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3 questions to ask yourself before you write about privilege

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BY SAMANTHA ALLEN

It’s only been a short while since Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang penned the privilege essay read ‘round the world and already the Internet is filled to the brim with response pieces. Everyone from Violet Baudelaire at Jezebel to Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon is giving Fortgang a much-needed education in Privilege 101.

Editorials written by straight white male students at elite universities about privilege are perhaps my number one pet peeve. Not only are they routinely awful, unsubstantiated, and boorishly defensive, they probably shouldn’t exist. When you’re at the top of the heap, you don’t really have anything interesting to say about life at the bottom.

Believe me, then, when I say that I would love to give Fortgang the dressing down he so clearly deserves. But, seeing as he’s already getting a crash course in privilege from all corners of the web, I want to take a more preventative approach.

If you’re reading this, imaginary straight white male reader, and you feel the need to chime in on the subject of privilege, I want you first to ask yourself three simple questions:

1) Am I a normative looking straight white man?

Fortgang is right that his appearance “doesn’t tell the whole story.” Everyone has struggles that are invisible. But appearance certainly matters in the social reality of the United States.

Women deal routinely with sexual harassment based on our appearance. People of color face harassment and police violence based on their appearance. People with disabilities, as disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes, know what it’s like to be stared at in a way that few other people experience.

If you appear to the world to be a straight white man, you are automatically exempt from many forms of violence. That’s a big part of what privilege means.

You might not feel like your pain is visible but, whether you like it or not, we live in a specular world and you reap the benefits by simple virtue of your outward appearance. We didn’t make the rules but we all live by them.

Having visible forms of privilege is like walking through an automatic sliding door. Not having that privilege is like walking through a revolving door that spits you back out onto the street. When you stand on the inside and tell us how you got there all by yourself, forgive the rest of us for dropping our jaws in disbelief.

So if you’re a straight white man with all of your other privilege ducks in a row, don’t talk about privilege unless you’re thinking critically about the ways in which you have been its beneficiary.

You have likely been socialized to believe that your opinion on every subject matters. Let this be the one exception. Don’t write the Internet comment, delete the op-ed, put the the pen down. Stop.

2) Have I actually read anything about privilege?

I tried to stop you with the first question. It’s not too late to shut up. But if your need to speak is irrepressible, please ask yourself one more question first: do I know anything about privilege as a concept?

Imagine you’re at a party and your friends are talking about a movie that you haven’t seen. Do you quietly listen to their thoughts or do you dominate the conversation with a scathing critique of the film in question?

Conversations about privilege work the same way. You have to actually know what the term means if you want to have an intelligent conversation on the subject.

You might think that you can mask your lack of prior knowledge with an impressive SAT vocabulary. But please believe me, as a former college instructor, I know the telltale signs of a student who has not done the reading.

The proof is usually in the lede. Here’s Fortgang’s:

There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year.

And here’s one from an Emory University student for comparison:

Earlier this week, I made the (arguably poor) decision that commenting on a Facebook political post was a good idea… I asked a sarcastic commenter to unpack her statement a little further, and she replied with a short list of liberal social positions that conservatives apparently oppress on a regular basis, but that she claimed she would never convince us of on Facebook. She signed off by curtly telling me: “Check your privilege.”

Both of these authors then proceed into poorly researched diatribes about privilege with only these attention-grabbing anecdotes as introduction. These anecdotes might be an interesting way to open an article, sure, but they are not a substitute for background reading on the topic of conversation itself.

You can’t just say, “I’ve heard a lot of people talk about this privilege thing. I don’t know what that means but here’s a thousand words worth of my thoughts on the subject.” You have to introduce the topic, summarize others’ positions, and then highlight your own position by way of contrast.

So if you must write an editorial on privilege, do some reading first. Read Peggy McIntosh for starters. Read Kimberle Crenshaw. Read, read, read. Then you can try to chip in.

3) Am I making this about me?

Like Fortgang, you might have heard someone use the word “privilege” to describe your place in the world. Stop. Get a paper bag. Breathe into it. And then repeat after me: “This is not about me. This is not about me. This is not about me.”

In his editorial, Fortgang makes the classic mistake of talking about his own circumstances, his own family, his own life history. He has interpreted the word “privilege” as a personal attack.

But privilege is not about you. As blogger tekanji eloquently observes in an article for The Shrub:

Yes, privileged groups can and do come into contact with prejudice and discrimination. Are those discussions valid? You bet. But, are they appropriate when the topic is on the discrimination and/or oppression of a particular non-privileged group? Not a chance.

If you’ve been told, as Fortgang was, to “check your privilege,” it’s probably because you said something misguided in a conversation about a group to which you do not belong. To then take over the conversation entirely in order to pontificate about your own prejudice and discrimination is one of the most solipsistic things a person can do.

If you have to make your voice heard in a conversation about privilege, don’t talk about yourself. If you have no insight into, understanding of, or empathy for anything other than your own experience, you’re not going to be a very good conversationalist anyway. Privilege is about sweeping systems of power that affect entire classes of people; it’s not about the idiosyncrasies of your own experience.

So let Fortgang’s essay and the ensuing Internet outcry be a cautionary tale. And think of this article as a “Stop, Drop, and Roll” for situations in which you want to talk about privilege but don’t know whether or not you should contribute.

First, interrogate your own position. Second, check your level of knowledge. Third, make sure you’re not personalizing something that isn’t personal. Then and only then am I interested in what you have to say.

Samantha Allen is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. In addition to writing regularly for the feminist gaming blog The Border House, her writing has also appeared on Salon, Jacobin, Kotaku, and First Person Scholar. You can find her on Twitter at @CousinDangereux or on the web at www.samanthaleighallen.com.

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