How do you define (or check) privilege?

By Caitlin Kelly

That takes money many people don't have...
Shopping costs money many people don’t have…

When I asked a class of students I taught this year — whose families were paying $60,000 a year so they could study writing — for their least favorite words, one phrase immediately surfaced.

“Check your privilege,” said one.

In a nation where income inequality is growing at the fastest pace since the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, questions of who’s ahead, who’s (usually) getting ahead and, crucially, who’s consistently staying ahead are daily fodder in the American media.

Have you seen this BuzzFeed video?

As I write this post, it’s gotten more than 2 million views. In it, the participants step forward or back with every bit (or loss) of privilege. It’s worth watching, and the comments of those who did it are also interesting.

At least, that as defined by the terms of the questions.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater...College costs money, too!
Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater…College costs money, too!

The questions:

1. If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.
2. If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.
3. If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward.
4. If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.
5. If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not english, take one step back.
6. If you came from a supportive family environment take one step forward.
7. If you have ever tried to change your accent, mannerisms or name to gain credibility, take one step back.
8. If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward.
9. If you were deeply embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.
10. If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behavior to flaws in your racial group, take one step forward.
11. If your gender identity or expression matches the assigned gender on your birth certificate or drivers’ license, take one step forward.
12. If you were born in the United States, take one step forward.
13. If you or your parents have ever gone through a divorce, take one step back.
14. If you felt like you had adequate access to healthy food growing up, take one step forward
15. If you are reasonably sure you would be hired for a job based on your ability and qualifications, take one step forward.
16. If you see calling the police trouble occurs as a reasonable choice, take one step forward. If you see calling the police as a potential danger, take one step back.
17. If you can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward.
18. If you feel comfortable being emotionally expressive/open, take one step forward.
19. If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/ sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back.
20. If you took out loans for your education take one step backward.
21. If you can practice your religion or wear religious dress without fear of prejudice or attack, take one step forward.
22. If you had a job during your high school and college years, take one step back.
23. If you feel comfortable taking a walk in your neighborhood at night, take one step forward.
24. If you have ever traveled outside the United States for your own enrichment or leisure, take one step forward. If you have traveled outside the U.S. for military combat, take one step back.
25. If you have ever felt like there was not adequate or accurate representation of your racial group, sexual orientation group, gender group, and/or disability group in the media, take one step back.
26. If you feel confident that your parents would be able to financially help/support you if you were going through a financial hardship, take one step forward.
27. If you have ever been a defendant in court without a paid lawyer, or have spent time in jail or prison, take one step back.
28. If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.
29. If you studied the culture or the history of your ancestors in elementary school take one step forward.
30. If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward.
31. If you ever went on a family vacation, take one step forward.
32. If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward.
33. If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
34. If one of your parents was ever laid off or unemployed not by choice, take one step back.
35. If you were ever upset by a joke or a statement you overheard related to your race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.

Like every survey, though, this one also contains inherent biases and weaknesses.

Like:

1) If your parents worked nights and weekends (the implicit assumption they were working menial jobs and/or working several jobs at once) they might also have been working freelance or running their own business.

A much smarter question, especially in light of current on-demand scheduling in many food service and retail jobs, which is both disruptive and income-limiting: Did your parents have reliable, steady incomes? And key to that — was this their choice or imposed upon them by their employer(s)?

Many retail workers have completely insecure schedules -- and not nearly enough hours to make a living
Many retail workers have completely insecure schedules — and not nearly enough hours to make a living

2) If you’re legally able to carry a gun, and wish to make that choice, you might no longer live in fear of sexual assault since you have chosen a way to defend yourself. It’s not a PC choice to carry a firearm for many Americans — or even to discuss it as an option — but it is for many others, like some of the women I interviewed for my 2004 book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

4) I relied on crutches for three months in the fall of 2009 due to arthritis. Many of us will move in and out of periods of great(er) or lesser physical privilege as we age or face illness(es.)

photo(41)

12) Seriously? Talk about cultural bias! The United States ranks shockingly low now on many global measures of quality of life, from infant mortality, paid maternity leave (only one other nation does not offer it), income inequality and the stunning cost of post-secondary education. Having moved to the U.S. at the age of 30 from Canada — a nation with cradle-to-grave free health care — I find this assumption risible.

I paid $660 a year (yes) for my college education at Canada’s top university, a huge privilege I took for granted there; Americans who wish to continue on to college or university can face decades of enormous student debt that they cannot discharge through declaring bankruptcy.

22) What’s wrong with having had a job in high school or college? Yes, if it hindered your studies to the degree you could not graduate. For many people, that’s not the case.

Never enough?
Never enough?

One huge question missing here relates to age:

36) Have you ever lost out on an economic opportunity — an internship, freelance work or — most essential — a full-time job because of your age (i.e. over 40)?

American employers routinely shut out workers over the age of 50 because…they can. There’s no way to prove it and no consequence to their actions; I wrote about this for The New York Times.

Here are a few more I consider “steps back”:

37) Were/are one or both of your parents physically or emotionally abusive?

38) Were/are one or both of your parents alcoholic or addicted?

39) Have you and/or your spouse/partner suffered long-term (6 months+) unemployment?

40) Were/are one or both of your parents mentally ill?

41) Are you now or have you been financially responsible for siblings or other family members?

42) Can you afford to buy a comprehensive health insurance plan?

43) Have you ever had to declare bankruptcy? (Medical debts are the single greatest driver of American personal bankruptcy.)

44) Are you carrying any medical expenses you simply cannot (re) pay?

45) Have you always had ready/easy/affordable access to the technology used by your educational peers and competitors for work/jobs?

In the rush to competitive victimhood (or guilt), it’s rarely simple to determine who’s better off, beyond the 1 percent.

Do you feel privileged?

Have you been told to “check your privilege”?

What else would you add?

17 thoughts on “How do you define (or check) privilege?

  1. The idea of this is really good because it encourages people to see inequalities where they don’t customarily notice them. I too saw that age was missing. And even in the 1% I imagine there are people who have gone through abuse, addiction, illness, and so on. None of these things are quantifiable. What is more obvious to me is that race is a big part of identity that changes how abuse, addiction, illness, and so on are seen. Race, maybe more than anything, even gender, sexual orientation, etc.

    1. Thanks for weighing in…

      Race. certainly, is huge; my husband is Hispanic and it is a daily challenge for me to perceive some of the things he feels as a result…but the same is said for him feeling for me about some of my own challenges, too!

      Race, yes (and gender) as they’re both visible and, race anyway, immutable.

  2. This is great, I hadn’t been aware of this video, and despite it’s flaws, it’s very useful in highlighting privilege… Which so easily turns into entitlement through awareness of its existence.

    Thanks!!

  3. My parents used to remind us to count our blessings.. Pretty sure I like the sound of that much better than the accusatory tone and implied generalizations of “check your privilege.”

    1. It’s an interesting perspective. I dislike that tone as well — but I think it’s a response to tone-deafness and entitlement, which do exist as well.

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. I’m quite aware that I live a privileged lifestyle. I’m reminded of it every time I hear about someone being unfairly discriminated against in the news and it saddens me each and every time and it shouldn’t have to be this way.

  5. Being born and raised in Australia and having travelled overseas a lot, I really feel like I won some sort of global-birthl lottery. I know the reason I have things so good has a lot more to do with a lucky accident of birth than any hard work or smarts on my part.

  6. very powerful, especially with your updates to the list. i’m going to send this to my friend who teaches english and women’s lit at our ( mostly privileged) high school, she talks about privilege with them throughout the year. on our way home, carpooling, after i leave my mostly privileged kinders, we discuss these issues. we’ve decided that our charge is to make these children aware, empathetic, kind, and giving, so that one day they can use their money/power to help others who are not in the same situation. some begin to get it, some refuse to listen. one student actually responded, “why do i need to know this, i’m a white, wealthy, republican male?!” what an interesting question –

    1. Thanks…

      I grew up in a country with a very different point of view about community…There is poverty and racism and income inequality in Canada, of course. I went to private school and summer camp, so I know about privilege.

      But what’s happening here now is appalling to me. There’s a shocking lack of solidarity, this persistent belief that you just don’t need to care about the human beings you share a nation or city or planet with.

      I would not have a polite or useful answer to a young man of such arrogant selfishness. I won’t be teaching at Pratt again and am glad to flee the tyranny of kowtowing to some very entitled teens. Not all, obviously, but enough of them have turned me off the fantasy of “teaching” wealthy kids who see education as one more commodity and teachers as one more employee.

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