Qualified to Suffer
Recently, in the public sphere, the idea of “privilege” has been surfacing with frequency. Telling others to “check their privilege” has become a reminder, both in day to day interactions and online, of systematic inequalities based on gender, race, ethnicity, and wealth, especially within the United States, a country with a unique history of racial capitalism. However, this phrase has become in an of itself problematic. It both stereotypes people who have been clumped into the privileged category – those who are white or pass as white, have wealth, and/or are male, as not having suffered, handed everything on a silver platter, and not caring about society’s ills. This stereotyping also applies to those who tell people to check their privilege, as they are characterised as overly sensitive, too politically correct, and making a big deal about issues which are not so serious in real life.
The problem with both of these extremes should be obvious, and yet the recent culture of political correctness, social activism, and privilege-checking remains, to a degree, oblivious. America remains rife with racism, sexism, and income inequality, and these issues will not even begin to be appropriately addressed unless discussed and brought very forcefully into public discourse. Perhaps calling people out as privileged is not the most eloquent or long lasting form of enacting social change, but it is convenient, concise and even rather trendy, at least for the time being.
The issue still remains with being on the receiving end of these comments. Many times they are appropriately directed towards people who are speaking out of line, or not qualified in their experience or personal background to make themselves authorities on certain topics which impact certain ethnic, racial, and gender groups within society.
With this in mind, telling someone they don’t look hispanic enough or black enough to understand an issue or face prejudice, and are resultantly privileged, or assuming that just because people are white they haven’t suffered is not a particularly appropriate or constructive action. This is where the convenience of the “privilege” catch-phrase fails. Not only is it discounting the identities of individuals, by reducing them to a snap judgement based on exterior appearances, but it also creates an almost pathological need to prove that you have struggled, simply to be disqualified from the privileged category, and have people think that you understand (or pretend to understand) their own particular suffering. This in turn, continues to undermine the experiences of those who are truly underprivileged because of the colour of their skin, the way they form their words in English, the amount of the zeroes at the end of their paychecks, regardless of whether or not you can discern this information about them from a simple glance or a brief conversation.
People need to break out of the mind-set that there is some sort of scale against which privilege, or lack thereof is measured. There is no set of boxes to tick on your countdown to being underprivileged – living in a trailer does not earn you more points than say, going to private school. Instead, what exists, and what will remain in the United States, is a large set of complex, interrelated and assorted manifestations of discrimination, in which everyone plays a part, some privileged and some discriminated against. This web of bigotry is very painful, for those who are consciously aware and interact with it in a daily basis, and it must not be overlooked, in the constant defamation of the privileged.
Sofia is a sophmore at Duke University.