When I first heard the phrase “Check your privilege,” I thought it was an extension of the concept of mindfulness; that is, we should be grateful for life’s gifts and take nothing for granted.
But I soon discovered that this was a specific cultural phrase that, along with “Check your white privilege,” was meant as a cautionary message to white people who tend to take for granted certain undeserved privileges that come with being white.
“Checking your privilege” means that white people need to keep in mind that negotiating the world with white skin is far smoother than with black skin. It means that you should take the time to think about the difficulties that African Americans may face in arenas that are not as problematic for someone who is white: financial, personal security, educational, psychosocial, and more. It doesn’t mean that every white person was born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth and hasn’t encountered bumps along the way. It doesn’t mean that whites should necessarily feel personal guilt for the obstacles that some African Americans have faced. It also doesn’t mean that only people with dark skin face difficulties or encounter discrimination. Differences in religion, nationality, language, ability, disability, health, education even height and attractiveness have proved a hindrance for some.
I do believe that the current cultural definition of “Check your privilege” is valid in the sense that we should sensitize ourselves to the ways that others may lack privilege: to work to ease or erase those problems through activism, financial support, personal interactions, and political representation. On the other hand, I also sort of like the broader meaning of the phrase- as I originally conceived it.
“Check your privilege” can remind us 60 somethings to think about all of our privileges- big and small- and be grateful for them. I’m not necessarily talking about economic, and social privilege, but about the fact that we are here now, alive in the world, right now. By some quirk of timing and DNA we are privileged to be here—today. This phrase invites us to be mindful, to pay attention, to not take anything or anyone for granted. Maybe this phrase can open up new and more creative ways of appreciating and interacting with the world, in addition to taking stock of ways we can understand and help others.