Writing this letter took a lot of courage, especially after seeing all of the ad hominem attacks and ridicule directed at Tal Fortgang ‘17 in response to his article in the Princeton Tory. However, the discussion on privilege and how we approach it is crucial, so here’s hoping that I won’t be attacked when I say I have a problem with the indiscriminate use of the phrase “check your privilege.” The phrase discourages discussions, leads to ad hominem attacks and dismisses arguments based on who the speaker is rather than what the speaker is saying.
I have noticed a strange phenomenon throughout my time at Princeton. Whenever I discuss political issues, I am silenced with the phrase “check your privilege” when I disagree with aspects of activist views on redistribution of wealth, LGBTQ rights or feminism, solely because I am a straight male from an upper-middle class family. On the other hand, I am somehow entitled to contradict the same activists without nearly as much hostility — or scrutiny — on matters about immigration, racism or mental illness, presumably due to my firsthand experience and disadvantage in those areas as a neuroatypical, first generation Korean immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English at 10.
In most of my discussions, the phrase “check your privilege” did more harm than good — I understand that it’s meant to ask people to evaluate their privilege and the effect it has on their views, but why is it said with so much hostility toward the person, and often paired with another commonly used phrase: “Shut up?” Is the anger at the presumed hypocrisy of the speakers, since they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about since they are white/neurotypical/straight? I know the point isn’t to attack me personally, but it is hard not to feel attacked when the implication is that I am uneducated about the topic because I am not marginalized.
I am not denying the value of asking someone to evaluate their privilege. However, “check your privilege” is used too often to dismiss arguments and to start conversations directed at privileged groups, instead of facilitating conversations with privileged groups. It uses stereotyping, ignorance and shaming against one group as a weapon in a fight against stereotyping, ignorance and shaming against another. The end result is hostility, resentment and denial of privilege, with headlines like “ ‘I’ll never apologize for my white privilege’ guy is basically most of white America.”
Yes, sadly, bigots exist. Yes, sadly, there are people who have no idea what privilege is, even when they benefit from it the most. And look, I get it. It’s annoying and obnoxious to have to explain the myriad ways in which privilege affords protection from harassment and prejudice to someone who has no idea what being black/ depressed/trans feels like, especially when it’s for the umpteenth time. But even if this is the case, we should assess opinions on their soundness and merit, not on the speaker’s sex, gender, wealth, education, race or neurotypicity. No argument should be declared illegitimate by virtue of the speaker’s privilege, and no one should have to defend themselves from ad hominem attacks in the meta-debate about whether their views are offensive that follows the accusation of privilege.
As Jon Lovett wrote in “The Culture of Shut Up,” we should “win the argument; [not] declare the argument too offensive to be won.” If you are still unconvinced, think about all the layers of “privilege” lost when multiple oppressed groups disagree and throw the phrase at each other: Earlier this year, the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois decided not to show a documentary criticizing female genital mutilation and honor killings since it was deemed offensive to Muslims, whose accusations amounted to “check your non-Muslim privilege.” The phrase “check your privilege” creates a false dichotomy between the unprivileged-right and the privileged-wrong, when, in fact, discussions of privilege should provide us with better context for understanding each other.
Does my privilege influence my views? Absolutely. Should I recognize that, understand them in context, try to educate myself and put myself in another’s shoes? Most certainly. Does being part of an oppressed group make your opinions more relevant in conversations about that oppression? Of course. But none of that gives you the right to shut someone up, label them a bigot and dismiss their opinions with a convenient three-word phrase. I, like everyone else, have a multitude of personas and identities. I am checking my privilege, but I am not my privilege. So please, look past my privilege, and try to listen to what I have to say.
Dodam Ih ’15
Seoul, South Korea