There is so much talk about this privilege thing. Privilege this, and privilege that. There are tons of debates about whether or not privilege even exists, and if it should be “checked” or “apologized” for. Yet, there really isn’t any talk about “it” at all.
For those of you reading and still wondering ‘what the hell is privilege,” the first definition at Dictionary.com is, “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most.” In such, privilege is the right to do what you do. If you’re eating today, that’s a privilege (though, it should be a right, which is another story), as there are too many people who won’t eat today.
If you are a native of the country you live in, that’s a privilege to many, affording you natural and often, less inhibited access to the native tongue, culture and ways of life of that country. I am privileged right now, because I have a stable place to sleep tonight, something I have lacked in the past, and too many have and continue to lack everyday. Thus, let’s start off by stating that privilege, in and of itself (like most negatively connoted words), isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Privilege is inherently natured in a world structured on “the haves and the have-nots.” In such, every single one of us, in one or way another has privilege. So, these debates about privilege are kind of confusing to me. I’m really not understanding, fully at least, why there is such inability to acknowledge what already is. And that goes for everything in this crazy life, but let’s keep it about privilege for right now.
“A person cannot exact power over me by use of their White, male and/ or class privilege, to name a few, without my own permission.”
It is clear as day to me, that people are writing and speaking around everything these days. That includes privilege. It is most definitely the greatest elephant in the room nowadays. Politically and socially, there is no greater force than privilege.
Privilege drives the giant machines of racism, classism and sexism, just to name a few. Privilege pays for the benefit of fatphobia, transphobia, disability phobia (which doesn’t even have a “real” name yet, btw).
Oh, privilege! It’s so damn powerful, and yet so… so… not powerful.
I believe the power in anything in this world, lies in one’s ability to acknowledge and actualize truth, or the lack thereof. I have learned, very well in fact, through experimentation in my own life experiences, that privilege has no power over me. A person cannot exact power over me by use of their White, male and/ or class privilege, to name a few, without my own permission.
In example, after a discussion with a man who I met on the train, I decided to exchange contact information with him. It was clearly and vividly in the interest of maintaining professional connections, as we actually said that was the reason for exchanging contact info.
“…why in the world would you want or decide to call me anything other than the name I blatantly gave you permission to call me? “
Flash forward to a few months later, the man sends me a text saying something like, “Blah, blah, blah, BABY…” Or at least that’s all I read. Once my eyes flashed over the word ‘baby,’ I didn’t and still don’t remember what else was said before or after that.
Now, what would make a person that I truly don’t know from a hole in the wall, think it’s okay for them to call me baby? I won’t go into that too much, as I’ve already covered much of my theory behind male privilege and its direct link to sexual harassment. I want to paint a picture here, though. So, stay with me.
I don’t know you. You don’t know me. We’ve only met briefly (less than 20 min.) and have since, never seen one another. So, why in the world would you want or decide to call me anything other than the name I blatantly gave you permission to call me? A perfect case of “Why now? Why this (or in this case, why me)?”
Would you call your boss or the person interviewing you, baby? Would you call your grandmother or grandfather baby? Would you call your homeboy or the male cashier at the local supermarket, baby? Would you call Queen Elizabeth or Michelle Obama, baby? Seriously, would you?
Whether a person’s a response is yes or no, is obviously telling of many things. What is more telling though, is the fact that as a woman, I have a much higher chance of being called baby, than if I were a man, and that’s a fact that I lived (so, no, I don’t need stats).
I also realize, that as an assumed less empowered woman (with way less/ nonexistent access to shared understandings of “power”, “wealth” and “prestige”), I am also more likely to deal with being called anything other than the name I give people permission to call me. There are clearly levels to this.
In such, I say all of that to say this, there is a huge difference between checking your privilege and apologizing for your privilege. How can I apologize for being born in the U.S., not having a chronic or terminal illness, or for having substantial access to education? I can’t. I won’t.
Things came together (might you call it God, Spirit, the universe or just luck), that permitted me to have access to the privileges I have, and also, limited me from the privileges I don’t have access to. That too is something I won’t apologize for. My inaccessibility to certain privileges.
When a White person asks to touch my hair, a Black person questions my choice to be natural, a man calls me sexy, or any person assumes for me, who and what kind of people I am attracted to, they are smacking me all up in the face with their privilege. In doing so, they are blatantly asking me to do the one thing they aren’t willing to do, apologize for my lack of privilege.
That’s what checking your privilege is really about. It’s about acknowledging that your inclusion into the dominant, powerful, normalized and/ or popular aspects of life, culture, society and the world itself, does not invalidate someone else’s exclusion. Checking your privilege is your willingness to acknowledge that no, the world does not revolve you and all people like or similar to you. In such, act like it! Act like you’re not the center of the universe. Because you’re not.
“Checking your privilege is your willingness to acknowledge that no, the world does not revolve you and all people like or similar to you.”
I’ll leave you with my best example of this. A person decides to tell me, of all people (someone they know to have grown up on food stamps), how vile they feel about people who “use the government for support that they should be able to provide for themselves.” My lack of response leads them their follow-up with directly asking me, how what they said, makes me feel. I respond by telling them that their opinion of a lifestyle that they have yet to live, means nothing to me.
They go on to push a debate of sorts, between our assumed viewpoints (as it is automatically assumed that I am the greatest supporter of food stamps). I respond fervently to end the discussion and more importantly, to disable the power of their privilege.
“You have had the privilege of some or all forms of financial stability and in such, you are speaking about poverty from the viewpoint of a non- impoverished person. Therefore, not only does your opinion of poverty not matter (as, us who live in it, are based on fact, not opinion), it also shows the necessity of my need to acknowledge and then, invalidate your ignorance.
“Your opinion is your opinion. However, it has no value or weight on the world. Your willingness and choice to share that opinion with someone like me, a person you view as less financially stable than you, is even more telling. It is clear you are using your privilege of financial stability to make me feel less than and intentionally, cause me to be defensive.
“I’m not sure whether you were consciously aware of your own intentions or actually thought twice, before you spoke, to consider the implications of your words. It doesn’t really matter to me. I love you all the same and have no judgement against you. I just want you to know that I am a person and I deserve the same respect that every other person deserves.
“When you are called out for being mean, I would hope you share the same liberal “who cares attitude” that guides your principles on the way you treat other people.”
“In such, from here on out, it is paramount that you display actions that suggest you’re considering my feelings as a person and individual (not a representative of Black, poor, or woman people), when you speak directly to me.”
It doesn’t matter what’s said after that, quite honestly, because I said all that needed to be said. I disabled the privilege and thus, enabled my power. We’ll get deeper into other ways of interrupting oppressive behaviors, down the line. For now, just sit and reflect on what I wrote. There’s so much truth to it, if you’re willing and ready to see it.
And for those reading, who feel compelled to say loud and clear, “I will not check my privilege, no matter what you say,” I respect it and you. I’m not here to change people’s minds or rectify people’s spirits. I am here to call things what they are. If you are conscious that your words, actions and inherent ideas have the direct potential to harm, dehumanize or otherwise hurt a person and you’re okay with that, so be it.
You must also okay with the fact that you are, by definition, a mean person. When you are called out for being mean, I would hope you share the same liberal “who cares attitude” that guides your principles on the way you treat other people.
**Originally Published: February 17, 2015