Most 5C students want to change the world in one capacity or another. How they do so varies – a Pitzer student and a CMCer, for example, will approach a problem differently. Yet while many set out to improve the world on a global scale, many others choose to focus on eliminating racism, sexism, and other forms of bias here in Claremont. Though this is a noble goal and starting at home has a certain sense to it, the way in which most of us go about achieving it does not: particularly when it comes to tackling the concept of “privilege.”
The theory of “checking your privilege” rests on the central idea that certain people in the U.S. are more oppressed than others. Some groups have fewer socio-economic opportunities and are more likely to experience discrimination than other groups. Everyone experiences some level of oppression, but no one experiences all its forms and nuances to the same degree.
In its theoretical form, “checking your privilege” is nothing more than basic human decency, uncomplicated and commonly valued. In practice, however, “checking your privilege” twists into something toxic: a hierarchical system that feeds the ills it was meant to stave off. Rather than encouraging understanding, it stratifies and isolates groups; rather than incentivizing kindness, it awards power on the basis of shallow, fixed traits.
On college campuses, “checking your privilege” has come to mean being subservient to a social hierarchy. The idea is to reverse what some students view as American society’s existing social hierarchy, so that the so-called “most privileged” are on the lowest rung and the “most oppressed” are on the highest. Where you fall in this system depends on various categories. The main ones are race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, ability, and gender. The lowest member in this hierarchy is the neuro-typical, healthy, white, wealthy, heterosexual, cisgender male.
“Privileged” students must always defer to those above them in the hierarchy, falling quiet when told to and taking their word for everything. One’s position in the hierarchy outweighs the merit of their argument. If a woman calls out a man, she is applauded for speaking truth to power. If a man questions a woman, he’s sexist. If someone higher up than you says you have offended them, you must apologize vociferously and ensure that it will not happen again. And if you ever plan to say something that could be considered offensive, you must preface it with a list of trigger warnings so people can decide whether or not they care to listen to you.
The first flaw in this system is that it discourages understanding the struggles of others, as the reverse privilege social hierarchy is generally intolerant of mistakes. Anything deemed “classist,” “sexist,” “racist,” “transphobic,” “homophobic,” “ableist,” etc. – whether it really is one of those things or not – will result in immediate outrage that can continue even after the transgressor realizes and apologizes. This can still occur even if the individual is only rumored to support “dangerous” ideas. As a result, there is an incentive to take the easiest, most submissive path.
Often, this means focusing only on gender and race, as these traits are the most easily discernible; when you first encounter someone, you can generally ascertain their gender and race immediately. You could pause and learn the nuances of their identity, but the reverse privilege hierarchy incentivizes you not to do so; finding out details about a given individual’s racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status requires extensive questioning, and identity-based questions are typically considered offensive in the new hierarchy (especially when asked by the “privileged”). Since any perceived offense can result in social ostracism, there is little incentive to try and learn more about your classmates. As a result, gender and race act as trump cards, superseding subtle categories – such as socioeconomic status – even when such traits are often more indicative of the level of hardship someone has faced than one’s race or gender.
“Checking your privilege” does not encourage one to understand the full picture of other students’ backgrounds. Even on the off chance one were able to understand every nuance of their fellow students’ personal story, there is still no metric by which to compare them. What means more: one student’s low socioeconomic status or another student’s race? This is a question that cannot be answered.
Further and perhaps more significantly, the sheer complexity of social systems and the blatant lack of nuance in the reverse privilege hierarchy cause the system to actually reinforce the very systems of oppression “checking your privilege” is meant to dismantle. Say there is a student who is “oppressed” in almost every category (perhaps a black lesbian who is a first-generation immigrant.) But now suppose she actually had an easy upbringing; she grew up in a well-to-do family with loving parents in a progressive town. Now consider a man who is “privileged,” but grew up with an abusive parent in a low-income household. It is quite possible that he has endured more violence and emotional turmoil over the course of his life than she has, but the privilege system would still to expect him to “check his privilege” without expecting the same of her.
Such a system is precisely the opposite of what “checking your privilege” is meant to be. However, it is not how our campus has to be. We can and should exemplify the original meaning of “checking your privilege,” – namely, treating others with respect and dignity. It would be as simple as incentivizing kind and thoughtful behavior, regardless of an individual’s identity. One’s social capital should rise based on one’s behavior, rather than based on traits like sexual orientation or gender. As it stands, the reverse privilege hierarchy rewards fixed, physical traits. Once the categories are drawn up, that’s it. If we want our campus culture to instill lasting respect and thoughtfulness in its students, we would do well to give up on the oppression Olympics and instead start focusing on our classmates’ character.