a, Opinion

The paradox of privilege

The phrase “check your privilege” has been bounced around a lot over the last year at McGill. Take the example of class. Suppose someone says something along the lines of “poor people need to work harder” and their peers will quickly remind them that they need to keep their “privilege in check.” From what I understand, the spirit of telling someone to “check their privilege” in these cases is to suggest that the way people view the world is often subjectively coloured by their socioeconomic background. I sympathize with that. It’s certainly true that where we grew up and the circumstances we come from can shape our political perspectives. So far so good? Maybe not. As valuable as it can be to acknowledge our biases, I think that this is far outweighed by the injustice of framing a person’s opinions as a product of their socio-economic status. If someone is   wrong, it is because they’re wrong, not because they have failed to “check their privilege.”

Sticking with the example of class, imagine the inverse situation. Someone says something along the lines of “to hell with rich people, they’re all a bunch of vultures,” then what? If the person in question comes from a working class background, then, according to the logic of “check your privilege” we should tell them to “check their poverty,” right? Of course, this is something you never hear anyone say, but it’s the implicit suggestion of the idea of “check[ing] your privilege.” It’s unfair to anyone, whether they come from ‘privilege’ or not, to judge their opinions simply on their socio-economic background. When we suggest that someone’s opinion is a reflection of their background, we also implicitly restrict viewpoints to being merely products of circumstance, rather than free, individual thought.

Our obsession with privilege has even greater ramifications. Another conversation I frequently hear in one form or another is the discussion of “where” people’s political opinions come from. In this regard, much of McGill students’ (and, admittedly, I spend most of my time around Arts students) discourse about political perspectives and career objectives comes across as a sort of ‘cleansing of family sins.’ What I mean here is when people frame their ambitions to work for some thankless, heroic job in a deprived area (e.g. the developing world or a poor neighbourhood) as “Well, I come from privilege, so I feel an obligation to help the world.” Again, this is a perspective I sympathize with. I can imagine how growing up in relative splendour can leave one with a feeling of guilt considering the state of the world. However, thinking of one’s ambitions as a sort of noblesse oblige or moral imperative is a dangerous line of thought.

In this respect, imagine another conversation. Three students are hanging around in between classes, and talk turns to the eternal Arts question of “So what do you want to do after you finish school?” Two students answer that they want to help others as a way of paying back for their privilege, and that they feel this is a sort of moral duty. What if the third person in the conversation doesn’t come from a wealthy background? The guilt of coming from a privileged background ironically creates the savagely elitist notion that being wealthy means you have a greater obligation than anyone else to be morally virtuous. In aiming to create equality within society by paying moral reparations for wealth, we paradoxically reinforce the notion that having wealth grants one an unequal moral burden.

Of course it’s admirable to want to make the world a better place, whether you are wealthy or poor. It’s also naturally oftentimes more possible to do good when one has the privilege of a good education and a financially secure background. I simply think that we should not judge ourselves and our peers—politically or morally—based on where we come from. If someone is wrong, it’s because they’re wrong, not because they’ve failed to “check their privilege.” If someone is virtuous ,it’s because they are a good person, not because of where they come from. We must engage with arguments, not identities. If we believe in a society where everyone has the same rights and access to opportunity, then we cannot allow ourselves to believe that morality is socio-economically determined.

In the words of David Foster Wallace, “Defining yourself in opposition to something is still being anaclitic on that thing, isn’t it?” In this sense, to harp on about one’s privilege and to base one’s actions around compensating for privilege is still to be bound by the idea of it. If you believe that the institutions of social privilege are an evil, do not let your actions be controlled by them.

To be ‘opposed’ to privilege is still to have privilege determine your thoughts and actions. If you want to volunteer or work in the developing world or the inner city, do so because you think it is the right thing to do, not because you come from privilege, or feel you have to compensate for it. To oppose something is not the same thing as to be emancipated from it. The cruel irony of contemporary discourse on privilege is that the same people who hate the institutions of privilege also let their guilt (stemming from these same institutional privileges) control their actions. You are then a slave to your own privilege, and you have perpetuated the very elitism you claim to fight.

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  1. Boner fortress

    Having rich kids help out in the city bc they feel obligated is wrong but for different reasons. No one is helped by a savior coming in to ‘fix’ a community. Solidarity (understanding and working with) not charity (assuming and working at) allows people to help communities on their terms, this involves a checking of privilege.

    Also focusing on white/rich guilt is a great way to avoid talking about social issues and meaningful ways to achieve social justice.

    Boner fortress out!

  2. ghhnrthtrhqethqete


  3. Someone from a wealthy background blaming the poor (or other marginalised groups) for their circumstances almost always involves a failure to acknowledge one’s privileged position in society and ascribed status. In the case of someone from a more marginalised group, such as your example of someone from a lower socioeconomic background accusing the rich of exploiting others, that’s a recognition of and response to systemic oppression and an expression of frustration with the failure of said rich folk to acknowledge their privilege within society. False equation. Privilege can directly affect those who don’t have the same privilege. Poverty among lower socioeconomic classes doesn’t directly impact the privileged.

    The comment by boner fortress pretty much sums up what the real issues with white saviourism/rich guilt are. “Checking privilege” clearly isn’t really checking privilege if it leads to these kind of attitudes, but instead of pointing out that privileged folk seem to tend toward these behaviours and call it moral duty or whatever, this article acts as if that IS what checking privilege is about, and as a consequence, gets it all wrong.

    • So a wealthy person who holds ignorant opinions about the poor (or, as you say, marginalized groups) is wrong because they’re wealthy? Isn’t the problem that they’re just ignorant. Why shouldn’t we tell people (across all racial and socio-economic fault lines) to “check their ignorance” instead of tying their opinions to their status?
      Why can’t we adjudicate the validity of arguments based on their logical cohesion, and avoid the concept of “privilege” altogether?
      Can’t a poor person and a rich person hold the same right-wing political opinions for the same logical (to them, at least) reasons?

      • No, they’re obviously not wrong simply because they’re wealthy, and they clearly are accountable. But if a commentary is coming from a position of privilege and is not acknowledging the reality that such circumstances are not universal, then a contributing factor in that person’s ignorance is their refusal to acknowledge the structures of privilege.
        We can’t “avoid the concept of privilege altogether” because it is real and has tangible effects on society. Not addressing an issue does absolutely nothing to ameliorate it.
        As for your other point, sure, people of very different socioeconomic backgrounds could hold the same political beliefs, but empirically a strong case can be made showing that this is far from common. Also hardly relevant to the argument at hand.

        • To not judge someone’s ideas based on whether or not they have “checked their privilege” does not imply denying the existence of entrenched institutions of privilege in society. It simply means that an individual’s opinion should not be evaluated based on where they come from. It is easier to address the problems of privilege when we do so by attacking structures instead of individuals.
          The importance of whether people of different socioeconomic backgrounds can hold the same political beliefs is paramount. It means that we can believe that a way a person thinks doesn’t necessarily have to be a reflection of their background. If “Joe” is white and wealthy, his opinion doesn’t have to be reduced to the “straight, white, privileged male viewpoint.” Likewise, if “Jim” is a working class ethnic minority, his opinion doesn’t have to be a reflection of that (the “working class black viewpoint” etc…). We deny both of these people freedom and agency when we diminish their thoughts to reflections of their positions on the social ladder.

          And anyway, if someone isn’t going to be convinced that they’re logically wrong (if they are), why is telling them to “check their privilege” going to change anything…

          • I don’t totally disagree, but I think privilege is often intimately connected with the problems in certain arguments and that explaining how a certain comment may be clouded with privilege can be an important part of explaining the structures on a micro-level, as well as explaining why the given argument is flawed. This, of course, is going beyond simply telling someone to “check their privilege”, but in my view the education aspect should really go hand-in-hand.

            I don’t think opinions should be evaluated based on where they come from, but I do think that they should be analysed in view of where they come from.

  4. Haha wow I can’t believe this got printed. It’s so painfully clear that the author has no idea what they’re talking about. The “check your poverty” example?? What a ridiculous straw man argument. Yikes. How embarrassing to write a whole article on privilege without even really understanding what it is. Here I’ll help you.



  5. Alx'xx McKenzie

    *shrug* this is just another big L Liberal mixing up equality and equity politics (a world view that views admitting difference and acting in respect to that fact’= inequality. Rather than recognizing difference and respecting its consequences on yourself and others= equity). I find these arguments so permissive it’s kinnda hard to get fed-up anymore.

  6. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more. Cry more.

  7. Holy shit. lol. Just lol.

  8. Luke Walker

    “Sticking with the example of class, imagine the inverse situation.
    Someone says something along the lines of “to hell with rich people,
    they’re all a bunch of vultures,” then what? If the person in question
    comes from a working class background, then, according to the logic of
    “check your privilege” we should tell them to “check their poverty,”

    This is the dumbest fucking comment.

  9. David Gray-Donald

    I’m pretty certain I used to think exactly like this, and had similar gall to have my impassioned thoughts and rhetoric published, taking up space in a school newspaper. It’s taken a lot of reflection and conversation and reading and thinking but I may be moving from this to a different perspective. I see my own privilege more easily, my vantage point as a male, the ingrained lessons that are so engrained I didn’t know they were lessons nor that they weren’t ingrained in everyone. There are a lot of good blogs on this subject to check out and learn from. The best learning experiences I’ve had are from really listening to people who don’t have the same privileges I do. It’s not quite as good as that, but I’ve decided to throw another blog into the mix so feel free to take a look if you’re interested, especially at this first post http://whatisowedasawealthywhitemale.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/being-a-wealthy-white-male/

  10. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Because a group of people
    believes in something and that their way of viewing the issue is right,
    it does not make opinions that don’t fall in line with yours wrong (hint, it makes them different). There’s not only two extremes to viewpoints, there’s everything in between and denying that to round up everything that’s not at your extreme is problematic.

    I personally find many of the ideologies and ways of thinking coming out of many of the social science fields (those that deal with the -isms) to be quite far fetched and sometime too mentally gymnastic-y in some of their leaps. But I don’t dismiss them as wrong. Perhaps I’ll raise an eyebrow and give you a funny look if you tell me to “check my privilege” (for different reasons, first for being rather presumptuous of my privileges simply because I might be a white male).

    Either way, stop ripping into someone that doesn’t hold your point of view (and can’t even defend it properly past what’s written) and question it instead.

    (Also, Tumblr is never a good source to bolster your cause…)

    • Why don’t you read it before you dismiss it out of hand. It’s a few simple paragraphs clearly explaining what privilege is. Assuming what is and isn’t a good source of anything before you look at it makes you sound like an asshole.

      • I did read it and I also never dismissed it nor did I speak towards anything other than its credibility. I simply said it’s not a good source. My education background pushes me to rely on sources that can cite its claims, and use published peer reviewed material or scientific material to defend its claims. Calling me an asshole because of that doesn’t do you any favours, nor would me supposedly being an “asshole” make my POV more wrong or yours more right.

  11. Good for you! Stand up to the “privilege thought police”!

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