‘Check your privilege’: a dark and divisive politics

Blair Spowart

Topics Free Speech

There is a growing number of words and phrases which, through being used as a way of batting away inconvenient dissent, have all but lost their original meaning. Racist, sexist, homophobe – the list goes on. But these words have nothing on that most recent addition to the ‘just shut up’ armoury, the catch-all silencer masquerading as a well-intentioned request. That’s right: ‘Check your privilege.’

It’s now the reflex rebuttal of the student radical, and it has become ubiquitous in campus discussions. In theory, the phrase asks us to consider whether our beliefs might be skewed by our limited experience of a particular issue. This is not, in itself, unreasonable. But, as so often happens when reason meets Tumblr sociologist, privilege-checking has been taken to ugly extremes.

The University of Edinburgh’s recent students’ union election was mired in controversy when one of the candidates responded to a student’s Facebook post (which mocked the union’s ‘offensive’ fancy-dress policy) by saying ‘fuck you white person’. In response to the ensuing backlash, the candidate penned a rambling statement, invoking various crimes committed against her far-off ancestors. This is the beauty of privilege-checking. Not only is it a dependable way of silencing the opposition, but it can also offer a nifty excuse for one’s own misjudged words or actions. No wonder it’s so popular.

Luckily, privilege-checking often demonstrates its own absurdity. Last month, after outlawing ‘transphobic’ fancy dress and declaring war on clapping, the National Union of Students (NUS) Women’s Conference turned its ire on white gay men. This particular intersection, the delegates claimed, ‘often assert that they are “strong black women” or have an “inner black woman”’. The conference resolved to ‘eradicate the appropriation of black women by white gay men’ and ‘educate those who perpetuate this behaviour’. And what, you might ask, was the justification for such an authoritarian move? Well, apparently white gay men are ‘the beneficiaries of both white privilege and male privilege’.

But, beyond the usual SU muppetry, there’s a darker side to all this. Student radicals have started to take as given the idea that we simply cannot understand anything outside of our own experience. In essence, this worldview insists that we must consider society as ultimately divided along the lines of race, gender, sexuality and so on. This allegedly radical idea insists that society has little common experience and no recourse for inter-group understanding or empathy. This is a middle-finger to universalism and is, in the end, the opposite of true equality: the phenomenological equivalent of the pernicious doctrine of ‘separate but equal’.

The request to ‘check your privilege’ is a demand to accept this divisive worldview; to privilege everything that separates us. Ignore it.

Blair Spowart is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an organiser for the Down With Campus Censorship! campaign.

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Topics Free Speech


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