How privileged am I? The trials of “checking my privilege”.
Calculating just exactly how privileged I am is a complicated struggle — but that doesn’t make it any less important.
I can guarantee that we’ve all heard the phrase “check your privilege” — many of us, I’m sure, in the context of rather chaotic social media debates. The idea of “checking your privilege — examining which factors of your life and identity places you at an advantage, and how you stand to benefit from a system that oppresses others — is an incredibly important one that has left me pondering a key question: just how privileged am I?
Like everyone, I am defined by multiple identities. Some of these I know make me privileged — I’m White, I’m educated, I have enough money to food and clothe myself. Others — for example, I’m a woman, and I have a disability — place me at a disadvantage. I benefit from White privilege, giving me a leg up in the job market and considerably lowering my chances of being a victim of police violence, and I struggle because of patriarchy, meaning that I’m impacted by the wage gap and am at constant risk of sexual assault. So it goes.
But is it possible to weigh up these factors to reach a definitive answer of just how privileged I am?
We are often reminded that oppression is intersectional, but so is privilege. White men are more privileged than White women because they’re men. White straight men are more privileged than White gay men because they’re straight. And White rich straight men are more privileged than most people because…well.
At the same time, even when you consider yourself part of a marginalised group, the intersectionality of oppression means that “checking your privilege” can become a bit of a balancing act. For instance, White women are oppressed by patriarchy, but we are also often asked to check their privilege and avoid ‘White feminism’ that ignores how, for women of colour, experiences of gender are compounded by experiences of race.
As a result, this process of weighing up your privileges, trying to judge the dynamics of different parts of your identity in order to gauge just how privileged or oppressed you are, can start to feel a bit like an overcomplicated maths equation. My education privilege adds to my economic privilege, which in turn multiplies my White privilege. But do any of the disadvantages of being female and disabled take away from any of my privileges? Do I feel any of the effects of my disadvantage less because my privileges balance them out, and vice versa? Which factors are worth more ‘points’ on the privilege scale, and which are right down at the very bottom?
If you’re confused, don’t worry. So am I. And so is anyone else who has tried to undertake this kind of self-assessment, trying to decipher exactly how advantaged or disadvantaged they are. This is why an entire slew of privilege ‘calculators’ and ‘checklists’ and even Buzzfeed quizzes exist to try and give some sort of order to the chaos, supposedly providing an easy tool for understanding how advantaged you are.
This process is made even harder when some of the categories of identity that we think about are rather fuzzy. For example, which class I belong to kind of depends on who you ask. My dad’s family history is mainly working-class. I grew up on a council estate with a single mum and not much money — all things that the Daily Mail would turn their nose up at, and that student grant applications fawn over as signs of disadvantage. But, at the same time, my mum has a middle-class job, I have an undergraduate degree, and many of my hobbies are traditionally defined as ‘middle-class’ interests. I would likely define myself as middle-class, but how extensive is my class privilege? And how can I even begin to figure it out?
Of course, the fact that this process is complicated doesn’t make it any less important, although coming up with a conclusive ‘score’ of how privileged you are, and ranking it against others — congratulations, 9 out of 10 privilege! — isn’t really the point. The point of this process of “checking your privilege” is consciousness-raising, recognising the oppressive systems that are in place and identifying how you benefit from and contribute to them. I am privileged in many ways. I am also disadvantaged in others. I’m not trying to enter the ‘Oppression Olympics’, and nor should anybody else. But, raising my awareness of my place in oppressive systems means that I can better understand my role in tackling them. As I should.