What the Origin of 'Check Your Privilege' Tells Us About Today's Privilege Debates

According to the woman behind "check your privilege," the closest thing we have to a racial slur against straight white men, our debate over the advantages society grants some and not others hasn't advanced much in 26 years. 

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According to the woman behind "check your privilege," the closest thing we have to a racial slur against straight white men, our debate over the advantages society grants some and not others hasn't advanced much in 26 years. Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker tracked down Peggy MacIntosh, a former women's studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took "privilege" mainstream. "The truth is that it hasn’t changed much," she said of the debate today.

Maybe the arguments haven't changed, but the mode of debate has. Privilege is still the idea that society grants unearned rewards to certain people based on their race, gender, sexuality, etc — checking your privilege means acknowledging the role those rewards play in your life and the lives of less privileged people. Twitter has made it easier for marginalized groups to draw attention to issues of privilege that escape the mainstream media. It's also made it easier for people to accuse others of basking in their unchecked privilege, and created a sort of privilege Olympics (see: Tumblr). We decided to apply MacIntosh's thoughts on privilege to two of the biggest privilege backlashes going on today: the "Privilege is borderline racism against white males" argument perpetuated by (often conservative) white men and the "White/Black Feminists are oppressive" debate between minority feminists and white feminists.

Twitter Feminist Privilege

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWoman, the hashtag created by feminist writer Mikki Kendall, gave women of color a platform to argue that mainstream feminism tends to focus only on the issues of middle class heterosexual white women. That's a debate that stretches back as far as Seneca Falls, and was also the catalyst for MacIntosh's examination of her own privilege.

"About six years earlier, black women in the Boston area had written essays to the effect that white women were oppressive to work with," she said. "I remember back to what it had been like to read those essays. My first response was to say, 'I don’t see how they can say that about us — I think we’re nice!' And my second response was deeply racist, but this is where I was in 1980, I thought, I especially think we’re nice if we work with them ... I came to this dawning realization: Niceness has nothing to do with it."

Niceness has everything and nothing to do with Twitter feminism wars, which basically boil down to this: some white feminists argue that black feminists have created a toxic online atmosphere and "bully" them — that's more or less the argument in Michelle Goldberg's January story for The Nation. Some feminists of color agree to an extent — Brittney Cooper of the Crunk Feminist Collective said, "I actually think there’s a subset of black women who really do get off on white women being prostrate." In fact, most of the comments in Goldberg's piece were from black women. Online, many white feminists added that they felt afraid to bring up the same point. And yet, some white feminists agree with feminists of color that there are works by feminists from marginalized groups that ignored, which is why Twitter is so important.

MacIntosh argues that "the key thing is to let people testify to their own experience. Then they’ll stop fighting with each other." So far each side is testifying to itself — the other side isn't listening. Every criticism feminists of color make isn't necessarily valid: "Ban Bossy" doesn't exclude and ignore the experiences of women of color — it's Sheryl Sandberg testifying to her experience. At the same time, asking feminist of color to talk about their experiences on a former slave plantation wasn't as inclusive as Ani DiFranco thought it would be.

White Male Princeton Freshman Privilege

"I do not accuse those who 'check' me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line," wrote Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang in "Checking My Privilege," an essay on how telling people they're privileged without knowing their life story is a form of prejudice.

The biggest problem with Fortgang's essay is that his point of view is crafted by privilege: if you work hard you'll be successful — institutionalized racism and sexism are a myth. "It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates 'privilege.'" Fortgang completely rejects the idea that race, gender and class inhibit or benefit people, even while acknowledging that he benefits from the financial success of his parents. At the same time, he manages to capture the dismissiveness of the phrase "check your privilege."

"When Tal Fortgang was told, 'Check your privilege' — which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement — it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically," MacIntosh said. "But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life." That's the key: "everyone" benefits from and is a victim of privilege. On some levels it's easier to see that — a gay black man benefits from male privilege, but not from heterosexual or white privilege. Fortgang is also part of that system, even if he'd rather act like it doesn't exist.

What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There's older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on "your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background," she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men,  are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.

The key is acknowledging everyone's advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn't hurt him to check his privilege.

(Image via Shutterstock/RyFlip.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.