Checking privilege serves to reinforce it

Our campus, like many others, has felt comfortable in encouraging privilege talk. People are supposed to publicly “check” their privilege and in doing so, it is hoped that they become aware of conditions of inequality that benefit or harm them. This is considered progressive because people assume that privilege talk is about undermining the powerful or correcting injustices.

It looks clear to me, however, that privilege talk is about helping the powerful get more powerful. In fact, checking privilege has a lot of advantages. People feel pleasure when they see security in their lives — their privileges. That’s because these enable them, for instance, to take more risks, enjoy dangerous activities and feel less guilt and more comfort. Speaking openly about one’s privilege even helps sleep, because there are less troublesome unknowns remaining.

Let’s be honest. Privilege talk is not the weapon of radical college students, and it’s hardly a progressive idea. The basic formula was inscribed on the oracle at Delphi thousands of years ago: gnothi seauton, or “know thyself.” Knowing oneself is a duty for people who want to live good lives. Knowing oneself means knowing all the privileges one has, and the privileges that one doesn’t have.

Recently, a friend of mine shared photos of a sleeping man on her Facebook wall. The photos were of a man sleeping on BART seats reserved for sick, elderly and pregnant travelers. This sleeping man wore visibly tattered clothing and by the look of his bag containing broken bottles, he was likely homeless. This friend of mine wrote in all-caps “Male privilege on the Bart!” My friend thought this sleeping man had taken too much space on the train, or at least so much space as to constitute an implicit yet public display of his “privilege” over other travelers. My friend especially wanted to check this man’s privilege because of the apparent phenomenon of excessive male leg room on public transit, which has emerged as an important topic of discussion for feminists. Still, I was genuinely amazed to see her so outraged. That’s because the reality of my friend’s photograph conflicted with her description. The photograph hardly depicted a man taking up too much space. The photo really depicted a homeless black man sleeping on an empty BART train.

Sleeping on the BART might be illegal, but I doubt this person had much privilege at all, let alone the “MALE PRIVILEGE” of taking up too much space. What so amazed me was that my friend felt sufficiently outraged that she wanted to wake this sleeping man, ask him to sit upright and publicly check his privilege in front of the four other travelers on the mostly empty BART train that sleepy afternoon. She didn’t actually do so, however, because “men are dangerous” and she feared for her safety. I privately messaged her to discover that this man had not said or indicated that he would attack her. How could he? He was sleeping. The comments on my friend’s post were fantastical. Most shared similar experiences of privileges and the checkings thereof. Like my friend, one person had seen a man in shabby clothing sleeping on the BART. But unlike my friend, that person had courage enough to notify the police.

This reminded me of Oscar Grant, a young African American father of two with somewhat “shabby clothing” who was shot and killed when BART police responded to complaints that men of color were causing trouble on BART (cellphone footage shows a minor commotion). Someone felt obligated to check the privilege of a young man taking up the “auditory space” of a train, and it resulted in a young man’s death. My friend is an incredibly privileged student, who checks her privilege at any and every opportunity (so she says), and that’s exactly the problem. I suspect that checking the sleeping man’s privilege was really about checking her own privilege. You see, it’s a privilege to toy with the idea of reporting an apparently harmless black homeless man to the police, or to publicly shame someone online and photograph them without consent. She even proved that she could conscript the emotional force of being underprivileged against this man — himself not very privileged. All this checked — that is proved — her own privilege, that is power.

The number don’t lie. Three decades of checking privilege directly correlate with an astronomical rise in income inequality. The more inequality we have, the more privilege gets checked by more privileged people, and the more the privileged feel pleasure (and power) in being aware of their privilege and so, grow in power. It grows like a cancer. Still, I — like many on campus — care passionately about a kind of talk that is less about asserting one’s status and more about working forward without carrying indefensible and silly injustices along. In writing this article, I want to encourage a careful attitude when it comes to privilege — it’s not so nearly harmless as it seems.

Efe Atli is a UC Berkeley senior studying philosophy who has experience in journalism, entrepreneurship and public servece, and was a former Daily Cal staff member.

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