“Check your privilege.” No admonishment from white liberal progressives to other white people is complete without this line or some variation. You can almost hear the chest beating as they lambaste their less enlightened brethren for failing to acknowledge the unearned privilege they’re granted at birth. These futile exchanges devolve into nothing more than arguments over who’s more racist peppered with accusations of harboring white guilt.
Recently, it seems the destruction of the racist white supremacist system has been sold as a microwave operation in which white people admitting they have privilege is an instant fix. Now it’s surely impossible to fix a system if you don’t recognize what needs to be fixed, but too many of those who recognize their privilege have stopped short of doing anything but declaring that they have it. The acknowledgement is now the endgame for most, their own personal credential verifying them as non-racist. Simply saying, “I have privilege,” is now enough to bestow the title of “ally” upon those who’ve spent decades benefiting from that privilege.
As a black woman, I find no solace in a white person telling me how they recognize their privilege. I recognize that I need to work out regularly, but somehow that recognition has done nothing for my abs. Knowing is half the battle. The other half — the one that makes the difference — is doing the work.
If admitting privilege is not coupled with or followed by the hard work it takes to level the playing field, I’m not interested in the admission. If saying, “I am granted superior status over non-white people, which translates into social, political and professional advantages,” does not progress into a strategy to renounce those advantages, acceptance of the fact that privilege exists is worthless. If finally conceding privilege exists does not ignite a fire extinguishable only by the absolute dismantling of systemic and systematic racism, then the concession is for naught.
Those who acknowledge their privilege are rewarded with a pardon for their complicity in the design and operation of the oppressive system. The coddling begins as they have revelation after revelation of all the ways they have benefited from privilege and never knew it. Absolving themselves and other white people of guilt becomes the focus as “veterans” coach “rookies” reminding them that admitting they have privilege doesn’t mean it’s their fault. It all turns into a tribute to white courage, finally taking the bold step of validating what black people have been saying and writing for centuries.
The fury of witnessing white people praise each other for recognizing their privilege is matched only by the rage elicited by those whose affirmation is accompanied by an expectation of irreproachability. Any challenge to the affirmer’s status as anti-racist by black people is ludicrous, scoffed off with a simple, “I know I have privilege.” Ironically, the acknowledgement of privilege usually comes with an arrogant condescension which assumes that further listening to and learning from the oppressed is useless, as the privileged have already looked inward and done all the self-reflection necessary to transform from subtle racist to benevolent egalitarian.
If we cannot condemn the racist actions of those who’ve declared their privilege, then the declaration itself is no more than another aspect of that privilege. If we must laud white people for having the guts to admit the system works solely in their favor, then they have struck gold twice, enjoying all the spoils of inequality while being assigned none of the blame. In my daily battles against the oppression meant to devour my mind, body and spirit, I am still expected to stop and bow to my oppressors because they’ve generously confessed that they are sitting on the boulder crushing my chest.
Further, white people who “own their privilege” do not get to distance themselves from other white people who are still in denial. All white people are responsible for the oppression of non-white people and as such, jointly and severely liable. Going around shouting about how privileged you know you are does not put you in the “other” category where you’re not like those white people, but still enjoying the privilege you recognize. You are still like all the rest except with a sanctimonious self-assuredness that makes your brand of racism even more intolerable.
When my son was potty training, anytime he’d go on the pot, I’d reward him with a song, a hug and a kiss. Eventually, when I realized his only motivation for going was praise, I stopped, opting instead to show him learning to use the potty was his non-negotiable responsibility. So goes my approach to white people and privilege. Recognizing privilege is but the tip of the iceberg of the work that must be done. Stop waiting for the song, kiss and hug.