“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.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with this post. “Check your privilege” is nothing but an ad hominem designed to shut down rational debate, and I would emphasise *rational*, because a white male is quite capable of forming rational opinions about non-white, non-male issues, even if they are less able to emotionally connect with the issues. The phrase is used to shunt the discussion away from reason towards emotion, from thinking to feeling.

  2. ‘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”. ‘ – erm, it kinda is exactly what people mean, at least in my personal experience.
    Furthermore, pre-judging people in an absolutist way based on their presentation as cis, white, male? Not cool, I would agree. However, it is pretty fair to say that these are all factors that *suggest* a lack of personal experience when talking about issues that primarily affect those members of society who are not cis/white/male. Given the number of people who appear to jump in on issues outside their personal experience without listening to the experiences of those whom the issues affect, “check your privilege”, or possibly “have you checked your privilege?” seems a fair response, and not one that precludes someone from addressing the points you have made as well. Can you not just reply “yes, my opinion here is formed in part by listening to X Y Z who has experienced what I am talking about, and I have considered the ways that my position in society as A B C has affected the above opinion”? There, you have checked your privelege, and in my experience many people will accept that as an answer.

  3. You’ve clearly completely misunderstood what the phrase ‘check your privilege’ means. Telling someone to check their privilege is not shutting them down or telling them that because they are white/male/whatever that their opinion is automatically wrong, it never has meant that, it’s simply a very concise way of telling someone that, because of their age/race/gender/sex/orientation, they are not in a position to pass judgement on, for example, what is/isn’t discrimination against a group you do not belong to, or what being part of that group feels like when being discriminated against. If you are a white heterosexual cisgendered able-bodied male you are not in a position to tell women, people of colour, members of the LGBT+ community or people with disabilities that they are wrong if they’re telling you of a time they experienced discrimination. If you attempt to say to a person of colour that you, as a white person, experience racism you may quite rightly be told to check your privilege. Because while you might have once been called a ‘honky’ and you might have cried about it, you have never and will never be paid less because of your skin colour, be judged by society for your skin colour, or be under constant threat of racial violence. The list is longer than that but I hope you get the idea.

    It’s typical that a phrase created and employed in an attempt to create more understanding around discrimination has been taken by the most privileged group in this society and made to sound as though it is THEY who are being discriminated against. The fact you’re willing to write an article about how you feel this one phrase negatively impacts your life really does say a lot about how much discrimination you (don’t) experience.

    • Bed wetting liberalism.

      Funnily enough I did a “check your privilege” quiz and scored a meagre 34/100. Poor, working class, uneducated, I also have a strong working class/blue collar accent called ‘cockney’ if you are American it is an accent until the last 40 years associated with poverty and ignorance in slum London. Cockney is a li!!le more respectable these days. I don’t pronounce ts in words it is called a glottal stop or haitches at the start of words. Have becomes ‘ave for example.

      I got dealt a good hand in the card game of victim poker.

      I have no time for people who wish to shut down the debate and check your privilege just seems more cultural Marxism to endure.

    • In your first paragraph you criticise passing judgement on others, yet ironically you make a pre-determined judgement about my life in the very last sentence, despite the fact you know nothing about me. You don’t know what my religion is, if I am able-bodied, what my ethnicity is, my sexuality or my mental health.

      You also didn’t address the fact that “check your privilege” is not an argument, but an ad hominem fallacy. You might find the following article useful:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/udoka-okafor/argumentum-ad-hominem-an-_b_5382371.html

      • I didn’t make a pre-determined judgement about your life, I merely know that, given the fact you’re a white male, you have a certain set of privileges, more so than any other other race/gender combination.

        I know nothing about your sexuality, religion or physical and mental health, nor did I claim to.

        And yes, that article is interesting, but not useful in the way I assume you intended it to be because the issue the woman is writing about is not (and I think I made it clear when I said “telling someone to check their privilege is not shutting them down or telling them that because they are white/male/whatever that their opinion is automatically wrong”) what I am talking about. The incident she speak of is very, very different. The man in question may have had a valid point, in which case he would have checked his privilege and come at the issue of feminism from a place of understanding and empathy rather than defence and ignorance. I don’t agree that shutting someone down before they have even said a word simply based on their gender is a useful thing to do in a discussion, but that’s not what the ‘check your privilege’ thing is about. I kind of get the impression that this Huff Post article was the only source you used in attempting to understand the phrase.

        Let me give you some examples of the correct use of the ‘check your privilege’ argument:

        Example 1

        Rich man with wealthy background: Hey poor guy, how about you stop moaning about being poor and not getting paid enough and just, like, stop being poor (I’m just paraphrasing what I’ve heard some politicians say)

        In this imaginary case the man spouting ignorance grew up surrounded by wealth and never had to work for his food, clothing and shelter and so, by not acknowledging this and not ‘checking his privilege’, he assumes that it must be that easy for everyone else. If he checked his privilege he would see that he was very fortunate to grow up with such financial security and he would also realise that not everyone has that automatically available to them and those people need an extra hand in life.

        Example 2

        White lady: Black History month is so racist, why do they need a special month? Why don’t we have WHITE History month?

        Because, racist lady with unchecked privilege, every month is White History Month. If she checked her privilege she would realise that people of colour need ‘special attention’ in the same way that women and members of the LGBT+ community do in this society because the playing field is not even. International Women’s Day and Gay Pride (etc etc) exist because every other day is International Man’s Day, everyday life is Straight Pride. We need to level the playing field.

          • I apologise. I intended it to sound condescending but with the condescension aimed at the fact that women/people of colour/LGBT+ members, simply for being any of the aforementioned, are typically less privileged. But I clearly have to work on how I word things, I didn’t mean to cause offence so I really do apologise that I did.

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