. White people who mock black culture or justify police brutality are not just privileged white people — they are racists.
The discourse of privilege fails to hold these people fully accountable for their actions. We shouldn’t be waving off racism and sexism and homophobia and other prejudices as mere failures to acknowledge privilege.
We need to demand more. Not just that people understand their privilege, but that they stop perpetuating the violation of other people’s rights. Not just that powerful institutions acknowledge non-privileged perspectives, but that they safeguard the rights of all individuals and groups.
We don’t want a world with less privilege — we want a world with more rights.