Okay, it's taken me a while to fully formulate my thoughts, but here is my best try. When I was around 14 or 15, I would have thought "I don't have the perfect life, I’ve worked hard for the things I have, why should I get called out on something I don’t believe I’ve been a part of?” After learning about social constructionist theory and going to a Jesuit university that focuses on social justice, though, I realized that this isn’t about people on an individual level, it’s about the big picture and how our society both overtly and covertly discriminates against different groups of people.
In reality, the simple statement of “check your privilege” is nothing compared to the “discomfort” that marginalized people face on a daily basis, and the fact that you feel perhaps a little discomfort or a little guilt is not the worst thing in the world. POC are tracked in stores and racially profiled by the police. Women don’t feel safe to walk alone at night and are also blamed for the rapes that are committed against them. Trans people have to make the decision whether or not to go into the bathroom of either their biological sex or their gender because people may react to them negatively, even violently. Same sex couples don’t get the privilege to freely kiss or show any public signs of affection in some parts of the country.
The reason that I have to “check my privilege” on the regular is because I don’t have to worry about getting extra security at the airport because of my religion. Because I’m white, I generally don’t have to worry about people calling me “surprisingly eloquent” in a patronizing tone, and because I am white, there is little to no chance that one of my (too recent) ancestors was lynched by a mob. Because I’m straight I don’t have to go to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to marry. Yeah, I do have some marginalization because I’m a woman, but I experience those issues every day. On the other hand, it is important for me to check my privilege to understand the prejudices that others experience that I don’t even really have to be aware of. I'll probably even have said something in this post that needs to be checked because of my privilege.
It shouldn’t be up to women, POC, LGBTQ peoples, disabled peoples, etc. to have to explain why you should check your privilege, but it is another privilege you have that they do have to explain. You live in a society that overwhelmingly supports, nay celebrates, the ideal white, heterosexual, Christian, cisgender man. Just look at any television show, any news network, any Hollywood movie. If real life were like that, 90% of Americans would be handsome, white, masculine men. This vision is “the norm,” and any other person that is not this ideal person is marginalized and faces discrimination. In order to counter this and to have a society that is truly equal for all peoples, it is important that we call out privilege and ask people to look from a different perspective.
You say that you are progressive, so would you like to be an ally? Most people would love if you were an ally, but here’s the thing about being an ally, you have to understand how your background and experiences differ from those in marginalized communities. You have to be willing to give up control over the situation and collaborate fully with those around you, letting them take the lead. Let them speak in their language. And guess what one of the most important things to being an ally is? Regularly checking your privilege. Whether it’s when you laugh at a racially based joke and your Latina friend doesn’t; whether it’s when you just don’t understand why your female friend doesn’t want to tell her real name to guys at bars; whether it’s when you accidentally refer to your trans friend by the wrong pronoun, it is critical to self-evaluate and check your privilege as often as you can.
Sound like a lot of work? Yeah, well it is. But in the words of Audre Lourde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Doing what’s always been done won’t get us anywhere. Trying not to offend or enlighten does NOTHING to help dismantle privilege, but instead allows it to continue. Reminding allies to check their privilege is part of being an activist, and it is vital for allies to take checking privilege to heart. In the end, is there really any difference between an openly bigoted Fox News analyst and someone who claims to be race/gender/sex/religion-blind so no white man is never offended? Both continue the cycle of marginalization, and both do nothing give space to the voices of the oppressed.
Marissa is a senior English and Women's and Gender Studies double major. She hopes to complete a year of service after she graduates from SCU.