There are many privileges I enjoy at a cost borne by someone who doesn’t enjoy them. They include a financially stable childhood, two well-educated parents, being a native English speaker, being born and having grown up in stable, open and wealthy countries, and being able-bodied. These privileges I don’t think about even on a weekly basis, let alone daily; that, of course, is part of the privilege! And it’s all the more reason why it’s so important for me to “check my privilege.” This I take to mean being aware of and acknowledging the advantages I have over others based on factors outside my control and unrelated to any efforts that I made, understanding the historical roots of these advantages and their current impact on myself and others, and taking action to correct the unjust systems that perpetuate these inequalities.
People generally feel threatened when you ask them to check their privilege because we generally don’t like admitting we got – and continue to get – a leg up in life.
White women will always understand what it’s like to be a woman before understanding what it’s like to be white. Conversations with them about gender are more commonplace than conversations about race, because disadvantage is easier to identify and address than advantage; the awareness is more accessible. I think that the very real weight and hurt that results from being in a position of being oppressed – as women – makes it hard for them to acknowledge that they in turn are abetting oppression through their white privilege, as such acknowledgement might diminish the level of disadvantage that they and others perceive them to experience. But this is surely not up for discussion. A white woman is ceteris paribus clearly better off in this society than a woman of colour, just as a rich woman is ceteris paribus better off than a poor woman.
That this glaring fact is being swept under the rug hardly makes me wonder that women of colour feel frustrated by the focus of white women on the gendered aspects of society and social and economic policy while by and large ignoring the racial aspects. A ‘Women’s March on Washington’ is being organised in DC for the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, a man whose speech, behaviour and decisions are governed by both misogyny and racism. According to the organisers, the women who initiated the march were almost all white; recognising this lack of inclusivity, they sought to correct the problem by bringing on a diverse group of activist coordinators and stated that
It is important to all of us that the white women engaged this effort understand their privilege, and acknowledge the struggle that women of color face.
This turns out to be not enough for some women of colour and at the same time too much for some white women. I don’t fault either of them; women of colour face an exhausting and pervasive attack on their existence stretching back in history that leaves little energy to entertain the fragile egos of white women, while some requests for white women to check their privilege come across as exclusion, which is a result of exhaustion, pain, and frustration at being voiceless (hence the “shut up and listen” tone and message), rather than a strategic act of inclusion to gain allies for a united front.