Read So You Want to Talk About Race Online
Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
If I were to go along thinking that my degree was 100 percent due to my efforts and all the benefits that
I received were 100 percent deserved, it would then require that I think that those who did not benefit deserved to not benefit—say, an otherwise qualified coworker of mine who was exempt from the promotion I received because he did not have a degree. Because my advantage over that coworker helped me and hurt him, I would have to buy into the entire system in order to believe that it was 100 percent
deserved. I would accept my promotion thinking that it was rightfully mine, and then I would promote other people, using their degree as one of the deciding factors, thinking that it rightfully indicated that they deserved the promotion—even if that degree had nothing to do with the position I was hiring for. I would then be perpetuating the same advantages and disadvantages—or system of privilege—on
other people. I would be part of the reason why the deck was stacked against those who were unable, for so many reasons, to get a college degree. In a fair competition truly based on skill and experience, I may have still gotten that promotion. I may well have been the most qualified person for the job. But it wasn’t a fair competition, and in acting like it was fair, and accepting my prize
without question, I helped ensure that it would stay unfair.
This right here, the realization that we may be a part of the reason why the deck is stacked against others, that we may have been contributing to it for years without our knowledge, is why the concept of privilege is so threatening to so many. We don’t want to think that we are harming others, we do not want to believe that we do not
deserve everything we have, and we do not want to think of ourselves as ignorant of how our world works. The concept of privilege violates everything we’ve been told about fairness and everything we’ve been told about the American Dream of hard work paying off and good things happening to good people. We want to know that if we do “a” we can expect “b,” and that those who never get “b” have never
done “a.” The concept of privilege makes the world seem less safe. We want to protect our vision of a world that is fair and kind and predictable. That reaction is natural, but it doesn’t make the harmful effects of unexamined privilege less real.
When somebody asks you to “check your privilege” they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to
your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing and may in fact be contributing to those struggles. It is a big ask, to check your privilege. It is hard and often painful, but it’s not nearly as painful as living with the pain caused by the unexamined privilege of others.
You may right now be
saying “but it’s not my privilege that is hurting someone, it’s their lack of privilege. Don’t blame me, blame the people telling them that what they have isn’t as good as what I have.” And in a way, that is true, but know this, a privilege has to come with somebody else’s disadvantage—otherwise, it’s not a privilege. As a light-skinned black woman, I’m viewed by many in society as more intelligent
and less threatening than darker-skinned black people. This is a privilege, because in order to be viewed as “more intelligent” others have to be viewed as “less intelligent.” If black people of all shade ranges were viewed as equally intelligent until proven otherwise by their actions, then that privilege would cease to exist. But when somebody treats me as “more intelligent” and treats a darker-skinned
black person as “less intelligent,” if I don’t challenge that, if I just accept the unearned compliment (and the better grade, the job offer, the access to more financially successful areas of society) with a smile and don’t ask why it was given to me or why it’s not also given to my darker-skinned counterparts—I’m benefitting from unfair privilege and helping perpetuate it further. The
darker-skinned person does not really have much power to challenge that privilege—who would listen to her when they already consider her less intelligent? If I want to live in a world where shadeism (a byproduct of racism creating a hierarchy within minority races based on skin tone) doesn’t exist, I have to do my part by confronting it whenever I encounter it—even if it means less benefits for me
and some uncomfortable conversations.
When we are willing to check our privilege, we are not only identifying areas where we are perpetuating oppression
in order to stop personally perpetuating that oppression, but we are also identifying areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole. Where I benefit most from being able-bodied is where I have the most power and access
to change a system that disadvantages disabled people. Where I benefit most from being cisgender is where I have the most power and access to change a system that disadvantages transgender people. When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.
So yes, we all need to be checking our privilege. And not just when
we are told to in the middle of an argument. I recommend practicing looking for your privilege at first when you are in a neutral situation. Sit down and think about the advantages you’ve had in life. Have you always had good mental health? Did you grow up middle class? Are you white? Are you male? Are you nondisabled? Are you neuro-typical? Are you a documented citizen of the country you live in?
Did you grow up in a stable home environment? Do you have stable housing? Do you have reliable transportation? Are you cisgender? Are you straight? Are you thin, tall, or conventionally attractive? Take some time to really dig deep through all of the advantages that you have that others may not. Write them down.
You may well want to list your disadvantages as well. This is not the time for that,
so please resist the urge. It is natural to feel like focusing on your advantages invalidates your disadvantages and your struggles in life, but that is not what will happen. You can be both privileged in some areas of life, and underprivileged in others. Both can be true at once and
can impact your life at the same time. This is an exercise you should do even if you feel extremely underprivileged
in life. I feel very underprivileged as a black, queer woman, and it would be easy to dismiss calls to check my own privilege under the argument that it’s really those with a lot of privilege who should be doing the work and I’m too busy fighting racism and sexism to fight the few advantages I do have. But failing to check my own privilege means that my efforts to fight racism and sexism would
leave out many of the women and people of color I claim to be fighting for. I march for black people, but am I marching for black trans women, disabled black people, incarcerated black people as well? The number of people I’d be leaving behind and continuing to oppress by refusing to check my privilege would make my efforts ineffective at best and harmful at worst. If thinking about your privilege
without addressing your oppression is hard for you, and you need to write down your lack of privilege later, that is fine. But please, dedicate this time to seeing how you can make your understanding of justice and equality more inclusive.
Once you’ve written down a nice long list of privilege, start thinking about how this privilege might have influenced not only your status in society, but
your experience with and understanding of the world at large. How might your privilege have impacted your ideas on racism, on education, on the environment? Then start seeking out work on these subjects by people who don’t have your same privilege, and listen when those people are speaking. Being privileged doesn’t mean that you are always wrong and people without privilege are always right—it means
that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of the puzzle.
Practice this often, especially when thinking about social or political issues. After having practiced looking at my privilege more formally, I casually revisit this exercise whenever I’m confronted with a new privilege that I was previously unaware of, and again at the start of every year, as a way to refocus
on my social justice goals. Get used to that uncomfortable feeling that arises when you discover that perhaps your privilege is hindering your ability to truly understand or address an issue. Get used to that pang of guilt that comes with realizing yet another area of life where you’ve benefited at the expense of others. It will not kill you. You can withstand it. You want to be more comfortable
with this, so that when you are confronted with your privilege in a stressful situation (like a Facebook argument that suddenly takes a turn for the worse) you will be able to limit your defensiveness enough to listen and learn.
This will also help you better empathize with the feelings of anger, fear, and shame that people feel when confronted with their privilege and may help you approach someone
about their privilege with more generosity. It is also easier to explain privilege to someone else, if you should choose to do so, if you are familiar with explaining it to yourself. When you first became aware of an area of your privilege, it did not appear to you as “privilege.” You had to be able to see what your advantage was, that others did not have that advantage, and that it was influencing
your words and decisions in a way that could be harming others. Remembering this might allow you to put more detail into your entreaties for people to check their privilege and may increase the chances they will actually try. No, you do not owe someone who is oppressing you with their unexamined privilege any particular kindness or education, but know that you have unexamined privilege too,
no matter how woke you think you are—and someone will be telling you to check your privilege while you try to battle your own defensiveness as you figure out what the hell they are talking about.
If someone confronts you with your privilege from a place of anger or even hatred, if someone does not want to take the time or does not have the emotional energy to further explain to you where your
privilege lies, know that it is still a kindness. Try to remember that the alternative to not being made aware of your privilege (no matter how it may sting) is your continued participation in the oppression of others. Someone is giving you an opportunity to do better, no matter how unpleasant the delivery. Thank them.
Once you are aware of your privilege, you can get to work on dismantling it.
This is where checking your privilege really pays off. Here are some examples of where you can find both privilege and opportunities to help create change in your day-to-day life:
Does your privilege mean that you are more likely to sit in a manager’s meeting while others are not? Ask why there are no disabled people in the room.
Does your privilege mean that politicians
are begging for your political support? Ask what they are going to do for people of color next time they knock on your door to hand you a flier.
Were you able to get a fancy private education as a child? Use your resulting financial security to support levies to improve public schools.
Don’t have to juggle work and children? Use the promotion that added flexibility
helped you get to support employer-funded childcare and family leave programs.
Have the schedule flexibility to attend a PTA meeting? At your next meeting, ask them to move future meeting times to hours that more working parents can attend and give parents other ways to contribute if they can’t be there.