A better way to talk about privilege

Sophie Boulter is a junior
Philosophy, Politics and the
Public and Political Science
double major. She is a guest
writer for the Newswire from
Wadsworth, Ohio.

Me? Privileged?

I bristled at the thought. I’m a woman, who went to a public school right-smack-in-the-middle of the rust belt.

I’ve dealt with sexism as long as I can remember, from the science teacher who told the class that “girls shouldn’t do science,” to the ex-boyfriend who informed me that “women’s brains aren’t suited to politics.” My town was constantly overlooked and marginalized. 

This meant that my peers and I often underestimated our abilities. College recruiters outside of Ohio would pass over my high school in favor of the fancier, private ones 45 minutes away. We weren’t given opportunities — we had to fight for them, or be ignored. We all worked tenaciously to achieve our goals, but often, our hard work wasn’t enough.

The feeling of being overlooked and undervalued made me reluctant to acknowledge my own privilege. Certainly, I have faced setbacks due to my gender and where I am from. But being white, middle class and able-bodied means that there are many more setbacks with which I will never have to cross paths. 

Being white means that there are conversations, fears and truths that I will never be forced to confront — my observance of the realities of institutional racism will never be from a first-person point of view. 

Being middle class means that, though I am anxious about paying off student loans and adhere to a strict budget, I’ve never had to worry about paying for a meal. 

Being able-bodied means that I’ve never had to worry about accessibility, or that my health would preclude me from doing the activities I enjoy.

I have the choice of considering these things, but my circumstances have never forced me to confront them.

Still, being privileged doesn’t mean you have things handed to you. It doesn’t mean that your life will be easy. Instead it  means that certain obstacles will always be out of your way.

I’m not surprised that phrases like “check your privilege” inspire such vitriol. Telling someone to check their privilege seems dismissive, implying that if you are of a particular gender, race, class or ability, your problems don’t matter. 

The truth is, they do. But it is also true that suffering injustice due to something you cannot control — especially when these injustices combine to create intersectional problems — is something uniquely oppressive.

Instead of using privilege as an accusation or a put-down, perhaps we could use it to start a conversation, coming from a place of empathy. By honestly acknowledging the ways that our privilege aids us in our life, we could use it to help amplify voices that society would rather silence.

Telling someone to check their privilege without explaining why, in that context, their privilege matters, does nothing to educate them about issues of injustice. “Cancelling” someone due to an insensitive, privileged remark does nothing to help foster education and dialogue on the issue. 

Conversely, “calling out” ignorance and explaining its inaccuracy not only educates the ignorant individual, it may also inspire others uneducated on the issue to learn more.

Let’s have frank discussions about privilege—discussions that encourage dialogue without minimizing anyone’s experience. Instead of “checking” our privilege, we could utilize our privilege to help build a society in which recognition and equality is afforded to all, regardless of race, gender, class or ability.