Monday, June 23, 2014

3 Overly Defensive Reactions To 'Check Your Privilege'

Cracked just published a piece by Gladstone called 3 Ways 'Checking Your Privilege' Never Fixed Anything. While Gladstone claims that "this is NOT an article about poor white men feeling like they're under attack"... it reads exactly like an article written by a white dude feeling like he's under attack.

It's pretty obvious that someone told him to check his privilege, and it's equally obvious that it didn't go down very well. (Gladstone has a minor track record of turning "an argument I had with one person" into "EVERYONE ON THE INTERNET IS WRONG".)

Because Gladstone says he'd like to encourage people to share information, out of the kindness of my heart I will gladly explain, point-by-point, why the problem is not with the concept of "checking privilege," but instead with the way people respond to being told to check their privilege. And by "people" I mean "Gladstone".

“Check your privilege” makes assumptions… but nice ones. 

“OK, let's say you're arguing over one of the many things people love to fight about and your adversary has expressed an opinion directly opposite to what you believe to be true.”
Like something racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or some other dehumanizing bullshit?

Dude, that’s not shit we like to fight about.

The phrase “check your privilege” is only ever brought out when someone thinks you’re not just wrong, but that you’re actively being an asshole. Or at least that you did or said something that makes you seem like an asshole, to someone who has seen a lot of assholery over the course of their life.
“What does 'check your privilege' say? It says you believe the root of the disagreement is your adversary's background. He or she feels this way because they're white, because they're straight, because they're rich.”
And that’s a really nice assumption to make.

Step back a second and think about it. There’s two big reasons why people sound like bigoted assholes. The main reason, of course, is that they are bigoted assholes. They’ve carefully studied the issue and made the conscious decision that the minority group under discussion is, in fact, a lesser tier of human being. And we can all agree that those people suck.

You know who you are, and you suck so much.

On the other hand, some people who sound like bigoted assholes are more or less doing it accidentally. They’re not really thinking about what they’re saying, and they haven’t considered that it might be hurtful. Maybe they’ve never really talked to anyone that’s been bothered by it before. They’re lucky enough – one might even say privileged enough – to never be personally affected by that sort of bigotry, to the point that they might not even notice that it’s bigotry.

That’s the assumption behind “check your privilege”. Given that you already engaged in some fuckery (from their perspective), they're assuming that you’re being the oblivious sort of asshole instead of deliberately choosing to be an asshole.

“Check your privilege” is cynical… if you don’t understand how empathy works.

“Now you've pointed out he grew up richer, straighter, whiter than you? And?”
In the best case scenario, he reflects on what it would be like to experience things from a different viewpoint, giving him a new perspective on why that thing he said might have sounded assholish.

Or pretty much exactly what you said here:
"Ideally, the 'check your privilege' movement is about encouraging others to understand how their own backgrounds might blind them to larger issues…”
“…but I see no evidence of that.”

Okay. And some creationists can honestly say that they see no evidence of evolution. It might be true that you, personally, have seen no evidence, but in that case you need to look a little bit harder. What do you think “check your privilege” means, if not “use your empathy to think about how you sound to someone who’s not you”?
“You're not like me, and therefore you're incapable of empathy."

If we thought you were incapable of empathy, no one would bother talking to you. Instead we’d either ignore you entirely, or at the most we’d keep a wary eye on you from a safe distance. No one tries to argue with Stormfront.

It’s true that “check your privilege” points out that you aren’t currently using your empathy. But the good-guy response to that is to start using your empathy. If instead you whinge about how cynical it is to point out your lack of empathy… that does not actually make you sound very empathetic.

“Who would want to overlook our common humanity?”

Stormfront, for one.
These fuckers.

It’s not the people asking you to check your privilege who are overlooking our common humanity. It’s the people who spout intolerant bullshit who fail to see their targets as fully human. “Check your privilege” is a reminder to see other people as fully human despite the differences between you – specifically, to treat other people’s experiences as if they were just as valid as your own. (Because they are.)

“Check your privilege” ends conversations… if you’re willfully ignorant.

“I've had friends explain that to me -- "check your privilege" is only trying to start a dialogue. That's almost the equivalent of saying that "check my cock for your wife's lipstick" would start a dialogue about the state of one's marriage. The phrase is insulting.”
Even leaving aside the whole “fucking your wife as a personal insult” thing (that’s what Fetlife is for), Gladstone thinks being told to consider a thing from a different perspective is a grave insult.

… That explains a lot, actually.

“[‘Check your privilege’ is] a shortcut allowing you to dismiss the opposing views of your adversary. It does absolutely nothing to illuminate.”
Only if you actually ignore what the imperative statement “check your privilege” actually means. If I wanted to tell you you’re wrong and leave it at that, I’d say “you’re wrong” and then leave it at that. (I’m simple that way.)

Being told to check your privilege is literally receiving instructions on how to be less wrong. It's like being told to take a biology class during an argument about evolution. Even if you don't take their advice, you should know there’s a high probability that you fucked something up along the way.
"[I]f those behind 'check your privilege' really want to foster a better world of mutual respect and understanding, I'd encourage them to share information with those they view as their oppressors. Share and explain your identity instead of merely tearing down others."
This is better known as the If you don't teach me, how will I learn? argument, and better writers than me have dealt with this in much more eloquent ways. But the tl;dr is this: So now I'm responsible for teaching you how and why not to be an asshole? You want me, a person who has been through shitty things, to tell you, the person who has already said something that I found ignorant and shitty, about the most vulnerable parts of my life?
Believe you me, lots of us have tried leading that horse to the water, wasted eons of time trying to get that fucker to drink, and got a kick in the stomach for our troubles. And we've found through experience that the horses who are actually thirsty will get a damn drink themselves, if they know where the lake is. "Check your privilege" is us pointing towards the lake. Go and drink, or don't, but either way stop blaming us for your choices.

You can't learn anything new if you already think you know all the answers. If you really do want to respect and understand the perspectives of marginalized people, you can start by putting aside your preconceived ideas, suppressing your tendency to get defensive, and actually listening to what marginalized people have to say.

Or, in other words: check your privilege.