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Checking your privilege is scary, hard, and uncomfortable, so why bother?

December 13, 2023


Privilege: “[Privilege is] unearned access to resources that are only readily available to some people because of their social group membership; an advantage, or immunity granted to and enjoyed by one societal group above and beyond the common advantage of all other groups. Privilege is often invisible to those who have it." - Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (1997)

two students having conversation

Privilege is a word that gets a reaction from everyone - good and bad, and when it comes to equity-related issues, I believe it to be one of the most misunderstood terms. So I want to break it down plain and simple. What does privilege mean? And what does it mean to have more privilege than others?

Does it mean someone more privileged didn’t have to work hard to get what they wanted?

Does it mean to undermine the accomplishments of someone with privilege?

Does it mean the problem and issues of someone with privilege aren’t real or valid?

No. No and no.

Privilege simply means “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group1.”

So what does that mean?

It means that due to a part of your identity, be it gender, race, (dis)ability, class, sexual orientation, language, religion, and geographical location (to name a few), society has granted you privileges. This is the part that’s a little hard to understand sometimes because it gets translated into the above questions. It’s hard for some individuals to acknowledge or ‘check’ their privilege because they believe it to mean they haven’t worked hard or have had an easy life.

Privilege is not denying that your life has been hard, or that you didn’t work hard for your successes, or that your problems are not valid. All it means is that compared to someone else, you have not experienced the same types of oppression, injustices, and benefits, allowing you to have a different life and experiences.

For example, someone that is poor has a hard life but someone that is poor and (dis)abled has a harder life. Or a woman has to work hard to find her voice in a male-dominated profession but a woman who is also a person of colour has to fight both sexism and racism. This brings me to my next point: intersectionality. This was a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and it is used to describe how the intersection of our identities leads to different experiences because we experience aspects of our identity simultaneously and collectively and not individually.

The author of the article “Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide” describes how her identities intersect to shape her experiences; “Mental illness is often stigmatized. As a mentally-ill woman, I have been told that my post-traumatic stress disorder is “just PMS” and a result of me “being an over-sensitive woman1.” This is an intersection between ableism and misogyny.

So the intersection of an individual’s personality can lead to them experiencing multiple incidents of discrimination and harassment based on different aspects of one’s identity that are historically marginalized. This makes it “harder” for someone when they are discriminated against because of multiple aspects of their identity. On the flip side, the intersection of one’s identity can lead to them having many privileges making it “easier” for them.

So what is checking your privilege?

It’s taking time to reflect and investigate2

It’s a time to reflect on your own life and the lives of others. Do this by researching.

There are some basic questions you should be asking yourself as you reflect.

What sorts of things do I take for granted as a member of a privileged group?

How are my experiences different from those of a disadvantaged group?

Why do these differences matter? What do they look like in the real world?

It’s a moment to examine your impact2

For example, don’t tell a (dis)abled or mentally ill person to just “push through it”. While you may have had good intentions, as in you were trying to motivate someone, you may have invalidated their experience and failed to recognize that their struggles are not the same.

When someone tells you to check yourself, it’s important to realize the impact that you have on both the individual and the community that they’re a part of. Ask yourself, “Why might someone be hurt by what I said? What prejudices might I have fed into as a result?”

If you’re in a position of power or influence, make an effort to create a more equitable environment.

For example, if you’re a man leading a meeting, make sure the women in a room are heard and not talked over. If you are in charge of building designs, make sure your buildings are accessible. If you’re organizing an interview for a job position, make sure different communities have heard about the job offer and are able to get to the interview.

Checking your privilege is scary, hard and uncomfortable.

So why bother?

Sam Dylan Finch, author of the article “Ever Been Told to ‘Check Your Privilege?’ Here’s What That Really Means” put it beautifully.

“(You have to check your privilege) because things won’t get better until people with privileges start to think critically about the advantages that they have. The system will remain the exact way that it is until people with power become willing to confront that power and work to even the playing field. We aren’t the same. And acknowledging difference is an important first step in working towards equality.

If we can’t recognize the ways in which we have privileges, we will be complicit in a system that rewards some and not others. We will be co-signing inequity2.”

Thank you for reading. Please check out the two articles I used as inspiration for this article to gain a better understanding of privilege.