So I Checked My Privilege the Other Day…

This is another hurried post. Off to End of the Road, so had to hit my friday deadline earlier. Hope it makes sense. Sorry for ugly grammar or odd spelling, Now read on…

So I just checked my privilege, and though I might wish to join that swelling gang of the suffering and oppressed, I sadly have to face the fact that when it comes to my position in the 21st century, I am doing better than most. 

I know little of the history of “check your privilege”. Like most things of late, it first came into my field of vision when staring at Twitter. I know people who detest that phrase, and more often than not they are people like me, people who if they honesty “check their privilege” are faced with a burdensome amount of good fortune and luck in the lottery of birth. Hurling “check your privilege” doesn’t win the argument, just because you have experienced less privilege than me doesn’t mean you must be less wrong than me, but it does provide a moment for reflection that some people would rather avoid.

Since the 1980s it has been a spewed cliche that the luckiest people in the world are “one legged, black lesbian vegans”, they have all the luck, mansions and power.  I embarrassedly must put my hand up here and admit that I don’t have the statistics to refute this, just the tingle of a spider sense that makes me suspicious that this might not be true. (warning – the rest of this post may remain as unscientific, so you may wish to stop reading now).

Despite these 30 years under the singular jackboot of these sapphic meat rejecters, the positions of power still seem to be in the hands of the male and the white, though this may be an illusion, perhaps some sort of device like the one that disguises the skeletal aliens in They Live is in use. 

I don’t have to feel shame for being white, male and middle class, but there seems little harm in me occasionally musing on my good fortune. The comfort of the life I have is not merely down to my labours and resilience. Why should facing up to such facts make people tetchy and bullish. In my current show, when I talk of a newspaper columnist writing about how the worst thing to be now is a white middle class male, and then suggest that a lack of colour choice in collared shirts at Marks and Spencer and the possibility that one day we’ll be oppressed down to a level of being as equal as everyone else, I sense resistance from some corners of the room. There is a feeling of “come on, get real, we men haven’t got it as easy as errrr some other people who may um exist somewhere”.

Like everyone in a conversation, I want to have the best story of a blighted life. In conversations where people are revealing their inner pain and childhood traumas, like Brody, Quint and Hopper showing scars in Jaws, you can see the glint in people’s eyes as they think, “excellent, I think I can top that story of pain with my story of juvenile agony”. To suffer is to exist, if you can’t claim enough suffering, you may not be credible. 

No one passes through life without loss or defeat, but it doesn’t mean you have to feel that without sleeve worn pain you are nothing. The modern media is eager to help manufacture a victimhood so that you obsess so much about your suffering, you become blind to what may be far more genuine suffering around you – that narcissistic desire to hope you can say, “you think you’ve suffered” (at this point I realise it might have been quicker to just put up a link to the Four Yorkshireman sketch and not bothered with this post at all).

There may be times when there is some sort of job I don’t get because I am a man. There’s the possibility there might be times I get rejected for something because I am white. Perhaps there was some trinket that didn’t come my way because I am middle class, but all in all, the advantages I get from this far outweigh what I might lose. Even in the 21st century, the opportunities available to me far outweigh the possible and occasional impediments.

I have had the advantage of a better education than most. I might not have enjoyed it. I could say the bullying has turned me into the needy thing I am now, but again, what I may have lost by my head being stuffed in a toilet bowl or being hung by my pants from a peg, does not outweigh what I gained (to me it is a great relief that schooldays were not the best of years of my life, things only got better. I am hardly hung from a peg at all now)

I have rarely gone hungry or experienced the suspense of not knowing if there will be money to pay for electricity or if a precious item will be lost to a bailiff.  I have only once be barred from entering an establishment, and that was an Indie nightclub in Preston that didn’t allow steel toecap DMs, you can imagine how rough I looked; a powder keg ready to kick off.

When we are surrounded by advantage it is easy to become blasé and assume it is the average for all. To wake up in warmth with clean water, hot water, a choice of cereals to eat and shoes to wear is the start of putting you ahead of the game. A job and a home without abuse, a fair wage, the chance to get home on a late train without a sense of fear or unwanted attention breathing over you and the purveyor thinking they are giving you a treat.

I realise this post, written late but sober, may seem like one of those “do you know how lucky you are?” banalities, and maybe it is, but when I did “check my privilege” I realised how lucky I was and started to wonder, just why isn’t everyone as lucky as me. 

I think of the film My Life as a Dog, where the delightful and sometimes foolish young protagonist occasionally mulls over his ill-fortune but then thinks to himself,

“It could have been worse. Just think how that poor guy ended up who got a new kidney in Boston. He got his name in all the papers, but he died just the same. And what about Laika, the space dog? They put her in the Sputnik and sent her into space. They attached wires to her heart and brain to see how she felt. I don’t think she felt to good. She spun around up there for five months until her doggy bag was empty. She starved to death. It’s important to have something like that to compare things to.”

 

As usual, and despite going over my official word count (my rules, I can break them), I failed to get to the point I meant to, maybe next time.

I am on tour in 2014 both on my own with a new show and with Josie Long and Grace Petrie (Shambles tour) – Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol, Norwich and many more across UK, dates here 

 
Also Cosmic Genome has new Chris Hadfield interview, Brian Cox review of the year and much more, up in Christmas Eve, plus Android friendly version available on Boxing Day. Cosmic Genome is HERE

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16 Responses to So I Checked My Privilege the Other Day…

  1. Whilst I really, seriously doubt that you’ll ever not get a job because you’re white, and would have advised against that example (not least because it’s a very real and non-negligible risk for people of colour) I appreciate the sentiment behind this post. It’s refreshing and reassuring. Thank you.

    • robinince says:

      that was meant as in “there may be some jobs I am not right for” rather than i couldn’t get any job.I may rewrite it to make it more specific.

    • Paul McGlade says:

      Serenity. I fully accept your point that there was the risk of trivialising the very real prejudices which certain people face in this country.

      However, it is also a mistake to assume that the race-based power hierarchies in this country are universal, either throughout this country or globally.

      Race might not ultimately be the clinching factor, but it might loom large under the category of “fitting in” if I (white male) went for a job for which I was qualified in China, or India or Africa. Then again, I might well get the job.

      You could argue that in those cases it’s my cultural background, not my skin tone which is what was being considered in those cases, but race is a very woolly term which is more than just to do with melanin and genetically-influenced eye shape.

      You will find plenty of small businesses in the UK where all the employees are of one racial type (white or black or Asian or East Asian…) . It might be in that 99.9% of them this is perfectly explicable in the recruitment process (catchment area, self-selection of candidates, use of family, recommendation by friends), but in the 0.1% remaining I also wouldn’t dismiss a white person’s failure to get employed on the basis of race there any more than that of a black person or an Asian person or an East Asian, if their face didn’t fit. If it happens, it’s a problem, even if it may not happen very much.

  2. Dylan Hearn says:

    I think the disgruntlement you’ve faced from white middle class males may be due to the fact that they haven’t got quite the carte blanche that they used to. When you used to swan through life unchallenged and suddenly find your privilege occasionally questioned, life looks pretty tough. That’s the thing about privilege, you often don’t realise you’ve got it until it’s taken away.

  3. Avicenna says:

    Pretty much spot on! Except for the bit about victimhood. Different people have different tolerances for “horrible events”. Some people go through life and are traumatised by something we would consider minor. Others are hit with the worst life can offer and still grow up to not consider themselves victims.

    I don’t think it helps feeling sorry for yourself but I wouldn’t be as strong about it as you are!

  4. I tend to be one of those who ‘Check your privilege’ tends to annoy. I’m all for egality, and ‘privilege’ should be something we all share. But, to use it as a tool to make someone meek and humble seems counter-productive, at least to me. I’m pissed off at inequality and the extreme cruelty and injustice that comes from it. Except inequality is increasing here in the land of the privileged. The disaster being wrought by finance on our utopianesque welfare system is undermining the struggle for egality the world over. We shouldn’t be made to feel meek. We should be fired up to fight for the same for the person next to us. I typed out a piece about an aspect of my privilege http://theartisantheory.com/2013/06/17/check-my-privilege-racism/ and I’m not going to consider myself lucky, but maybe a benchmark of what everyone should have. We need to stop patronising people, but start normalising ideals and empathy. Sorry if this sounds too righteous and misses subtleties within your post. This is also off the cuff. And ‘check your privilege’ is fuggin annoying, especially when it could be considered a privilege to know what the definition of privilege is. They don’t paint ‘privilege’ on wooden blocks for children to play with. Perhaps we could recognise where the white middle-class cis male is underprivileged so we can distill the elixir of prejudice. I mean we’re all getting screwed. Once all are ‘raised’ to the level of privilege of said white middle-class cis male they’ll still be getting screwed. It is those screwers we need to get rid of. It’s where it all comes from. I’m not saying they are the pinnacle of privilege because they are the pinnacle of greed and exploitation who keep us looking at our belly buttons and fighting amongst ourselves.

  5. Notung says:

    I’m privileged too; I was born to a family in the West, living in a nice area, that wasn’t in poverty.

    My problem with the annoying ‘check your privilege’ slogan is that it’s often used as a sort of irrelevant ad hominem retort in place of actually providing a reasonable objection to one’s arguments. Furthermore it employs a concept of privilege that tends to be vague, dogmatic, and downright hostile.

    • robinince says:

      agreed, that’s why I mentioned that it doesn’t win the argument. it is a pause for reflection, not a clincher

      • Notung says:

        You’re right – pauses for reflection are always good. But after the pause (if I haven’t changed my mind by this point) I might still want a decent counter-argument. In my experience it is indeed often used as an attempt to ‘win’ (or shut down) the argument.

        Not disagreeing with you here – just trying to convey why I dislike this meme.

  6. Pausing for reflection is a good mantra for all of us who have the temerity to share our words with each other over this marvellous mish-mash called Internet.

    Yes, I am amazingly fortunate to have been born at a time where my physical wellbeing has rarely been threatened and I have been provided (in exchange for work of varying value to society) the means for a massive degree of comfort when compared to much of the rest of the planet.

    However, I like to delude myself that I can make an informed “outsider” comment sometimes, in the full knowledge that I am not the victim of such prejudice as may have been aimed at those who do share whatever trait or condition lies at the heart of discussion.

    The main problem with the phrase “check your privilege” is that it is in danger of becoming the new “politically correct” – both of these come from a genuine and laudable impetus towards equality and recognising prejudicial norms of language/rhetoric that need to be dismantles, but end up coming across as prissy and petulant. They become the management-speak of political discourse and, as such, lose meaning.

    It is a shame that these shortcuts to discourse so quickly veer off their intended meaning and becoming the annoying memes they do, espcially when we often only have 140 characters to play with,

  7. deworde2510 says:

    “Check your privilege”
    “… Yep, still there. Doesn’t make me right, but it doesn’t make me wrong either.”

  8. Jay says:

    I agree. I’m White but working class but I have always worked and owe no one anything apart from maybe the odd football bet I refuse to pay. I eat every day, sleep in a warm bed and keep a roof over my head. What more does anyone want or expect? I agree the media like a victim and the constant game of “My Suffering Top Trumps” that people play with each other is generally disgusting to people with half an ounce of common sense. Nice post Robin. very thought provoking. Peace!

  9. sam says:

    This blog made me think of JG Ballards Millennium People, in his fable of the near future, the upper middle classes start a campaign rouse docile bourgeoisie from the burdens of civic responsibility. The super rich are way richer and do whatever they want and don’t have to pay tax, they don’t have to worry about the cost school fees, or cope with the pressure of being a GP, university lecturer, or maybe a successful comic. Radio4, art galleries, museums are just opium for the people, skiing holidays are just a form of oppression. This being Ballard it turns violent, they bomb an airport picket R4 burn educational toys. It sounds mad but as fable I think it clairvoyant, the middle classes seem to be committing euthanasia, and I feel its only a matter time before we have a revolt on our hands

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  12. krellen says:

    “Checking my privilege” has always left me feeling like I have no role to play in bettering the world, and I’m not sure that’s the intended effect. My privilege is an active obstacle in my dream of making the world a better place; I’m just another privileged white guy, how can I honestly campaign on making a difference? How can I play any role but staying in the background whilst all the non-whites and non-males go forth and make a better world?

    Checking my privilege tells me that, because men who look a lot like me have sometimes been assholes*, everything I will ever do will be flavoured with their asses. I’m not sure it’s as valuable as you think.

    *I think, in the course of history, the vast majority of white men have been not-assholes, good, upstanding men that would have been open to other options had they known they existed. But that may just be a myth I need to believe because I can trace my ancestry back to actual men of power and purpose (I am related to Vice President Charles Fairbanks.)

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