“Check Your Privilege” Really Means “If You’re a White Man, Then Shut Up”

Sam Woolfe June 10, 2014 8
“Check Your Privilege” Really Means “If You’re a White Man, Then Shut Up”

If a white male writes about issues which concern groups who suffer from marginalisation, inequality or discrimination (i.e. women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community, those financially less well off etc.) he may get told: “Check your privilege!” Many feminists, leftists or those who are ‘politically correct’ feel that white, heterosexual, middle-class males are biased by their privilege, that they should check it, and then re-think what they’ve said or written about. It’s as if one’s opinion about a disadvantaged group is only valid if one belongs to that disadvantaged group. It would follow from this that the opinions which matter most are those which are held by the most disadvantaged. But this is clearly nonsense.

Not only is “check your privilege” not even an argument; it is a lazy, narrow-minded, insulting, hypocritical, self-righteous, arrogant and idiotic way of suppressing discussion. Here it is why it doesn’t qualify as an argument. Telling someone to “check their privilege” is an ad hominem attack and nothing more. It involves saying that someone’s opinion is invalidated by the fact that they have white skin and male body parts.

Of course, it is important to consider the voices of minority or oppressed groups. And while I can appreciate the fact that one’s background and experiences can influence one’s opinions, and that most white men have it pretty lucky in life, this does not mean that being white and a man makes it impossible to think rationally, morally, objectively and critically about issues concerning marginalised groups. This is why the phrase is insulting. Yes, I might be a white, middle-class male, but this doesn’t mean I lack individual autonomy. “Check your privilege” is an ad hominem attack because it focuses on the person and not on the reasoning, evidence and facts involved in their argument. This is why it is a lazy and intellectually dishonest phrase.

People should always consider how their socioeconomic or racial status may affect their point of view, but this is not what is meant by people when they say “check your privilege”. What this ad hominem attack really means is “You’re white and a man, so you have no idea what you’re talking about…shut up!” It is actually a subtle way of expressing racism, sexism and the desire to silence another’s opinion. Just because someone is a white man doesn’t mean they lack imagination, sympathy, empathy or open-mindedness towards other points of view. Furthermore, who is to say who is privileged or not?

Let’s not forget that white men can still suffer inequality and hardships like anyone else – homeless white men do exist after all. I think the person demanding that someone “check their privilege” should examine their own biases and think twice about stereotyping writers who just happen to be white and male. “Check your privilege” expresses a pre-determined judgement about the writer in question, which is the very thing the writer is being accused of doing. You cannot simply notice a person’s physical characteristics and then make sweeping generalisations about that person based on that. This is why the phrase is narrow-minded, arrogant and hypocritical.

The only purpose of the phrase “check your privilege” is to shut down discussion. Those who say it are guilty of the same prejudice that they accuse others of. Those who say it are also guilty of self-righteousness because they think they are morally superior by telling another dominant white man to shut up; as if only they know who is entitled to discuss the issues faced by marginalised groups. Whenever someone uses this phrase be sure to point out how idiotic it really is. The irony of the phrase is that it is counter-productive to creating a truly equal society. It is a phrase which creates more division and guilt, and which fails to recognise that the merit of one’s character or opinion does not depend on arbitrary distinctions such as race and gender.

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