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Checking My Privilege and Still Speaking Out

It’s funny how that sort of thing works. One can realize the ramifications of one’s position in society that has been either been granted or attained and that realization can then make your life experience even richer yet. Then you can use that position to make the world better.

I am privileged in many ways.

I am a straight, able bodied, white person, living in the United States. All of those things provide me with benefits in the society that I live in. All of those things I can easily take for granted and I did for many years. Years of my life I spent struggling to make ends meet. Years of my life I spent working two jobs to try to get educated in the arts while barely paying for rent and health care and food and sometimes picking one above the other. Years of my life I spent living in a city where I was, among other things, the victim of a home invasion robbery, held up at gunpoint, sexually assaulted and physically assaulted more than once. Yep, life is goddamn hard sometimes. But throughout those years I still had a leg up that others did not.

When I was first introduced to the concept of privilege, I was a bit taken aback. How could I be “lucky” or above others when life had seemed so difficult for me up until this point?

Privilege comes in many levels.

When I was robbed at gunpoint, I had the privilege of being a white person and so when the crime was reported I was more likely to be believed than if I was say, a person of color. It was not immediately assumed that I was “part of the problem.” Or that I had somehow brought this upon myself as often happens when a person from a minority group reports a crime. I was privileged in that I could find TWO jobs at a time in my life when I needed them. If I was disabled, or openly gay I may not have been so lucky. It’s true that a man would have probably had an easier time finding work but you get the idea. As for the assaults I survived, well one can argue that those happened as a result of rape culture and the fact that women are not yet equal to men nor are women truly safe in our society. But we are safer than in some places in the world.

So I have had the benefit of some societal privileges in very tough times. And today I am even more privileged still. I have a partner who helps me share the household bills, I have a place to live. I have food and I have support of wonderful friends. I’m not nearly as worried about where my next meal will come from as I was in my past. I also have a rather powerful position in this community of freethinkers where I can voice my concerns and I can get people to listen. I have a loud voice. I am a doer. And I am still an able bodied, cis, white person. I have a lot of privilege.

So when someone says to me, “check your privilege.” I do. When someone first asks me to listen, I will. Because, it takes very little effort on my part and it means so, so very much to the people asking for my time.

It’s not that big of a deal. I don’t take it personally because I have learned that when you realize what privileges you have, you realize both how genuinely lucky you are, how much you have achieved and you learn how you can help others around you who may be less privileged than you. It is actually a good feeling. It doesn’t silence me when I am asked to take a step back. I do not take it as an insult because I understand the underlying concept. I realize that this understanding is required in the fight for equality. It is part of what we have to understand in order to make the world better. It is not dogma. It’s part of understanding the socio-ecominic world in which we all exist in. I am higher than others. There are others much, much higher than me. We can all learn from each other. We can do better.

So when people are above me on the ladder of privilege, such as a very wealthy, white male in a position of fame and power, and someone asks them to realize their position is higher or to “check their privilege” or to (temporarily) “Shut up and listen” in order to help the less privileged community around them that they claim to want to see grow and expand. I expect them to be fully capable of doing so without snide commentary, hyperbole or dismissive rhetoric that further separates the us from the them.

dawkins check your p
How is this helpful in explaining the concept of privilege to a community with a harassment problem? Quote: “Oxford in May is glorious. Good to be alive. Oh stop complaining, Richard and lighten up. Also check your privilege”

I also expect that someone in such a position will know that listening to the concerns of those marginalized groups with less power in not an “enforced silence” being imposed upon them. It’s not some sort of joke. It’s simply a respectful quiet, contemplative moment where voices not as loud as your own can be heard and fully considered. And it’s certainly no excuse to further expand the distances and volume of the voices from within the hierarchies of this expanding secular community with anger and insults.

Watsons world
Even if I thought for a moment that Rebecca’s post critiquing Ron Linsay’s opening remarks at WiS2 was in the slightest bit dishonest, it would still be no excuse to compare her to a combative foreign land while insinuating she is irrational. Mere hours earlier Lindsay was attempting to argue the use of tone and the potential silencing that can be caused by language choices in conversations from within the secular community.

Before I sign out on this post I just want to give an example of the type of thing that I try to do from my slight position of privilege in this community.

When I was invited to speak at the Women in Secularism 2 conference; I didn’t have to buy a ticket. I could have just been content with that fact and gone on my merry little way but I am also (at times) observant. I knew that not everyone could afford to purchase conference tickets, as I would not have been able to when I was younger as shown up in that photo at the top of the post. I also noticed a lack of diversity at last year’s event. Not coincidentally, the need for diversity in secularism being one of the reasons why this particular conference is held. Last year at WiS it was pointed out that there were not many men in attendance in the audience. It’s true. I noticed that too. And so I did something rather simple from my perspective to change that fact the following year, and many of the readers on this blog helped me. (Thank you again.) I used my sometimes, loud voice to raise $1800 that was donated to CFI and used to pay the admission costs for nine men to attend the event. Normally, as many of you know, I raise money to send women to science conferences because they are the ones often underrepresented at public events, but in this particular instance I realized there was a need for something different. I listened, I reevaluated my actions and made a slight modification to my normal behavior to make a difference in a positive way.

Now, imagine if everyone from a place of power would agree to make a few small changes while taking the time to listen to the voices that are, as of today, not as loud as theirs.

*featured image of me back in the day in art school.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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51 Comments

  1. Well said, Amy. Thank you.

    And it was a great idea to send those nine men to WiS. It was really heartening to see how many pro-feminist men there are out there, especially when the anti-feminists are so loud and those who can’t be bothered to learn where they stand hold such visible positions in the atheist community.

  2. I really, really don’t get this concept of ‘checking your privilege’. I’m a white, straight, able-bodied, English male, with a university education and an IQ that puts me in about the top 2% of all people. I’ve got privilege coming out of my frickin’ ears and I’ve always been insanely aware of how much worse it could be and how squarely and ridiculously I’ve landed on my feet, comparatively speaking. I’ve spent most of last decade complaining about how fucking unfair that is and doing my damnedest to be honest about the staggering levels of inequality that I exist everywhere in our society.
    From what I can gather, this whole idea argues that your footing on the social ladder necessarily distorts your picture of human equality. But for the secular community, who so ardently champion reason, such an implication should be frankly embarrassing. Reason, logic, empiricism – these devices exist to help us circumvent and overrule our natural persuasion towards personal experience and intuition. If you’re using them properly then you should be thinking objectively and, if your doing that, other factors about your personal circumstances should be independent of your the facts you’re relaying and cries of ‘check your privilege’ thus reduced to the empty ad hominems they are.
    Reason and skepticism are supposed to enable us to discuss the issues of our reality independently of our selves. If a mass-murdering socio-path devises the cure for cancer, it’s no less a cure for cancer because it came from him and if a rich, white man makes a valid and meaningful comment about black ghettos in America, it’s made no less so by his social standing – can they back up what they’re saying, that should be the only question to anyone’s mind. Maybe I’ve got the definition all wrong here, But, frankly, I think debate ought to be conducted with complete anonymity until people get smarter.

    1. You do have the definition all wrong.

      I’m pretty similar to you: white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, male, American, well-educated, and with interests and talents that my society values, allowing me to pursue a career that I find personally fulfulling that also allows me to support myself. Other than being attractive, charismatic, or born into wealth, I can’t think of many privileges I *don’t* have. For people like us, recognizing the fact of our privilege is a great first step. Recognizing that things should be more equitable is the next step. But that’s not enough to really open our eyes to what’s going on.

      Being on this website, you’re probably familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect, that people unskilled in certain cognitive tasks also lack the skills necessary to evaluate their own lack of skill, erroneously concluding that they’re more skilled than they are. The cognitive consequences of privilege are actually very similar. In this case, I can be completely aware that I’m privileged, and that others have had life experiences different from my own. But if I don’t actually listen to other people when they tell me the details of their experiences, then I still lack the ability to evaluate whether my own decision-making is adequately taking their experiences into account. For example, I might be aware that women and other minorities are oppressed by explicitly sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. people and institutions. But I might be completely unaware that some aspects of my own behavior also contribute to the problem, even if I don’t intend it. The phrase “check your privilege” reads to me as “stop, listen, and think” — the speaker is trying to tell me that my behavior is displaying ignorance of his/her less privileged experience.

      Rather than “this whole idea argues that your footing on the social ladder necessarily distorts your picture of human equality,” the notion of privilege acknowledges what should be the fairly uncontroversial point that all of us are limited in our experience, No matter how reasonable, logical, or empirical we are, we can’t reason about information we don’t have, and our own privilege is one of many barriers to critically examining our own and others’ experiences. Rather than being at odds with secular values and skeptical methods, the concept of privilege is actually a great complement to them, even an integral part of a rational worldview.

      The point goes beyond even some notion of the “social ladder.” Everyone (or nearly enough) has some aspect of their experience which is privileged, and a lack of privilege due to, say, race, doesn’t in any way imply an understanding of what it’s like to lack privilege due to, say, sex. And being aware of your privilege in some domains doesn’t necessarily imply awareness in other domains. For example, in the liberal, middle class society I move in, privilege associated with race is generally widely acknowledged, as it is for sex, though perhaps somewhat less so (because of the myth that sexism is “solved”). But class is a whole different issue. Many of my friends who would never make a joke about race will happily joke about “hillbillies,” for example. Their class privilege is so complete that they don’t even recognize that they are dismissing the experiences of a whole group of people based on where they were born and how they were raised. This kind of situation is exactly when “check your privilege” is useful.

      So far from being an ad hominem to dismiss an argument, “check your privilege” is (or should be) an invitation to re-examine your assumptions, and make sure you really understand where the person you’re speaking with is coming from before you progress further on potentially shaky ground.

      1. And being secular or atheist or a skeptic does not mean that you are going to be perfect, or always rational, or always make the right rational decision or choice, or whatever.

        This idea that we are somehow better than other people, more advanced than other people, that we are immune to the same bullshit that other people are? THAT is what is embarrassing!

    2. From what I can gather, this whole idea argues that your footing on the social ladder necessarily distorts your picture of human equality. But for the secular community, who so ardently champion reason, such an implication should be frankly embarrassing.

      Being secular or atheist or a skeptic in no way makes you immune to being a freakin’ human being.

      1. No, it doesn’t, but, of course, that is not what I said, is it? Strawmen and ad hominems? This isn’t going very well for you. The point is that reason is indifferent to our human errs and that’s why we use it, because whether or not we like it, a rock will always be a rock.

        1. It is in no way embarrassing to admit that being on the social ladder necessarily CHANGES your perceptions. I don’t know why you keep saying “human equality” when we’re talking about privilege. They are related but not similar. It is not embarrassing to admit that your place in life colors your point of view. It’s just common fucking sense. And no matter how rational you TRY to be, you are still human being. There is no way even the most rational human being can separate themselves like you keep insisting. It’s not possible. We’re highly imperfect creatures, even the very best of us!

          1. I’ve used the phrase “human equality” once and that was in the original post. What the hell are you twaddling on about?

            I think most human beings are capable of being reasoned with. That is: to be shown the facts of situation and to be able to acknowledge them. People have been doing this for a very long time. It doesn’t take a superhuman preponderance of reasoning ability like you keep insisting, just a touch of humility.

    3. If you’re using them properly then you should be thinking objectively and, if your doing that, other factors about your personal circumstances should be independent of your the facts you’re relaying and cries of ‘check your privilege’ thus reduced to the empty ad hominems they are.

      Also, what does this even mean? What a bunch of word salad that has no actual meaning.

      And one more thing: Just because you are aware of your privilege does not mean you’re immune to it or its effects or consequences.

      WHY do you think you’re IMMUNE to your privilege just because you (claim) to be aware of it?

      Your clearly overly inflated sense of self worth is telling, and does not in any way indicate to me that you are, actually, aware of your own privilege. Just ‘cuz you say so does not make it so.

      I am suspicious of your motives and your sincerity.

      1. You have questioned my writing style (word salad) my sincerity and my motives, made unfair assumptions (WHY do you think you’re IMMUNE), made an innuendo [(claim)], berated me (overly inflated sense of self worth) and addressed absolutely none of the points I raised. The only thing you need to ‘check’ is your attitude.

          1. “and projecting like fucking hell”.
            Bang on accurate Marilove, accusing you of being the troll nails it.
            Also, in case anybody is in doubt,. I agree with everything else you have been saying in this thread

  3. Thanks for this post. The post has helped me distinguish what privilege is not. This is something that I have been grappling with and was not coming to an answer on. Until reading this I just could not work out the distinction between tough times and being underprivileged. (And just because a person is underprivileged in some ways does not mean they are not privileged in other very important ways and I now know that.) I think I understand better where the other ‘side’ is coming from on this issue. It is easy to say hey I have had it hard too. But that is not what we are talking about when we are talking about privileged. It is important to know the difference because this thinking is extremely condescending and ultimately hurtful. (I am sorry to hear about Amy’s tough times though. Ugg sad, I am glad things have gotten better.)

  4. Well said. Again, I want to thank you (and the donors) who made it possible for me to be there last weekend. I had a wonderful time, made some new friends, and learned a fair bit. I hope there is another one next year, and if there is I hope to be there again. Hopefully my financial situation will improve so I can be there on my own steam.

  5. Reason and skepticism are supposed to enable us to discuss the issues of our reality independently of our selves.

    Also, what?! No. I out-right reject that.

    You know what I’m tired of? People saying “reason and skepticism are supposed to….” and then they come up with some weird, psuedo-philosophical bullshit, with nothing at all to support it.

    The irony is just AMAZING.

    I am very much hoping you’re a slympitter attempting a troll. A very, very bad one.

    1. “You know what I’m tired of?” Is a good example of someone assuming their personal experience has some intrinsic, factual basis. I could tell you that I’m tired of things breaking every time I drop them, but no amount of complaint on my part will change the laws of gravity and even if I call gravity ‘pseudo-scientific bullshit’ without offering a single word by way of explanation, it still won’t change things. The truth is I can simply accept that things fall and sometimes break (rational) or I can ignore it and complain some more (irrational).

  6. @Blogeo I think I do understand where you’re coming from, particularly with respect to how certain substrata of inequality are given less importance than others – class versus race, for example – and how that might lead one to unintentionally contribute to a status quo they’re otherwise opposed to. However, I don’t see how privilege should prevent a person from ‘listening to the details’ put forward by another.

    What I’m hearing seems to imply something almost patronizing: that we should listen more carefully to those we consider underprivileged because their voices are weaker or less assertive somehow and that their ‘experience’ – which is to say, their anecdotal accounts – should be given extra gravity or attention. I think if I argued the opposite and said ‘check your underprivilege’, I wouldn’t be speaking facetiously. Personal experience, however stratified in terms of ‘privilege’, is equally subject to bias and this is why I would never volunteer personal anecdote to support an idea, because I know the way I saw things might not be the way everyone else did.

    Many people living in desperate circumstances justify their own behaviour in terms of their personal experience – all the looters that ran-sacked London last year did just this, in explicit terms and people living all over the world do this everyday. We will give undue gravity to our own experience in order to justify an action that might be otherwise contemptible and that is a very human sort of self-deception. How many hours have been spent explaining to children that ‘he hit me first’ is not a justification for hitting someone else.

    This is why divorcing ourselves and our personal experiences from these sort of debates is so crucial, because we can so easily be lead astray by our intuitive sense of the world. It’s how the world of science operates: when a Swiss patent clerk claimed to have re-written Newton’s laws on gravity, no one talked about privilege, they just took his claims to task. And societal issues are no less subject to rational examination.

    The ‘privilege’ of British Muslim women, for example, arguably obfuscates their ability to understand how their religious views, perpetuated from the comfort and safety of the first world, contribute to the suffering and enslavement of their sisters in the third world. But that doesn’t mean one Iranian woman’s account of unspeakable suffering in Tehran, first hand as it may be, should suddenly change everything. Any more than one London woman’s account of unimpeachable respect and equality under the same religion, should be justification to ignore it. Personal testimony is subject to bias and interpretation on the part of the speaker and emotional sway on the part of the listener. Taken in context, either or both viewpoints might be wholly understated or a complete exaggeration, but taken in context, the ‘privilege’ of either party needn’t come into it: the truth is simply what can be demonstrated.

    I know that, as human beings, we’re hard-wired to respond to stories – to be compelled by the suffering and struggles of individuals, in the way that were not inclined to by the statistical observances of hundreds or millions. We prefer an entire people’s struggles to be personified by just a handful and to give full weight and credit to the reiteration of those experiences – we’ve all heard of the expression ‘poster child’. ‘Checking your privilege’ is to pay unnecessary deference to this neurological predisposition and I don’t think it adds anything.

    If it means: try looking at this from someone else’s position, then that’s a good thing, but don’t phrase it an innuendo that implies some sense of obligatory guilt, because in a lot of cases people will feel attacked when their personal circumstances and credibility are brought into question. This will then provoke them to move to a defense of themselves rather than of their position, derailing the logical basis of the argument. And this is the very definition of an ad hominem.

    In short, people shouldn’t be ‘checking their privilege’, they should be checking their facts.

    1. Matthew, I wish I could take the time to unpack everything you wrote, but I’m afraid I’m a bit rushed today, so I’ll have to just address some of the highlights.

      You are right that privilege shouldn’t prevent a person from listening to the details of others’ experiences, but the simple fact is it often does. I’d encourage you to do some research on this, as there’s a wealth of sociological research and other analysis on the topic. I’m no expert, but you could look up people like Deborah Tannen, who studies differences in communication styles between men and women in our culture, or Bernice Sandler, who analyzes these differences primarily in the workplace. And it is not that the voices of people who are underprivileged are intrinsically weaker, but they do not have the amplifier of being supported by our dominant cultural narrative. When I talk about many aspects of my experience, I have the reasonable expectation that others have heard something like it before, because it is repeated constantly, on television, movies, in fiction, on the news, etc. To use a simple analogy from my own experience: the first time I left the United States for travel, I was a teenager, and there was a presidential election in progress. I saw news stories in the foreign press talking about the two major candidates in a manner that clearly assumed their audience was familiar with them and with the process of U.S. presidential elections at a relatively sophisticated level, comparable to what would be expected of an American high school student. At the same time, as an American, I had absolutely no idea who the local major political actors were or how their elections worked. Obviously, I could assume that most people I talked to abroad would know basically how my government worked, while I knew nothing about theirs. Being privileged is a bit like that.

      I agree that social issues are subject to rational analysis. However, science is not the only form of rational analysis, and this is a point that I think is often missed by members of the skeptical community. Yes, science is our most reliable path to objective provisional knowledge. But it is a slow, conservative, and somewhat meandering process. When setting policy, or when simply deciding how we’re going to interact with other people, we usually have to make decisions before the weight of scientific evidence is in. And science is only as good as the questions it asks — if the scientists are led astray by unexamined cultural biases, then they will be incapable of doing good science (see, for example, research on racial differences in intelligence from the early 20th century). Plus, if the question at hand is, “is there a systematic problem with gender/race/class/etc in our society,” it seems absurd to demand that we do a scientific study to answer this question. The fact that every female colleague that I’ve talked to about the topic has told me stories of experiencing sexual harassment in a professional setting is enough for me to recognize that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. And had I not “checked my privilege” and paid attention, I wouldn’t necessarily have access to these stories (or if you prefer to depersonalize it, “data”).

      Finally, if your major objection to the phrase is that the wording makes you feel like the speaker thinks you should feel guilty, I can only say, get over it. We don’t always get to choose the lingo that becomes commonplace; if I were king of the English language, I probably would have decreed that some other pithy phrase be the one that people use, but “check your privilege” is what people say. You don’t have to use it, but don’t insist that a person saying it to you intends to shut down your arguments by making you feel guilty. That’s not the way people use it. If that’s really your major objection, then we really have no disagreement over substance, only over semantics.

      1. Can I just say thank you for this! It’s spot on. I would only add that I reject the idea of “underprivileged” (a concept you did not introduce into this conversation)–there are those who are privileged and those who aren’t. They are not underprivileged–they are non-privileged.

        Thanks for taking the time to post this. I hope you’ll stick around for a long, long time. =)

      2. Hi Blogeo, thanks for taking the time to reply, I appreciate it. People like you make the internet better :D!

        I will look into the Deborah Tannen and Bernice Sadler and the other sources from the first paragraph and get back to you when I’m better informed. As for the second paragraph, I have to make a small objection:

        You said: “I agree that social issues are subject to rational analysis. However, science is not the only form of rational analysis,”. I absolutely agree with that and if you look above, you’ll see I never used the word ‘science’. The closest I came was ‘demonstrable’, implying a level empiricism, though at the same time many things can be deemed logically demonstrable independent of evidence – the classic, ‘there’s no such thing as a married bachelor’ comes to mind. So I think we can agree on that.

        Also too, I agree that a lot of this debate does rest on asking the right questions, though again, as I said above, the best means by which to circumvent our natural biases is to employ rationalism and skepticism – to do way with assumptions (ie. those about the inferiority or superiority of certain racial groups or, indeed, about the experiences of others – checking your privilege) and to follow the reasoning where it leads.

        My final objection is what you say at the end about ‘getting over’ the terminology. Honestly, that’s a bit ridiculous, especially considering the nature of the debate: equality. A whole branch of the ‘Check Your Privilege’ ethos regards the language we use and how it might inadvertently affect others. The sort of people who casually use terms like ‘slut’, would probably offer up a similar defense for their choice of words – ‘it’s just a word, get over it’. Honestly, I would expect better. And that comparison highlights something about this whole discussion which has been bothering me.

        You said: “…privilege shouldn’t prevent a person from listening to the details of others’ experiences, but the simple fact is it often does.” Imagine I rephrased that: ‘being part of an ethnic minority shouldn’t prevent a person from leading a law abiding life, but the simple fact is it so often does’ or ‘feminity shouldn’t prevent a person from being able to service a motor vehicle, but the simple fact is it so often does’.

        As you’ve phrased it, the whole concept of ‘Checking Your Privilege’ aims to combat our assumptive nature by making an assumption about our nature: a lack of first-hand experience of a particular hardship deafens us to those hardships as experienced by others. Phrasing it that way, the comparison to the Dunning-Kruger effect becomes more clear. Yet, it ignores our very human capacity for empathy – our ability to synthesize the experiences of another for ourselves by their testimony alone (ever found your heart racing when you were reading a novel, as you shared in the emotions and fears of the character?).

        The things you’ve highlighted here as being symptoms of ‘privilege’, such as your friends making jokes about ‘hillbillies’, is a symptom of nothing other than ignorance, willful or unwitting, and it’s is nothing new. Your travels abroad demonstrated your own ignorance of foreign political systems. It’s something you can choose to accept or even champion as some people seem to, or if it concerns you, it’s something you can correct.

        There are many reasons why one person may not ‘listen to’ or, at least, properly understand another: arrogance, distrust, dis-interest, apathy, lethargy, intoxication, distraction, indignancy or outrage, a lack of competence, embarrassment, offense, contempt, convenience, inconvenience, agenda, prejudice, incoherence (including language barriers), inaudibility, indistinction (from a crowd of many voices), insult, interpretation, misinterpretation, religious or political avowals… exhaustive as that list appears to be, I daresay there’s a whole load more I couldn’t think of. And none of these factors are contingent on an individual’s position of privilege, in fact they’re totally independent of it. Nor do they reflect on a person’s ability to empathize with another, in their struggles or their successes.

        The concept of ‘Checking Your Privilege’ as you’ve described it, is entirely anathema to reasonable discourse in so far as it makes an unsupportable generalization about our nature and a bizarre circumscription on our capacity to empathize with others. It’s terms are divisive, unnecessarily direct (‘your’ privilege) and, it seems, deliberately provocative – if the only rebuttal to that charge is that we should ‘get over it’ (and thereby have it implied that we are being petty) then it reinforces it’s combative nature only further and it’s safe to assume that this concept is only likely to present an obstacle to reasonable debate rather than a catalyst for it.

        As a parting thought, Abraham Lincoln once said of slavery: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” A white, straight, able-bodied, western man who also happens to be the President of The United States of America probably has about as much privilege as any man at any time and particularly within his own time. Yet, he manages a simple yet remarkable thing: he understands that he would not wish to be a slave himself and therefore would not wish to be one who kept others as such – empathy, in it’s simplest form. He didn’t waste time checking his privilege, instead he used it and he achieved something with it. You might argue that he could never know exactly how it felt to be abducted from your native land and set to work on foreign shores for cruel and capricious masters. To be beaten, flogged, starved and spat on. But that didn’t stop him from recognizing it was wrong and doing what was in his power to change that – it’s that attitude and not any sense of privilege that makes the difference.

        1. As you’ve phrased it, the whole concept of ‘Checking Your Privilege’ aims to combat our assumptive nature by making an assumption about our nature: a lack of first-hand experience of a particular hardship deafens us to those hardships as experienced by others.

          No, it is not making an assumption about our nature. It is pointing to the real phenomenon of unawareness of advantages bestowed by society. It is not “natural” to be unaware of the ways that we benefit from social structures, we are socialized in those ways because of the particular kinds of societies we live in. When we do not benefit from the structures, we can more easily recognize when others do.

          I do not agree with your attempt to re-define privilege as a blindness to the hardship others experience. Privilege is the unearned advantages bestowed upon members of certain social groups. Privilege may make us unaware, but privilege is not the unawareness itself, it’s the advantages.

          You said: “…privilege shouldn’t prevent a person from listening to the details of others’ experiences, but the simple fact is it often does.” Imagine I rephrased that: ‘being part of an ethnic minority shouldn’t prevent a person from leading a law abiding life, but the simple fact is it so often does’ or ‘feminity shouldn’t prevent a person from being able to service a motor vehicle, but the simple fact is it so often does’.

          Those things are not comparable. The two analogies you gave are stereotypes–privilege is not a stereotype. Privilege does often prevent people from listening to the details of non-privileged people’s experiences for the simple fact that listening to the experiences of non-privileged people means you have to examine the ways in which you’ve benefited from a system that is stacked in your favor. This is not something most people with privilege want to do because it means acknowledging benefiting from inequality.

          The things you’ve highlighted here as being symptoms of ‘privilege’, such as your friends making jokes about ‘hillbillies’, is a symptom of nothing other than ignorance, willful or unwitting, and it’s is nothing new.

          First, you can stop with the scare quotes. Privilege is a real phenomenon supported by the social sciences. Second, for all your talk about making assumptions, I find it quite ironic that you then go on to make an assumption about the reasons behind their friends making jokes about hillbillies. How do you know it is a symptom of ignorance and not a symptom of privilege? How do you know it is not both?

          There are many reasons why one person may not ‘listen to’ or, at least, properly understand another: arrogance, distrust, dis-interest, apathy, lethargy, intoxication, distraction, indignancy or outrage, a lack of competence, embarrassment, offense, contempt, convenience, inconvenience, agenda, prejudice, incoherence (including language barriers), inaudibility, indistinction (from a crowd of many voices), insult, interpretation, misinterpretation, religious or political avowals… exhaustive as that list appears to be, I daresay there’s a whole load more I couldn’t think of. And none of these factors are contingent on an individual’s position of privilege, in fact they’re totally independent of it. Nor do they reflect on a person’s ability to empathize with another, in their struggles or their successes.

          This is just disingenuous bullshit. Of course there are many reasons why people will not listen. Privilege is one of them. No one has said “the only reason people never listen is privilege.” What has been said–and what you clearly are resistant to accepting–is that privilege is a common reason why the experiences of marginalized peoples are ignored or dismissed.

          The concept of ‘Checking Your Privilege’ as you’ve described it, is entirely anathema to reasonable discourse in so far as it makes an unsupportable generalization about our nature and a bizarre circumscription on our capacity to empathize with others.

          There you go again, making assumptions! Privilege, as I said previously, is not about “our nature.” Why do you insist on making things about human nature? Empathy is not something that everyone is good at or even tries to do. You seem to be making the assumption that all people are equally empathetic by virtue of being a human being. We are socialized to be more or less empathetic towards different people and different events and issues. This is clearly demonstrated by looking at the different ways people empathize with animals, for example.

          It’s terms are divisive, unnecessarily direct (‘your’ privilege) and, it seems, deliberately provocative – if the only rebuttal to that charge is that we should ‘get over it’ (and thereby have it implied that we are being petty) then it reinforces it’s combative nature only further and it’s safe to assume that this concept is only likely to present an obstacle to reasonable debate rather than a catalyst for it.

          I’m not sure how familiar you are with derailing tactics used against marginalized peoples, but we call this a tone argument. Basically, you’re arguing that the concept of “check your privilege” will create hurt feefees and because it’s offensive to those with privilege that it should not be used. The problem with this is that, once again, it absolves the person with privilege of having to do the hard work and demands that marginalized people “be nice” in the face of their marginalization and oppression. You’re essentially saying “be nice or I won’t listen.” And, my friend, that is the epitome of what we’re talking about. Privilege gives you the benefit of not having to listen to marginalized peoples, so you have the ability to walk away from a conversation because it makes you uncomfortable or hurts your feelings. Marginalized people don’t have the option of walking away from their marginalization.

          He didn’t waste time checking his privilege, instead he used it and he achieved something with it.

          And how do you think he arrived at that conclusion? Hmm, maybe it was by “wasting time” thinking about it? Before a person can use their privilege to the benefit of others, they had to have spent time thinking about it and, dare I say, checking their privilege. And also, I’m not entirely sure Abraham Lincoln is the greatest example to use here.

          1. “I do not agree with your attempt to re-define privilege…”

            I didn’t attempt to. I was discussing the concept of ‘checking your privilege’. You appear to agree with my definition of said concept that privilege distorts our ability to properly understand the experiences of others. What I rejected was the assertion that privilege inevitably leads to such things.

            “Privilege does often prevent people from listening to the details of non-privileged people’s experiences for the simple fact that listening to the experiences of non-privileged people means you have to examine the ways in which you’ve benefited from a system that is stacked in your favor.”

            I’m not arguing for a moment that the benefits of inequality aren’t a bitter pill to swallow for those who benefit most from them, but to deny obvious facts (like the labour extortion that builds our smartphones, for example) isn’t about privilege, it’s about simple dishonesty or willful self-deception.

            “I find it quite ironic that you then go on to make an assumption about the reasons behind their friends making jokes about hillbillies.”

            I didn’t, Blogeo explained it: “they don’t even recognize that they are dismissing the experiences of a whole group of people based on where they were born and how they were raised.” To not recognize and dismiss the experience of others based on social circumstances strikes me as a form of prejudice and ignorance.

            “Of course there are many reasons why people will not listen. Privilege is one of them.”

            No, it’s not. If we take what you said about about not wanting to “have to examine the ways in which you’ve benefited from a system that is stacked in your favor’ then we can say that that person is choosing not listen because it is more convenient to them, or possibly because it embarrasses them or maybe it outrages them. It is their emotional bias overriding facts that they’d rather not have to face up to and this is no different in any way shape or form from religious people ignoring the conclusions of science or philosophy when choosing to believe in prayer, miracles, angels, heaven, god or a literal seven day creation.

            Emotional bias derails reason, ergo, to be reasonable, honest and skeptical even about the outrageous benefits we so clearly reap from the rampant inequality that funds the destructive society we all live in is an act of simple honesty and is contingent on nothing more than an individual’s integrity. Privilege and dishonesty share no logical co-dependency.

    1. Well, it doesn’t shock me to see that you had nothing more interesting to add on the topic and instead decided to carry on name calling. You see, Blogeo (above) was good enough to enter into a reasonable discourse and say constructive things which I was happy to respond to, why you had to be such a petulant child is beyond me… if you’ve nothing useful to say, the best thing is not to say anything at all.

  7. But anecdotes aren’t data–thorough surveys and ginormous spreadsheets are. And it’s THOSE that I listen to. The pay disparities between sexes, the incidence of sexual abuse, the number of cabs that pass the average person of color. Biogeo, Matthew, I’m sort of addressing both of you, because you each make some methodological errors–Biogeo jumps ahead of the science when xe doesn’t need to, and Matthew really, truly isn’t paying attention to the facts. Throwing out the scientific method is the absolute worst thing we could possibly be doing right now, because that’s what we’re all about–and it IS on our side, if you… all together now… check your privilege and do your research!

    1. This kind of thing annoys me. Anecdotes can be data depending upon the question being asked. If the question is “how do you experience racism/sexism/homophobia/ableism/etc.?” then yes, anecdotes do serve as data.

      1. Yes, and if somebody says “all x is y” and you are y but not x, then you can falsify the statement.
        If the debate continues in good faith, it often emerges that we are talking about subtly different things.
        I find that informative and interesting.

        1. *sigh*

          Do you think witness testimony is the same thing as asking someone about their own experiences with prejudice? Do you really not see a distinction? Do you also want to draw on legal standards for evidence over empiricism?

          I didn’t say “anecdotes are THE BEST DATA EVER” or even “THE MOST RELIABLE DATA EVER.” I said, depending upon the questions one is asking, anecdotes can serve as data.

          1. The point is that personal testimony and anecdote are wildly subject to bias and interpretation, both by the exponent and the recipient(s), and, in an overwhelming number of cases completely unverifiable. In fact, multiple accounts of the same incidents or experiences may be relayed completely differently and the question of accuracy between these accounts is completely irreconcilable, making the data useless.

            You’re right though, anecdote can serve as data, but as you’ve also implied, there are more reliable forms of data and it would be those I would look to when making decision about a social policy which would implicate hundred of thousands of people.

          2. I know what you’re saying about testimony–it’s a non sequitur. I was correcting the comment that “anecdotes aren’t data.” That is untrue. And, depending upon the type of questions, they CAN be reliable data. I am not implying that they are never reliable or that there are always more reliable forms. So, once more with feeling: it depends upon the questions being asked.

            And I don’t really know why you’re saying anecdotes are subject to interpretation–all data is subject to interpretation. Data has no meaning outside of a theoretical framework through which to interpret it. The best approach for social policy is not a strictly quantitative approach, but a mixed methods approach that gets at both the breadth and depth of the issue being investigated. Quantitative is better at getting at the “what” and qualitative is better at getting at the “why.”

        2. This is flatly untrue. You probably are thinking of “eyewitness testimony” and problems with its reliability in identification in criminal cases. “Witness testimony” is by no means considered inherently unreliable, and sometimes is considered VERY reliable evidence – for example, a confession is “witness testimony”.

          1. You’re thinking about the same thing: ‘witness’ and ‘eyewitnesses’ fall under the same bracket, unless on of your witnesses is blind. Confession is commonly a suspect form of witness testimony as it can be used for legal manipulation (as in looking for a reduction in sentence) and/or to protect a known guilty party or accomplice (a loved one for example).

    2. I’m actually really interested in this argument and being on the most reasonable, informed side of it I can, so when I ask this, I mean it sincerely: can you tell me which facts you think I’m not paying attention to?

    3. This comment makes absolutely no sense. A spreadsheet isn’t “data” – it’s a means of organizing data. And “surveys” are simply collections of anecdotes.

      What you might have been thinking of is the phrase “the plural of anecdote is not data”. That, by the way, doesn’t mean personal experiences are worthless; it is a caution against extrapolating incorrectly from a small and biased sample size.

  8. There are many things I have learned in my life. There are many beliefs which I now hold which I did not previously hold. And amazingly enough, at each point when I was made any kind of cognitive leap, I was listening, not talking.

  9. Very thoughtful post. I think that there are some honest objections, albeit misguided ones, to the notion of “check your privilege” and “shut up and listen”, but it seems to me that those people are just misunderstanding the concepts. Posts like these go a long way towards getting the real point across. It’s too bad that there seem to be people who are so determined to be offended that they probably won’t ever read it.

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