The concept of privilege is a relatively new term; the term started in 1910 from a W.E.B. DuBois essay The Souls of White Folks. Social privilege is defined as an exclusive set of unearned benefits held by only a certain group of society. These perks create and perpetuate a system of social inequality, creating a caste system or type of social hierarchy. There is inequality in power balances, there are social struggles, there are haves and have-nots. Individuals who have privilege are not disenfranchised and it is harder to notice you have privilege versus noticing that you are oppressed. Privilege gives you comfort and oppression is troublesome, forcing you to notice what is wrong.
I often talk, and read, about privilege in terms of race and gender. “White Privilege” and “male privilege” are now commonplace terms, if you use those phrases, members of that societal group tend to feel affronted. However, it is limiting to only discuss privilege in the context of gender and race. There is ability privilege (are you disabled or able-bodied), there is class privilege (economic class and social class), there is education privilege (access to higher education and the benefits it confers), gender identity, religious privilege, passing privilege (can you assimilate into another group), and sexuality. It also would behoove me to mention the concept of intersectionality and how it can amplify or decrease the amount of privilege an individual/group can have.
I type up these definitions to discuss how you and I have privilege and why we need to check it.
I am a 20-year something black female. My family is lower middle class, I grew up in a single-parent household. But I currently have three degrees, one of them being the highest degree that can be conferred to an individual. My degree has allowed me to ascend in social rankings, my network is filled with professional individuals. I am heterosexual, I am Christian, and my gender identity is a woman. I am able-bodied, occasionally athletic, and I am in shape. I am not ashamed of my privileges, I am not ashamed of the things bestowed upon me. However, I do check my privilege, I do work to help those less fortunate than me, and I do stay quiet in the spaces of the oppressed.
Example of how I check my privilege; I do not allow myself to get a superiority complex because of my degrees. I do not allow myself to say “I am better because” I had the opportunity to graduate from medical school or because someone only completed high school. I do not allow myself to think I am self-made; I am a hard worker, but I also have had opportunities and luck. I do not [intentionally] honk at elderly when they drive, I am fortunate that heterosexual romantic relationships are the norm and my sexual proclivities are represented in the media so I champion for the rights of the LGBT community and I took time to learn the difference between gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, et cetera. As someone who is Christian, I recognize I am fortunate to hear our Pledge of Allegiance say “One Nation Under God”; because I do not wear a hijab or niqab, I’m not subjected to “random” TSA checks.
When you tell someone to check their privilege, people take it as a personal attack, it sounds like they have been given a life handicap that helped them attain their goals. Telling someone they have privilege is not an insult, it is an assessment of their social caste rankings. Having privilege does not mean you aren’t a hard worker, that just means you had a smoother transition to various stages of life. Most of us have advantages and disadvantages; but it is imperative that we recognize which social determinants have a more detrimental effect to those around us.
When we don’t check your privilege, we tend to take a myopic look at the less successful and pick apart the reasons why they are stuck in their station in life. Checking our privilege forces us to examine our role in society as individuals and in context of a larger group. It forces us to recognize what barriers we may have avoided; contingent upon our own moral code and conscience, checking our privilege might propel us to diligently work to decimate the divide between the haves and have-nots.
Instead of saying blanket phrases and statements that proclaim the hardships we apparently overcame to reach a certain stage of life, as a practice of humility, we should exercise pointing out the benefits we have that others didn’t. There will always be inequities in a society because it is human nature to self-segregate based on commonalities and differences. But we can decrease the width of the schism is by listening to the stories of the oppressed and listening to others who critically point out our privilege.