Question Everything—Because of Three Words


Isabelle Geczy

Check your privilege.

These three words have immense power—angering some and vindicating others—and have quickly become a divisive rallying cry for our generation. Yet what makes them so polarizing? To even begin to answer this question, a certain vocabulary is required.

system noun: 1) a set of connected things or parts of a complex whole. 2) a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.

oppression noun: 1) prolonged or cruel or unjust treatment or control 2) the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control. 3) mental pressure or distress.

Privilege is a term that has come to represent benefits that groups of people receive because of oppressive systems. Systems come in all shapes and sizes; a few examples include universities, corporations and governments. Systems, essentially, are how our world functions–so it makes a great deal of sense that discrimination and prejudice take shape and find a home within them.

Some of us are fortunate enough to not feel like we have been oppressed by the institutions that surround us. Some of us are cis-gendered, and have never felt the heartache of trying to pass, worried all the while that strangers will scrutinize and render an analysis, dismantle the pains taken to simply blend in. Some of us are male, and have never been told that they are intimidating or bossy simply for acting like a leader. Some of us are heterosexual, and have never felt scared or ashamed of showing affection for someone they love. Some–no, here at University of California, Santa Barbara, 45 percent of the student population is white–so about half of us have never felt like we are less important or targeted unfairly because of the color of our skin. These feelings, or rather the absence of them, constitute privilege.

Recently, a Princeton student was giving airtime in Time Magazine, espousing his views in a commentary entitled “Why I Will Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” What followed such an illustrious title was a rather telling articulation of oppressive systems and the way they benefit specific groups. Oppressive systems are so harmful because they essentially have discrimination built into them, allowing those that they favor to reap great benefits without being aware of them. The writer of the article was unwilling to acknowledge that his position today originates from forces outside of his control, instead saying that people are successful because of the values they possess, rather than the color of their skin, their gender, or socioeconomic status.

I wonder how he would feel had he been born as a black man in Oakland? This past summer, a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle publicized the fact that in Oakland, over the past decade, the number of black males killed on the streets nearly matched the number that graduated from Oakland high schools ready to attend a state university. It is examples like this that make conversations about privilege so desperately vital. Morals have nothing to do with a young white male from New York being more successful than a young black man from Oakland. Oppressive systems cannot be dismantled if they are not acknowledged and realized. For this reason, those that talk about privilege can sometimes be seen as fanatical, outspoken activists who take things too seriously. Yet such fervor comes from a place of supreme desperation: when you begin to recognize the injustice around you, you cannot un-see it. Suddenly everything from your construct of history to the words you use represent unjust ways that perpetuate suffering.

Now after all of this discussion of injustice and unfair treatment, members from oppressive groups sometimes mention that they too, have been victims of discrimination. The terms reverse-racism and misandry get thrown around too often. What makes such an argument invalid, though, is that a group that benefits supremely time and time again from oppressive systems will never suffer to the extent that oppressed groups do. Attempting to equivocate and placing those two experiences under the umbrella of unjust discrimination is laughable.

All told, I am a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman. Did it hurt the first time I realized that have benefited unfairly from a vast array of oppressive systems? Yes. Learning to actually check your own privilege is a long learning process, that can be painful and soul-searching. But if you truly believe that all people have the right to happiness and liberty, it is a journey worth undertaking. I want to live in a world where all people feel accepted, worthy, and equal to each other. Maybe this is a goal far too idealistic, but for such a world to become even just a more believable dream, we all must check our privilege. We must acknowledge the benefits we receive and move towards dismantling the systems that perpetuated them. Only then can we begin to imagine a land of the free.