Skip to main content

The Danger of Making Assumptions About Privilege

On checking privilege in a shaming culture.

A few weeks ago, I published an essay on Salon arguing that the precarious nature of my employment as an adjunct professor contributes to my success in the classroom. The response to the piece was sharp and swift: I was criticized in the site’s comments section for not checking my privilege. To date, there have been 61 comments; roughly 85 percent of them are negative.

I had neglected, according to the hordes of commenters, to disclose that I am a part of a two-income household. This, they claimed, must be the only way that I could afford to be so cavalier about my own job stability; either that, or I must be independently wealthy. Therefore, they argued, my situation is unlike that of most adjunct professors and thus irrelevant to the conversation.

I had assumed that there were shared understandings about how badly adjuncts are generally treated, regardless of the social privileges they may otherwise enjoy. I had forgotten how sanctimonious many academics can be, even those of low status, like me.

My current students were shaken by some of the nastier things that were said (“…you aren’t really qualified to sing the praises of this position; you have a genteel joblet, not a job”; “terrible screed”; “…she richly deserves the condemnation of these pages”). We talked in class about the psychosocial mechanisms behind comment platforms: how they are often venues used by people who might otherwise feel voiceless, but also how, rather than helping to foster productive dialogue, comments can serve as a venue for silencing and contribute to a shame culture. (I also assured them that I was fine—that I fit comfortably into the stereotype of women over 40 really not caring what other people say about them).

A few days later, a student came to my office to discuss a lingering concern. She’d begun writing an essay I had assigned to the class. The assignment was a synthesis of rhetorical strategies in two different essays, one of them having to do with apartheid in South Africa. Was she, in her essay, failing to acknowledge her white, middle-class collegiate privilege thoroughly enough? What assumptions might she be accused of making when using the pronoun “we” to refer to Americans?

It is undoubtedly a good sign that this 18-year-old is aware of her privilege and is making an effort to understand how it shapes her perspective. But there is a line between acknowledgement and self-paralysis, and I could see her new self-awareness leaning dangerously close to the latter. I asked her if she was worried because of the shaming she had seen in the comments of the Salon essay. She confirmed as much.


What does it mean to “check your privilege”?

Sam Dylan Finch, writing at EverydayFeminism, defines checking one’s privilege as reflecting “on the ways that your social status might have given you an advantage — even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it.”

These advantages exist because we live in an age when prejudice is still codified into hiring practices and laws, a lack of representation of people of color on television and in movies, and other discriminatory behaviors that become socially acceptable.

Discussion around privilege usually centers on race, sexuality, gender, and class. There are, of course, many other categories to consider. Two-income household privilege, for example, and the opportunities it can provide, is an advantage that not everyone has; there is access that can come with this status that may not be available to those who do not have it.

In our class discussion about the Salon essay, we had addressed the effects of living in a shame culture. Anger is sometimes understandable, I had pointed out, but shaming people for not checking their privilege, rather than encouraging them to consider how privilege affects their experience and perspective, shuts down important conversations and discourages opportunities for growth. Yet this discussion evidently hadn’t been enough to inoculate all of my students against preemptive shame; the young woman who came to my office was worried about finding her perspective subjected to painstaking, personal critique, perhaps at the expense of her larger points.

My first experiences with the concept of privilege came early. I am white, but grew up in an Alaska Native community. Even as a child, I knew, from television, mostly, that I would be able to navigate the larger world more easily than my classmates at school because of the color of my skin. I also learned how to code-switch in kindergarten: At school, I spoke English the way the Athabascan kids there did, rolling the edges of my words so I wouldn’t seem different from them. At home, I imitated my parents’ tighter speech.

Later, at the women’s college I attended, I witnessed heterosexual privilege firsthand: When I would walk downtown with a group of other short-haired female friends, people shouted “F-ing dykes!” at us as their cars roared past, and service in restaurants and shops was often dismissive. When, still sporting my short haircut, I went out to dinner with my boyfriend in the same town, people smiled at us and treated us well. No one would dare scream profanities out car windows.

Writing specifically about white privilege, Katherine Kirkinis and Sarah Birdsong note that “it is your obligation and responsibility to develop awareness of the ways in which you benefit”; this is true for every sort of privilege. When, though, does the self-scrutiny around privilege begin to backfire into a paralysis that works against the kind of social progress we need to move toward a safer, more inclusive society? I think it’s when we shame people rather than inviting them to the real conversation.

There were more than a few “I call bullshit” comments on the Salon piece; one tenured professor speculated that I must be teaching merely for “pin money.” And a now-deleted opinion diagnosed me with “Stockholm Syndrome.” Such dialogue contributes to a cycle of fear rather than an openness to learning, and, for college-age students in particular, the prospect of being shamed for mistakes and missteps comes at a particularly vulnerable time in the development of their social and cultural awareness. Everyone stands at some sort of intersection of race, ability, economic class, sexuality, and so on. Trying to control and direct each other through shame will foster paranoia, not personal or community growth.

My first response upon reading those angry comments on Salon’s website was an eye roll. I came out of graduate school with a mountain of debt, I do not come from money, nor am I married to a wealthy person. My husband is someone who shares my values of living small and spending time with our children. Like me, he has the privilege of using his education to pursue meaningful work over more lucrative options. Demanding that I clarify my precise economic circumstances is a way of avoiding the real conversation my essay advances; it’s dodging ad rem with ad hominem.

The experience has made me wonder, though, if this kind of negative reaction is indicative of powerful fears that shape many interactions between and among different social groups. Perhaps people with some unearned social advantages are scared about what it means to check their own privileges; perhaps angrily demanding that the people around them check theirs could be a way to alleviate those fears. Discussing multi-cultural competency in an article “Understanding Unearned Privilege: An Experiential Activity for Counseling Students,” in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, Katrina Cook and her team of researchers observe:

As awareness of their privileged status emerges, White students may respond with feelings of guilt, anger, and shame. These strong emotions can suppress a White person’s further exploration of how they may have unknowingly benefited from their privileged status. White students may respond with denial or defensiveness, sometimes leading to resistance, paralysis, or scapegoating.

Academia is a particularly privileged world. It can be difficult to confront the realities of what the specific privileges we enjoy mean in our day-to-day lives, like being able to argue about pedagogy, for example. Sometimes it’s easier to bicker about privilege than it is to confront the inadequacies of a system that seems so unshakably entrenched.

I want my especially privileged students (they are all, simply by having the opportunity to be in college, privileged in that particular way) to be aware that, as Kirkinis and Birdsong put it, “You were born where you were born, your skin color is the color that it is, and you grew up how you did, exposed to the media and a society that you had no control over, all of which led you to being exactly who you are today.” That’s a simple thing to remember, and requires no self-loathing.

I also want them to understand that (and here’s Kirkanis and Birdsong again): “It is your obligation and responsibility to develop awareness of the ways in which you benefit” from the happenstance of birth and experiences in this world. We must be willing to ask questions and educate ourselves. But shame has no place in this process, and it is appropriate to push back against it.

I learned from my experience, and I wanted to share it with my students so that they could learn too, but I discovered a problem inherent in exposing them to a situation in which fear and anger seemed to govern behavior: that instead of feeling free to make their own mistakes and learn from them, they might become too afraid to even try.