Why Should I Check My Privilege If I’m Not Racist?
Written on December 12th, 2016
I am a white upper-class woman. I never owned slaves, and neither did my parents or my grandparents. I can’t control the socioeconomic status into which I was born any more than anyone else can. I may not be racist, but I still check my privilege – and I think we all should. I feel very passionately that becoming aware of the power we have been granted but have not earned is one of the most important things we can do. Here’s why.
Since this seems to be a fairly controversial topic (especially with the advent of social media), I’m going to start by shutting down a few rebuttals that I’ve actually heard in the past. First, no, I’m not “brainwashed”. Yes, I attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yes, there is a liberal bias present on campus. But I am a competent critical thinker and to suggest that I have mindlessly complied with the undertones of my surroundings is a blatant insult to my intelligence.
Second, no, I haven’t been “made to feel guilty”. I have been made aware of how the uncontrollable circumstances in our lives can affect us in ways that are unfair and unjust, and that knowledge has compelled me to do something about it. This is not an article written out of guilt – it is one written out of love and respect for other people, out of a desire to be a decent human, and out of a pursuit of understanding.
Recognizing your privilege can be immensely hard. I know this. No one likes to hear or feel that they haven’t earned the good things in their life, and I want to be clear that that’s not what I’m trying to say here. We all have great power to build our own lives into what we want them to be, and I commend hard work and dedication. I firmly believe in choices and consequences. I applaud those who do well for themselves. I am not saying that you are where you are because you haven’t earned it… but I am saying that not everything that has happened to you has been the result of pure merit. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s true.
One of the biggest problems I’ve found when it comes to matters of identity is the notion of being “colorblind”. No matter how hard we try to “not see race”, it’s impossible. We all see it, and we all react to it in different ways, even just subconsciously. Every single one of us carries biases about people, places, and experiences. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – pattern mapping is good when you’re dealing with potentially poisonous reptiles or pits of disguised quicksand, for example. But it can be extremely detrimental when it extends to uncontrollable factors about people such as race. I believe you when you say that you aren’t racist, but I can’t believe you when you say that you don’t see race.
I do not blame anyone for having biases; I have biases. Over the past year and a half I have become acutely aware of these judgments have sought vehemently to alter those that do not have valid reason to exist. Checking your privilege is important because we need to be aware of the subconscious ways in which we view and feel about our world, and we need to understand how these perceptions can affect how we interact with the people around us (for the better or worse).
Another problem I tend to hear when it comes to discussions of identity is that people will often take an unsuccessful member of the majority group, contrast them with a successful member of a minority group, and therefore conclude that privilege doesn’t exist. I’ve also heard countless privileged folks speak about how they must have missed out on this white privilege thing everyone keeps talking about because they’re not rich and they “actually have to work for things”. I think these situations highlight some common misconceptions.
First, being successful or unsuccessful is not solely a product of your race, and there will always be exceptions to general rules. Someone can be given all of the privilege in the world and still choose to do nothing with their life, winding up in a place considered undesirable. Likewise, someone may be given little to nothing and still fight to improve and build their life into something they want it to be. Being black or white or Asian or any other race on the planet does not dictate your future – but it does affect it. It’s important to acknowledge this distinction and to not forget that while race, social class, and other facets of one’s identity are not the whole picture, they still do play a huge role.
Second, having privilege does not mean your life will be perfect. Not having privilege doesn’t mean your life will be horrendous. Privilege affects, sometimes imperceptibly, the opportunities that are presented to you in your life, but it doesn’t automatically change your future. Perhaps this is just a reiteration of what I said before, but other factors always come into play. We can’t dismiss privilege as a cause for certain inequalities just because it isn’t the only factor; that would be like saying age doesn’t affect your cardio health at all simply because it isn’t the only thing that can have an impact on it. It sounds ridiculous, right? That’s because it is.
I check my privilege because as a white person I don’t have to deal with countless things that minorities must encounter every day*. I check my privilege because as a member of the upper class I have been blessed to be able to focus on my education instead of helping to support my family. I check my privilege because, although I like to think I am a good person, I still do not deserve all of the good things that have been given to me any more than someone who wasn’t given those good things does. Even though I have not directly contributed to overt racism or discrimination, I have still unfairly benefitted from a system that favors people like me at the expense of people who are different. It would be nice to just accept this and pretend I’ve deserved it all… but I don’t think that would sit very well with me if I was on the other side.
The fact is that privilege is real. Oppression is real. Societally perpetuated inequalities are real. Before we fix all of the things wrong with our world, we first need to understand their causes; we have to go to the root of the issue. I’m a firm believer that pretty much all roots begin with open-mindedness and a willingness to empathize.
We need to check our privilege, even if we aren’t racist, because we have a responsibility to be informed, caring citizens. We need to check our privilege because it helps us grow. We need to check our privilege because empathy and understanding breed love, and the world could always use more kindness.
I don’t want you to feel guilty… I want you to feel aware.
* Interested in seeing what some of the imperceptible ways privilege benefits/harms majority and minority groups are? Check out this amazing article that “unpacks” the “invisible knapsack” of privilege. Written by a white person, it’s an eye opening read for those in the majority group who struggle to see how privilege plays into their lives and why they should care.