Should we ditch the term ‘Check Your Privilege’?

By Lindsay Riddoch


I am going to start this by checking my privilege. I am white. I am able-bodied. I am heterosexual and cisgendered – so far as I accept the meaning of that word. I am writing this on a MacBook in my flat in central London – which, yes, is funded by Mummy’s money. I am, by all of these measures, privileged. Please be rest assured that in everything I write from here on in I am more than aware of all of these privileges, and of the impact they have had on the fortunes I have been blessed with in my life.

As well as all of these things, I have an unlucky affection for the website of Tumblr. Fondly thought of by many feminists, race activists, mental health aficionados and those that like beautiful pictures of interior design, this website harbours many a dark secret. Whilst I could spend the rest of my working life discussing these, today I will focus on just one – the phrase ‘Check your Privilege.’

Starting its long career on social media on the site, it has become the go-to for many feminists in enraged wine-fuelled discussions on just why the good male friend sitting opposite you has no right to tell you that ‘you should just scream.’ I myself have used it on numerous occasions – unable to express to someone how little they could understand this feeling of certainty: that the person sitting next to you on that bus is stronger than you.

On Tumblr however, the phrase has taken on a life of its own. It has come to represent the privilege of lesbians who are only attracted to one gender – for they never have to feel the oppression of enjoying both genitalia. It has come to create the words ‘cisscum’ and ‘truscum’ – used to silence the voices of cisgendered or transgendered people who believe that claiming one’s gender as ‘only attracted to intelligent people’ alienates the long term cause of queer rights. It has formed the cornerstone ethic of a world where one’s level of oppression is one’s biggest badge of honour.

It is easy to write this off as the online ramblings of bored 16 year olds who have picked up words from Jezebel and ran with them so far that they could no longer remember where they came from. Or it would be… if ‘cultural appropriation,’ the new wave of feminist strength and even the useful modern concept of privilege itself hadn’t also started on Tumblr and sites like it.

Yet now, Tumblr has somehow managed to so flip the meaning of the word ‘gender’ that to be the oppressive class one must be completely absorbed in the society-subscribed notion of gender associated with what is between one’s legs, as well as having no obvious preference for any sort of person, based on any kind of personality trait. I could be wrong, but I think therefore Tumblrites would struggle to find the ‘cisscum’ that are oppressing them – except perhaps a few teenage boys in a dormitory somewhere, no idea that they are single-handedly responsible for the oppression of the rest of the world’s population.

When one adopts – and confidently uses – a phrase or concept, one not only bares the responsibility for how one means it, but also for where it could lead. The Oppression Olympics and Social Justice Warriors of Tumblr are the obvious, and very real, ending to the phrase ‘Check your Privilege.’ Instead of believing in human empathy you remark only on someone’s luck of having been born with certain advantages, and so you close down your cause. The more I delve into the deep dark worlds of Tumblr the better I understand the inevitably petty, ignorant and narcissistic ending of this obsession with privilege. Similar to the phrase ‘it could always be worse,’ it adds nothing useful to a discussion or a cause. It unhelpfully leaves all of us scrambling to justify our opinions by attaching them to some form of oppression which ‘they’ have put upon us. If you make having privilege a flaw or a fault, then you make the desire to be oppressed strong. Making the desire to be oppressed strong ensures people stop looking for solutions.

I have taken the active decision, therefore, to never use, or imply the premise of, ‘Check your Privilege.’  By not using this phrase I am not denying my, or anyone else’s, privilege. Instead I am merely accepting that bringing attention to it does not further my fight for gender equality, or for equality in any other areas of my life where I may consider myself unlucky. I am in no doubt that there will be much disagreement with just about every word that I have just written – and I have no issue with that whatsoever: never did I claim to hold everyone’s answers. As I do not claim to hold the answers of anyone else I hope that in rebutting what is written they will not claim to hold my answers either – whether or not I am ‘privileged.’

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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