Checking Privilege Checking

The implications of privilege, and its checking.

Privilege is the advantage(s) that a person or group has over others.

There is such a thing as privilege. To read this itself presumes a great deal of privilege. Firstly, to be able to read, presumably the result of being educated, perhaps that too in English, arguably the most powerful (in terms of where it can take you) language. Then to be able to afford a device as well as internet connectivity. To have sufficient leisure to spend time on this. And perhaps, to be capable of comprehending it. To write this presumes an even greater privilege.

There are, I’m sure, millions without some of – or even all of – the above advantages. And hence the idea of privilege, the fact that the starting line isn’t the same, and there are millions who lack what you or I might take for granted, or even consider essential. Privilege is, after all, relative. The ‘problem’, such as it is, isn’t that I possess nice things; it’s that others don’t. Presumably, in a world where everyone had access to good food and clean water and fast internet, these wouldn’t be privileges. In the communist utopia, I imagine there would be no privilege whatsoever.

If the starting points are not the same, then the finishing points likely won’t be either. Imagine a race on a 400 metre track where people start at different points. One fellow starts off at the 300 metre mark, another begins a mile from the entrance of the stadium. It’s hardly surprising that they’ll finish at different points. To even think of comparing the finishing marks and drawing conclusions from this seems ludicrous.

The idea of ‘checking your privilege’, I think, is this idea that one should recognize their starting point presumably had an outsized effect in determining their present finishing point – that is, wherever they are currently. Before they pat themselves on the back (or let other’s pats get to their head) for getting into an prestigious school or landing a coveted job or raising funding for their company, they should, apparently, acknowledge all the advantages they were conferred.

Perhaps, taken to an extreme, they ought to accept that their achievement was entirely the credit of these privileges. Or equivalently, that a person’s achievements are entirely to luck. Or that someone else with those opportunities would have (and would want to have) reached their position.

Privilege isn’t only applicable to supposedly outsized achievements, however. Attitudes and behaviours, small and big, presume, and sometimes arise out of, privilege. The boy who can search for ‘meaningful’ work, or attempt to discover his ‘passion’, or quit an unfulfilling job, or spend years unsuccessfully attempting his own venture, acts in ways that are for him far easier than for the one burdened by poverty or responsibilities. It’s not that the latter can’t do what the former can, just that the cost to him is far greater. The carefree or outspoken chap perhaps can afford to be just that; his peer, who lacks the same network or security, might think twice before emulating him, his boring obsequiousness possibly partly stemming from this vulnerability.

To wish that privileges do not exist is futile. Equality itself is a pipe dream – I can’t imagine an average Scandinavian not possessing privileges vis-à-vis the average Palestinian or Afghan. Even were it not so, however, genetic gifts and handicaps remain, and there will always be privilege as long as humans are not clones. That a person has a natural flair for music or soccer or math, and I don’t, is, after all, an advantage, a privilege, in the very sense of the word. ‘Checking’ one’s privilege requires them to acknowledge, and almost apologize. for an advantage they had no say in.

That the privileged one had no say in the matter is the one fact you can’t escape from. To privilege check is too often to expect a person to feel guilty for something beyond their control, whether the colour of their skin, their Y chromosome, their nationality, or a natural talent. It seems beyond stupid, not to mention unhealthy, to burden myself with guilt for what is not in my hands.

Guilt, without acting on it, is in any case pointless, if not hypocritical. One who truly feels guilty would probably make amends to the unprivileged, or perhaps even renounce his privilege, which is, if possible, yet more idiotic. The fact that other people might not have my privilege does not imply that I must give up mine. The person who really believes that would sell their house to live on the streets because many others don’t have a roof over their heads.

If not guilt, the privilege checker often demands gratitude, or at least acknowledgment – as though another person’s gratitude or acknowledgment somehow matters to him. At least it’s better than demanding contrition, but it is still something to expect someone to be grateful for their ‘privilege’. Even that, I believe, is too much. As though I am someone to demand others to feel a particular way. As though someone has a responsibility to appear grateful because I expect gratitude from them. Whether they choose gratitude or not is their prerogative, and nothing to do with you or me. All that I achieve, with such an action, is to reveal my rank arrogance.

Nevertheless, such demands abound. This is attributable, to a large extent, I think, to the attempt to signal virtue. By raising the spectre of inequality in every discussion, I signal my own sensitivity, my fury at such travesties – and travesty it is, for who can deny it’s sad that many people can’t access privileges? An easy path to take the high moral ground – or shove someone on a lower moral turf – is to flaunt their privileges and urge them to check said privileges.

And this, in turn, stems from my desperation for attention, for relevance, that compels me to make everything, every story, about me. Whether an Elon Musk’s dad owned a mine or a Zuckerberg had a personal tutor who taught him to code, or that the kid who got into a top college or aced an exam or launched a successful company had an advantaged background – does it matter? Does, or should, anyone care? And is it anything to do with me?

Yet my attempt to somehow change the topic from their achievement to their privilege, what does it say about me? It reveals, for one, my hunger for relevance, that I need to try to appear virtuous, to somehow make this story that’s about someone else into something about me, my virtue and supposed self-awareness.

And, perhaps it exposes my insecurity even more strongly, in that I need to somehow ‘justify’ their achievement against my own lack of any. The easiest way to do that, is to somehow nullify their achievement, to convince myself, and others like me, that it doesn’t ‘count’. It doesn’t count because of their ‘privilege’. Their affluence or background or networks or natural talent somehow reduces the value of their accomplishment, and explains it away. Of course, it needs considerable mental gymnastics to ignore the fact that millions with similar privileges couldn’t achieve what they did. Not to mention that you could hardly blame them for what they had no say in, be it their family or genetics or wealth. Privilege isn’t always reducible to a cheat code that reduces the worth of achievement.

Idle riches – that is, privilege without achievement, without even any attempt at achievement – probably give privilege a bad name. And it’s understandable, and perhaps, not entirely undeserved. Privilege without doing anything with it is basically ‘chilling’, living the easy life. It’s the life of a Bertie Wooster – a person without any need, or desire, to work, who quite understandably doesn’t, wanting instead to simply ‘exist beautifully’. Or more ostentatiously, a billionaire’s trust fund baby, born to a fortune greater than what most will earn in their lifetime, for whom life is one exotic fling after another, untouched by the mundane worries plaguing plebians.

Such easy, comfortable privilege is equated with irresponsibility, though it is, after all, simply a lottery of fate, rather than the result of a person’s devious machinations. I’d think, that, regardless of what any authority may preach, one must concede that no one is obliged to work or strive if they needn’t. And so, when it comes to the one born with a silver spoon, you’re faced with two undeniable conclusions. The first is that the trust fund baby’s privilege is not of their choosing, and thus imparts them no blame. The second, that their lifestyle – which they did choose – is not the dereliction of a supposed duty, and thus, again, they bear no guilt for it. Yet, notwithstanding this, it’s difficult to imagine an idle silver spooner not inciting adverse reactions, either genuine or simply envy in disguise.

Why is that? Maybe it’s simply envy – wanting the free, easy life that someone else has and I don’t. That seems, I think, the simplest explanation. The other is a supposedly ‘moral’ reason, that life is stern and life is earnest, and it’s ‘wrong’ to fritter away the precious gift of life in indulgences. It’s difficult to guess how genuine such earnestness is, and how much is simply envy cloaked up in the guise of morality.

Assuming that such a feeling is genuine, is it – at least somewhat – reasonable? Not to the extent of castigating the one who does nothing with his privilege. But it is understandable insofar as you believe that privilege is – in addition to something highly desirable – also akin to a responsibility. It is, after all, far easier for those born to privilege to take risks, to aim high, to bear uncertainty. Whether it be pursuing a line of research for decades or starting a venture or standing up to someone, it’s easier for someone with wealth or connections or power than someone without. Turning this around, this is to say that – if you must expect something from someone – you would expect more from someone born to privilege.

And so, if you expect more from the privileged, perhaps not unreasonably, someone privileged might similarly expect more from themselves. It is in that sense that privilege is – or rather, can be – almost akin to a responsibility one takes upon oneself. One effect of privilege, I mentioned earlier, is that the starting points – which can be vastly unequal – play an outsized role in determining the finishing points, which may then be entirely different for different people. This is another effect of privilege, that a finishing point that someone might consider stupendous, as everything that could possibly be desired, could for another, be as nothing, leaving him entirely unsated. The fact that two people start at different points means not just that the points at which they end might be different; it means that even if they do end at the same point, that same point might be different for each of them.

A child born in a slum may feel justifiably accomplished earning a million dollars, but this same triumph might leave one born to wealth unfulfilled. The same feat, for two different people, then could be entirely different; for one, the very culmination of every dream, a journey’s end; for the other, only a beginning, far from a consummation of anything.

It’s easy to say that a person X ought to be happy because another person, Y, might be delighted to be where he is. It’s just as true, however, that Y might be delighted because he is just that – another person, that is, Y, and not X. For Y, what X has might indeed be everything he’d ever want, but that doesn’t mean that it must be the same for X.

That’s one reason privilege is not entirely negative. The runner starting off a mile ahead of his opponent will in all likelihood finish the race earlier, and that is not fair, and thus privilege – deservedly – gets a bad rap. In the same way, it is easier, and thus likelier, that someone bestowed with privilege can go further than another without those advantages. But the difference is that human existence is not a race that has a preordained finishing point where you stop and go no farther.

Indeed, the thing about privilege is that, very often – though not always – the frontrunner will want to go further, rather than stop and rest on his laurels. So, although it means inequity, that there is no common ending point for all, it does mean that some do go far out, and that, I think, benefits everyone. That takes you to the typical defence of inequity – that when it comes to inequity and innovation, you can’t have the one without the other. You can always lament that starting points aren’t equal – and I think it’s a genuine, if irresolvable matter – but to not acknowledge that some, by going further, benefit those of us who can’t or don’t, is disingenuous.

What this implies for checkers of privilege, I think, is that it’s enough to check your own privilege, instead of worrying about others. When I check your privilege, all I achieve is to reveal my insecurity about myself vis-à-vis you, or my envy of your accomplishment, or my desire to make the story about your achievement about myself instead, through the virtue that I attempt to signal. If truly none of these are my motives, and I really believe you ought to acknowledge your privilege, the question remains, does it matter, and if yes, why? That someone acknowledges their privilege or not, or, if pressed, pretends to, does it make any difference to me? That depends on whether you believe you can impart lessons in gratitude to people, whether they can absorb those lessons, and whether their doing so matters to you.

When I check my own privilege, on the other hand, it at least means there’s a possibility, if I’m so inclined, that I might do something with it. Or that I accept its role in determining my trajectory, and have a more accurate estimate of myself, and perhaps a more charitable one of others. And that, I think, might not be entirely worthless.