Everyone has heard it at least once: “Check your privilege.” This saying tends to get brushed off as soon as it’s spoken, simply because it is just misunderstood. But I think that, instead of brushing it off, we should be giving it the utmost consideration, as it is highly important to understand what privilege is and how to identify it. When you can do this, you will be better able to empathize with and support people who don’t have it.
So what is privilege?
There are several definitions, but the one most pertinent to this situation is, “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.” In the case of societal privilege, the benefits aren’t necessarily given out, but rather exist as a result of the conditions a person is born into. It doesn’t take much for a person to be underprivileged, but, as lack of privilege often leads to a seemingly insurmountable mountain of closed doors and limited opportunities, it can be exceedingly difficult to overcome. And while it is true that we all have struggles, the types of challenges and the amount of quality resources available to help combat them differs greatly depending on the amount of privilege each person has.
So how do I know what my privileges are?
Now that you know what privilege is, the next step is to identify what privileges you do and do not have. I am going to ask a series of yes or no questions pertaining to the some of the criteria for privilege in America. (This list is not all encompassing; it is merely a sampling.) The more times you answer “yes,” the more privilege you have. Here we go:
Are you white? Are you male? Are you straight? Do you identify as cisgender? Are you financially stable? Are you an American citizen? Are you Christian? Do you have a college education? Are you physically healthy? Are you mentally able?
So what should I do with the privilege I have?
The first thing you should do is understand that it’s okay to have privilege. You didn’t choose to have privilege any more than the person next to you chose to not have it. Your possession of privilege is simply your lot in life, and you certainly have the right to feel grateful for it. However, it also gives you the opportunity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and imagine what hoops people have to jump through to be successful if they have to answer “no” to all those questions. It means that they are more looked down on in society and less highly valued as individuals, simply because of their gender, the color of their skin, or their sexual orientation. This is where more privileged people come in. The more privileges you have, the more likely you are to be listened to and taken seriously, so you should use what you have to fight for the rights of the more marginalized, less privileged people. Because after all, more rights for others doesn’t mean fewer rights for you.
This is what it means when you are told to “check your privilege.” You are being told to consider where you fit on the privilege scale in relation to those around you and to care about those who are less fortunate. It is also a call to remember that these privilege hierarchies don’t have to be permanently embedded in the bedrock of society because you have the power to bring in the tide of change.