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So, You’ve Been Told You Need to “Check Your Privilege.” Now what?

In this essay Nathan Palmer provides some helpful suggestions for how to deal with personal social privilege and strategies for reducing social inequality in general.

Have you recently been told that you need to, “check your privilege”? Has someone just told you that they experienced something you said or did as a microaggression? Did you have a conversation about race, sexuality, religion, etc. go horribly wrong? Are people upset with you? Are you trying unsuccessfully to convince everyone that, “that’s not what I meant”?

I feel you. I’ve been there myself more times than I care to admit. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied man I have most if not all of the social privileges a person can have. Getting “called out” about your social privilege is not fun, but it can be a learning experience, if you let it be. Here’s some strategies for how to make the best out of these uncomfortable moments.

Start by Actually Listening

When those around you tell you that you words or actions are hurtful or exclusionary, it’s very easy to bunker down behind all of your defenses. If you try with all your might to convince everyone that they got it all wrong, don’t be surprised if they try just as hard to convince you that your social privilege is real and creating problems. Instead of getting defensive, try to really listen to what those around you are saying. Hear them and repeat back to them what you think they are saying.

Accept That Other People Experience The World Differently

When discussions of privilege or discrimination come up, it is only a matter of time until someone of privilege says, “you’re seeing things that aren’t there.” First, we have a name for that; it’s called being delusional. Second, it’s unlikely that people of color, women, gender-sexual minorities, etc. are all suffering from the same collective delusion. So if it’s not a mass collective delusion, then how can two people see things so differently?

The answer lies in how our social location (i.e. our gender, race, class, sexuality, etc. and how it relates to everyone else’s statuses in our community) affects our experiences. As a heterosexual man, I am likely unaware of the harassment or discrimination women and the LGBTQ community face. Unless I see it happen right in front of me or hear about it happening, then I will likely be totally unaware it’s happening at all. The point is, if someone tells you that they have had experiences that are totally different from your own, that doesn’t mean they are false. Accept that you are not omniscient and never tell someone they are “seeing things” unless you really believe they are delusional.

Act Individually, Think Institutionally

Once you’ve accepted that you have social privilege, it’s time to get to work on yourself and your community. As the humorous video above suggests, people with privilege need to use it to ensure that everyone in their community is being treated fairly. First, start with yourself. Do some deep reflective thinking about yourself and your social location and ask yourself, “what am I not seeing that others around me are experiencing?” When you see someone doing something discriminatory or perpetuating a stereotype speak up and let everyone in the room know that you don’t support this behavior or agree with the stereotype.

Now comes the harder part, changing your community. If you really want to work against social inequality, you have to act individually, but be thinking institutionally. To change things institutionally, you have to focus on the laws, policies, and structures that guide your community.

Start by thinking of the groups and organizations you are a part of and how they are affected by social inequality. As a society we often assume that every group or organization is unaffected by racism, classism, sexism, and so on until someone claims they have been the target of bias, prejudice, or discrimination[1]. I think we could make a radical change in society if we simply assumed that every organization is affected by social privilege. We should take for granted that every group and organization has the potential to recreate systems of inequality and/or reinforce the ideologies of oppression.

Whenever a group you are a part of is making a hiring decision, ask everyone involved, “how are we going to ensure that this hiring process is unbiased as possible?” Take a look at the people who are in your community and then look at the people who are in positions of leadership. If the leadership is almost exclusively from one particular social location or if one group of people is absent entirely from positions of leadership, ask why.

Move from Getting “Called Out” to Getting Feedback

It’s never fun to have the spotlight put on you for something negative, but I am so thankful that those around me had the courage to hold me accountable and have a difficult conversation with me. We have to move away from the idea that we are being “called out” for our social privilege. Instead, we should think of it as feedback from someone who cares about us and the community we’re in. Today I am less oppressive than I was a decade ago and I owe so much of this fact to the friends, teachers, and mentors who were patient with me and risked giving me hard feedback.

The first step toward doing anything about social inequality is to accept that it is real, it is affecting you personally, and it is affecting your community. From this place, being “called out” is being “given feedback” from someone who cares about you and your shared community. From here, you can get to work on dismantling the systems of oppression in society and make your community a better place for everyone to live in.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is your social location? That is, what are your social statuses and are those statuses shared by the majority of the people in your community or not? You only need to share statuses that you feel comfortable sharing here.
  2. What types of experiences are you more likely to have because of your social location? What types of experiences are you less likely to have because of your social location?
  3. Given your answer to the first two questions, what biases or blindspots might you have because of your social location?
  4. How is your life affected by social privilege? Explain your answer.

  1. Not everyone in society makes this assumption. Often it is people of privilege who make this assumption. However, everyone is capable of making this assumption.  ↩