#CheckYourPrivilege. It's not a suggestion so much as a command when it's thrown around Twitter -- often by a well-intentioned person who is trying to maintain the sanctity of the feminist movement -- by decrying anyone who dares try to weigh in on, or attempt to understand, the complex politics of the space.
My friend and fellow advocate of equal rights, Esther Armah, told me recently on HuffPost Live that she eschews the word feminist because, she says, it's a blanket term that fails to capture the nuance of individual experience. She has a point. Transgender women come at the space differently from black women, who have a different perspective informed from experience than Asian women, who don't have the same history or context of the space as white women. Who has more privilege? Honestly, I think that "Who cares?" should be the response. Stick with me here.
I talk about women's issues a lot and proudly call myself a feminist. I'm lucky enough -- and have worked bloody hard -- to be in a position where my job means I get a platform to talk about feminist issues. I am undeniably "privileged." Not to mention that I live in a Western society where all manner of byproducts of democracy is afforded to me (albeit depending on what state I live in: see abortion.)
Yet, the conversation about privilege threatens to cut off the legs of the feminist movement before it can even crawl (yes -- crawl, we're in 2014 and birth control is seen by many as a dirty word. We've got a lot of crawling to do before we can walk!) Privilege is weighing us down. By us I mean all of us -- all feminists.
This month, Jane Greenway Carr wrote about the weirdness of today's feminism. In fact, it's not only "weird," but according to her Time magazine piece, the whole movement is at a crossroads -- in part because it's getting so much louder (literally being sung from the rafters by the likes of Beyoncé ) and taking up more space on the public stage (even by men, courtesy of Aziz Ansari and Joseph Gordon-Levitt). As Carr writes:
It can sometimes look like this diverse set of voices -- each with its own set of demands and priorities -- will doom the movement through internecine warfare over everything from abortion to hashtag activism. But many roads have diverged in feminism's yellow wood throughout its history. Being at a crossroad doesn't mean that feminists should be paralyzed by fear of making a bad choice or going in a "wrong" direction.
I think that the amount of time we spend hashing out the "privilege debate" has a lot of responsibility for this paralysis. And I'm not the only one. Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay told me on HuffPost Live that she thinks the problem of the privilege police, as she calls it, is "rampant": "It's absurd -- everyone has some kind of privilege, and so we can acknowledge that and then move on and then actually engage with the issues."
Gay went on to argue that she refuses to even engage in conversations where people throw the phrase Check Your Privilege around. Writing in the LA Times this week, Meghan Daum talks about the ways that privilege is being used as a weapon, and that the idea of it is both "lacking in nuance and ultimately not that useful or interesting."
That's not to say that there shouldn't be a pause to realize that we all have privilege -- which is another word for power -- and that the amount we hold may not be akin to that of those around us, fighting alongside us for equality. Talking to me on HuffPost Live, Ebony.com Senior Editor Jamilah Lemieux argued that "you can be a privileged person and you can be oppressed all at once and that should not prevent you from being able to participate in conversations about oppression."
Is there something to fear about the hegemony of the feminist movement? Is it risky to try and codify all female experience? Well, of course. But that's not what I'm proposing here. By removing the "privilege" conversation from the equation -- while accepting that it's a part of our present experience and feminisms' future -- we can move forward. As Deborah Rhode writes in her new book, "What Women Want":
Women do not speak with one voice on women's issues. But to build a powerful political movement, we must be prepared to generalize about the interests of women as a group[...]What would most women want if they were fully informed and free to choose?
What are the real issues at stake? Pay equity. Rights over our own bodies -- from accessing contraception to abortion. It's something that Katha Pollitt touches on in her new book "Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights," "Why is the anti-abortion movement doing so well when so few people support its goal, which is the criminalization of all abortion?[...] One answer: Abortion opponents make up in passion what they lack in numbers."
Think on that for a moment: Could it be that the passion, the energy, the time we take to cannibalize each other over who is allowed to speak to feminist experience, has contributed to the momentum of a movement that's allowed anti-women's rights legislation to flourish across the country -- from Texas to North Dakota?
What if we re-focused that passion? Roxane Gay -- who's not the only voice on the issue, but a damn good voice -- writes frankly in The Guardian about the wave of celebrity feminists that have come out of the woodwork in the last year -- but her sentiment is applicable to us all:
There is nothing wrong with celebrities (or men) claiming feminism and talking about feminism. I support anything that broadens the message of gender equality and tempers the stigma of the feminist label. We run into trouble, though, when we celebrate celebrity feminism while avoiding the actual work of feminism.
We need to get to work. Not on taking each other down. But of getting busy pushing for the rights that we all want afforded to each other. Instead of standing our ground together to prevent the assault on our bodies, we massacre each other on Twitter ensuring the conversation stagnates and whimper afterwards as laws are passed that keep us crawling. If you want a new hashtag, how about #CheckMyWork instead?
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