In Defense of Checking Privilege

Conservatives have a warped perception of what goes on at university campuses. Conservatives seem to believe campuses are ruled by left-wing radicals hell-bent on shutting down discourse challenging their perception of the world. Life would be much easier as a leftist if this were the case, but alas, it's not. Still, this trope emerges in conservative media all the time. The recent uproar over Tal Fortgang's article "Why I'll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege," republished in Time magazine, is just another example.

Fortgang's article describes one way leftists are supposedly shutting down discourse on campuses across the continent. Fortgang claims that leftists use the phrase "check your privilege" to prevent white males from offering opinions. Fortgang states that this phrase "threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them." Fortgang argues that this practice "toes the line" of racism and prevents meaningful discourse from taking place.

Fortgang is correct in a sense. The idea of "checking your privilege" does shut down a certain type of conversation. Yet it shuts down these conversations in order to push for the more productive conversations that are absolutely necessary in challenging oppression. Calling on someone to "check their privilege" does not shut down conversation, it enhances conversation.

The idea of checking your privilege emerges from a proper understanding of the way oppression works. Many people mistakenly deem oppression solely as explicit acts unjustly targeting another person based upon one of their characteristics, such as race, sex, or religious views. For example, most people agree that preventing women from driving, solely because they are women, is oppressive.

Oppression certainly includes these sorts of acts. Yet oppression is not limited to these acts. Oppression operates on a systemic level, and infects the very fibres of society. Oppression offers benefits to one group of people at the expense of others. Institutionalized racism is a troubling example of oppression on a systemic level. This sort of racism is not as vulgar as Donald Sterling telling his girlfriend to stay away from black people, but it's extremely disruptive. It sees black people incarcerated, targeted by police, and turned away from jobs, at higher rates than whites.

As such, certain people - especially rich, white, men - privilege from oppressive systems in ways that others do not. It does not matter if these white men engage in explicit oppressive actions or not. They still benefit from our oppressive society merely by being white men. This does not make them bad people. It's just the reality.

Realizing that privilege exists, and understanding how you benefit from it, is the first step in challenging oppression. Checking your privilege is necessary because it will cause you to think about how to challenge oppression on a systemic level. Merely refraining from what you consider to be oppressive actions or statements is not enough. Checking your privilege means that, on a regular basis, you'll have to admit that you benefit from the oppression of others. Even if you're a good person, even if you 'don't see race.'

Fortgang, and other conservatives, do not seem to be willing to do this. Moreover, Fortgang , and many others, seem to be extremely uncomfortable with the notion that they may even have to consider checking their privilege.

This shouldn't matter to those who take challenging oppression seriously. Talking about oppression isn't always comfortable. It's not a way to make yourself feel good, to give yourself a pat on the back. Instead, it's challenging, and oftentimes disturbing. It should be.

Conservatives and others certainly have the right to continue discussing oppression in outdated ways that don't benefit anyone. But if they genuinely care about the "merit" of their ideas, they should stop. Until then, conservatives have no right to accuse others of trying to shut them up for who they are. Their conception of oppression is wrong, and it must be challenged.