Privilege and Pride: Correcting Misconceptions About “Checking Your Privilege”

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As many of you who like TOL on Facebook (HEY, like us on facebook!) may have noticed, discussions of the concept of privilege can often take a heated turn. I, myself, struggle with the concept. It has taken a long time for me to wrap my head around the demands of the idea, and particularly how it should be applied in my own life.

One of the most common misconceptions of the term, and one that is seemingly perpetuated by folks on both sides of the argument, is that it seeks to take away from one person to give to another; a zero-sum redistribution of privilege wealth, so to speak. Like any ideal it can certainly be abused and misapplied. I think the phrase “check your privilege” is unnecessarily confusing, it gives the impression of somehow stowing it away, like one does their luggage on a long flight.

“Welcome to Delta airlines, will you be checking your privilege today?”

But in my experience, changing the “checking” to “acknowledging” or “accepting” would clear up a lot of the misconceptions.

As a relatively new student of this particular issue, I feel rather unqualified to speak on the matter. I’m sure many of our other writers have much more nuanced examples and solutions than I do, but I thought I’d give it a shot.

Saturday afternoon I finished up an awesome four day tour across Virginia for work, and upon arrival to my gate in Reagan National Airport I decided to indulge in some ice cream to celebrate a fulfilling week well done.

Carry-on luggage in tow, I ambled up to the only joint offering the treat in my terminal: McDonalds. I stood back from the counter for a minute, perusing the options, until the cashier- a middle-aged black man- impatiently waved me up to order.

I try to patiently and consistently live up to the whole “do unto others” thing, generally, smiling and being polite, it sincerely bothers me when I can’t make a person with whom I am interacting smile back. But that doesn’t mean I have the ability to remain unfazed by the rudeness of others.

“I’d like a snack-size M&M McFlurry, please.”

No response from the cashier.

“Actually, it has been a big week, please make it a regular,” I said with a smile.

He visibly rolled his eyes as he underwent the apparently arduous task of tapping the screen a few times to change my order, then mumbled the price.

As I handed him a $20 bill, still smiling, but seething at the bad customer service and my inability to inspire even the smallest of smiles, I suddenly realized, this man works at McDonalds. In an airport. I can’t imagine anything more miserable than that, and my anger dissipated a little bit.

Regardless of age, race, or gender, he and I couldn’t be in much more different places: I dawdled up with a designer handbag and stylish clothes, fresh off a week of a rewarding job that pays me to fly around the country promoting what I believe in… And he works at a McDonalds. In an airport.

While I don’t think this excuses his bad customer service, if I were his boss I’d be incredibly upset, but by “checking my privilege” I was able to adjust my own attitude to at least make sense of his behavior.

I am still just a new student to the matters of privilege, but this situation struck me as a great microcosm of the greater discussion at hand. There are some things that I will never have to experience: supporting a family on the salary of a McDonald’s cashier, being poor, being a person of color. We can all contribute to a better society by at the very least expanding our minds to think about the things other people experience and have to go through that we don’t– and how that affects each of our outlooks on the world.