Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Privilege and Feminism 101

Disclaimer: This discussion centers on people who unwittingly make comments that come from a place of privilege...not trolls who relish in, flaunt, or cling to their privilege. And I have a bad feeling it will be a little ranty, so bear with me.

I've noticed that there is a nasty little trend in the comment sections of the feminist blogosphere. Someone makes an earnest, although somewhat misguided or misworded comment and sure enough the chorus of "Check your privilege" starts up.

Let me back up...privilege is something very real in our society. Any time the experience of one group of people becomes what is the "norm," privilege is at play. There's white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, abled privilege, Christian privilege, monetary privilege, American privilege...it goes on and on. If there's an -ism, there's a privilege. Here are a few examples of how people benefit from various privileges:

  • White: If you have always freely entered stores without the stare of "why are you here? are you shoplifting?" or you've never had someone you didn't know ask to touch your hair, or you've never had someone assume you are incapable of a sunburn, you're probably the beneficiary of white privilege.
  • Male: If you're praised for doing domestic tasks (but not expected to do them), if you've never felt that your body isn't good enough because of the images in a magazine, if you've never felt forced to shave your armpits or legs, if you've never had your leadership/math/physical/video game abilities questioned before someone knew anything about you, you're probably the beneficiary of male privilege.
  • Heterosexual: If you could (or have) legally marry the person you love, if you've never been told that your chosen family structure is dangerous to kids or that your sex life isn't "real", you're probably the beneficiary of heterosexual privilege.

So what's the problem? Why have I even mentioned the "check your privilege" argument? If someone is operating from a place a privilege, we should address this...right?

Yes, I think it is critical to help people understand how they are benefiting from privilege and to help them understand that their perspective or experience is not universal. However, I think that "check your privilege" is a piss poor way to do this.

What ends up happening is that "check your privilege" becomes a stock statement thrown around and it has undesirable effects. People who were earnestly trying to engage in a feminist discussions are shut down. They feel alienated and belittled. Because in many cases (but not all by any stretch of the imagination) an honest mistake has been made, people aren't even really sure what they did wrong. It's essentially the feminist version of a pet owner swatting their dog's nose with a newspaper and saying "Bad dog." No real change is made.

Now, often the counter point to the suggestion that we should help each other understand issues like this is the "It's not my place to educate anyone!" but that, again, doesn't get us anywhere. No, it's not anyone's JOB to educate another (save teachers, of course!) but it is certainly logical that when you engage in a discussion/debate on a forum, you're going to have to explain your view and give background as to why the person you disagree with is incorrect. Saying "check your privilege" does both nothing to substantiate your own view nor truly refute the other person. A much more productive solution is to point out the privileged parts of the argument and explain why they are problematic.

Often, people commenting on the feminist blogs where this happens are novices to the topic. The attempt to engage in an extremely popular and well known online feminist community when you are just opening up to a whole new world of thought can be intimidating. To be shot down immediately, leaving you unsure what even happened, is not a desirable outcome, and it's not good practice for feminism. It sends potential allies away before they even get to really dig into the topic and learn about privilege.

I would argue...and stay with me here...that people who invoke this knee-jerk reaction are actually exercising educational privilege, or perhaps privilege within the feminist community. First of all, it assumes that the reader knows what the phrase means and even more basically what privilege is and how they benefit from it. Secondly, it establishes this hierarchy and policing of fellow feminists. Instead of being informational, like a gentle correction would be, it ends up being, frankly...elitist. When I see people use the phrase, I always get the sense that it's delivered in a "What, are you new to this?!" kind of way (even though I know it is sometimes well intentioned.) And isn't it wrong to assume that everyone who is interested in gender topics has had the experience of taking the same classes or reading the same books or having the same discussions or following the same blogs as you?

I don't want to sound like I'm making the case for ignorance, but the fact of the matter is that there will always be people joining the feminist world at the 101 level. And when it comes to the Internet, blogs will be frequently be an entry point. It's been disturbing to me how I HAVE seen feminist commenters talking down to others, literally saying "Oh, I'm sorry...You must be new to this" or "Well, I guess you're at the 101 level." ...and saying these things to people interested in the same topics as them, although perhaps not as informed.

You know what? It's OK to be at the 101 level. We were all there before and THAT'S OK.

Lastly, I think that saying phrases like this without engaging in actual discourse is a silencing tactic. For me, it's in the same vein as the tone argument. You know..."I'll listen to your viewpoint when you're not so angry" translation: I don't want to listen to your viewpoint. Except now it's, "I'll listen to your viewpoint when you read a book on feminism" translation: I don't want to listen to your viewpoint. Again, I'm not talking about people who are blatantly not feminist...but rather those who are earnestly trying, but say something that unwittingly is rooted in privilege. Because feminism is so complex, they could very well have a valid viewpoint that happens to be clouded in privilege. So call out the privilege and discuss the viewpoint...don't outright ignore them.

Ok, though...I get it. It's tiring and infuriating to live in a world full of people assuming their experience is universal, and knowing their experience is nothing like yours. It's enraging to be on the flip side of the privilege. I validate those feelings and I can see how sometimes you really just want to say, "CHECK UR PRIVILEGEEEE" and not fully engage in a debate...but for that, I give you this suggestion: If you feel passionately enough to invoke this phrase, then you should feel passionately enough to actually engage. Throwing in the old "check your privilege" standby does nothing.

For anyone.


Now, for the trolls talking privilege...don't even give them the satisfaction of replying to their garbage. F'realz.


  1. Excellent analysis! This has happened to me on Feministe and I struggle with where else to go. It's scary out there!

  2. Pretty good. Also it has the tendancy of shutting down any criticism not made from within a feminist standpoint.


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