Check your Privilege!

Cartoon image of a person carrying a backpack labelled 'Backpack of Privilege'

The phrase ‘check your privilege’ can sometimes cause a great deal of anger and has led commentators such as Louise Mensch and Dan Hodges to scornfully decry it as nonsense. However, the phrase was never designed to be an insult or a weapon. It is a reminder that our experiences may not be the same as others, that we cannot speak for everyone from a particular group, and that some reflection about a comment or assumption that we have just made may be in order. When working with new workplaces on issues of equality, I regularly witness an initial resistance to the idea of making change to accommodate the needs of different groups…
‘Muslims want to take time off for Eid, rather than just the normal Christmas holidays.’
‘I don’t want to have to talk about being gay with pupils, just normal relationships’
‘Now you have to think about having jerk chicken and stuff on the menu instead of just normal food’
‘Some of the women want flexible working rather than working normal hours’
These objections illustrate how society provides some people with accommodations that are seen as normal, natural and traditional, but actually privilege them over other groups. Understanding structural privilege is vital in the fight for equality. Without an understanding of privilege, how it underpins the way we see the world and our interactions with others, how it advantages some and disadvantages others, often without conscious intent, we will not be able to appreciate people’s experiences and break down the barriers which prevent us from creating inclusive workplaces.
We all have lots of different aspects of our identity and the barriers that exist for each of us will be different, we will be privileged in some areas and not privileged in others. The very nature of privilege means that we are often not even aware of the barriers that exist for other people because they are invisible to us. In 1989 American social scientist Peggy McIntosh, wrote an article entitled ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack’, where she outlined unearned benefits that she receives, simply by being White. I regularly use variations of this idea in training activities, which introduces the concept of privilege and allows participants consider whether statements are true or false for them, for example:

  • I’m never asked to speak on behalf of all people of my ethnic group
  • I could have afforded to intern without pay for 6 months after finishing education, to advance my career
  • I can drive a nice car without worrying about being stopped by the police
  • I can access support groups designed for people of my gender
  • I can criticise the government without being seen as an outsider
  • If I pick up a magazine or book, watch TV or a film, I can be certain my sexual orientation will be represented

Taking part in these activities is often a big eye opener and creates some very interesting discussions. Stepping outside of our world view takes effort and can be uncomfortable, particularly as the nature of privilege means that some participants will have never thought about some of the issues before as they have not personally encountered them. When the concept is introduced it can feel like a personal attack, and this can lead to some angry responses. I remember a White delegate shouting ‘I don’t CARE about colour! I just treat people as I see them. What a load of rubbish!’ and throwing the activity across the desk, before another Black participant spoke about missing an event in the previous week having been stopped and searched by the police for the 4th time that year…
Understanding privilege can help people to recognise that having a women’s network or an LGBT group within the workplace is not sexist or heterosexist and these groups do not exist to advantage women or LGBT people: common misconceptions which breed resentment. When people recognise privilege and the need to remove these barriers to allow people to realise their full potential, they are able to support, rather than sabotage, the policies that their workplace is trying to implement.
A recognition of privilege comes hand in hand with a recognition of intersectionality. The term was first used by Black feminist lawyer Dr Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 in describing the joint oppressions of racism and sexism faced by Black women. Intersectionality is simply a recognition that different facets of inequality interconnect. There is a temptation to segregate different forms of oppression, to consider the fight to end racism separately from fighting sexism or classism. Whilst recognising that each form of oppression has its own unique characteristics, it is vital to understand that we cannot fight sexism or racism without recognising how they overlap with other systems of power and privilege. The voices in the feminist movement have historically been white cis-women, the voices in the anti-racism movement have historically been men, the voices in every movement have historically had money. Social media has provided an unprecedented change, which has allowed alternative voices a platform to be heard and to have the opportunity to challenge the norm.
We all experience the world in different ways and when campaigning for equality we will sometimes get things wrong. The phrase ‘check your privilege’ is not intended to silence, or to say that certain people do not have the right to speak about an issue, but to highlight that we may have made an error and failed to recognise an issue that is key to the fight for true equality. We should not be so arrogant as to think that we don’t need to listen to the voices of others but instead we should consider the possibility that other people’s experiences will be different from our own. When challenged, rather than getting defensive or automatically dismissing those who try to bring our errors to our attention, we all need to take a step back and listen. If we ignore the possibility that our approach may not be inclusive, it will exacerbate the tensions that we see within equality movements and the movements will continue to marginalise instead of embrace people.
Challenging the accepted norms is the way in which change occurs. Through working together, drawing on the strength of shared experience, and adapting our communications to ensure that we are not reinforcing inequalities and advancing the needs of a section of the community at the expense of others, we will understand each other more and that is when we will become more successful.

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