I first heard the word "privilege" as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in the early-mid 1990s. As a student of color on campus who had grown up with a fair amount of racism, I quite enjoyed telling white students to "check their race privilege."
But as someone who had attended excellent public schools growing up, I had acquired no small amount of privilege myself. For example, I came into college typing 50 words per minute. Most college-bound students at my high school took typing because they knew how useful it would be for their future (professional) careers. I remember watching really smart fellow students at Illinois who hadn’t gone to well-resourced high schools peck-peck-pecking away at the keyboard with one finger on each hand, and thinking "Boy, if they only had the foresight to take a typing course they’d be done with that paper more quickly."
I, of course, never thought about the fact that my high school had literally hundreds of typewriters and computers available for use by the future knowledge-workers of America.
That’s privilege. In short, unearned advantage that makes life easier for some and harder for others, advantage that often has serious implications for everything from personal safety to professional success.
But what does it mean to "check your privilege" – a common line among diversity progressives, on college campuses and beyond. I did not earn the typewriters in my high school, and typing fast gave me a serious advantage over others in college. Should I have ‘checked my privilege’ by forcing myself to type with two fingers? And how should a white person check his or her whiteness?
On this question, I’ve been appreciating the hard-nosed insights contained in Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of Privilege,
Maltz Bovy quotes the scholar Peggy McInthosh’s famous 1988 paper White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies: “As we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about white privilege must ask, ‘Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?’”
Maltz Bovy searches through some of McIntosh’s other work, including an interview she did with Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker, and discovers that McIntosh does not actually have very good plans for giving up white privilege, and moreover acknowledges that all the talk about checking privilege may actually make privileged people (subconsciously no doubt) more likely to hoard their privilege. Maltz Bovy concludes, somewhat cheekily, “The only concrete aim of the privilege-awareness project might well be that it inspires more privilege workshops and for-credit privilege coursework, aimed mainly at privileged students.”
So let’s ask some hard questions. Should I check my class privilege by, say, not passing it down to my children? Knowing that an excellent public education delivered a good part of the privilege I carry; and knowing that an excellent education is largely determined by whether you have the money to buy into an expensive neighborhood; and knowing that every time a person with money purchases or rents such housing it drives housing prices up, making it harder for poor and working class folks to buy into those neighborhoods and put their kids in top-notch public schools … should I not use my money to purchase such housing to get my kids an excellent public education?
I, of course, do. If anybody reading this does not attempt to give their kids every class/educational advantage they can (knowing full well that when they call in a connection to get their kids into that super awesome afterschool program or summer camp, it means somebody else’s kid just got dropped from the list), I’d love to hear about it.
I say that not as a sassy challenge, but because I’ve actually seen a group of people who, to the best of their ability, did in fact give up their class privilege: Catholic Workers.
Founded by Dorothy Day during the Great Depression, the Catholic Worker is an anarchist movement of people who attempt to live like Jesus did. They do not simply serve the poor, they live with them in houses of hospitality across the country. They believe that what you do not immediately need belongs to those who go without. Nobody owns anything. Everything is held in common.
Back when I believed my own rhetoric about checking my privilege, I spent a lot of time in Catholic Worker Houses up and down the East Coast, and actually lived in the St. Francis House in Chicago for several months right after college. I met people who left their college degrees off their resumes when they applied for jobs because they viewed listing their education as taking unfair advantage of their privilege. I knew others who, after being arrested while protesting a U.S. military campaign, refused to post bail money on the principle that if others did not have the means to do so, they would in solidarity go to jail with them.
Catholic Workers were smarter than my Marxist professors and more radical than the most militant activists I knew. The thing that impressed me most about them: the utter absence of self-righteousness.
I honestly have neither their spine nor their soul.
I use the term ‘soul’ intentionally. In my experience, the people who are the most likely to give up their own privilege rather than check other people’s are religious people – Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, etc.
If religious identity can be an inspiration for “(being) the change you want to see in the world” (Gandhi), why is it so infrequently discussed in diversity progressive circles?