The False Notion Of ‘Checking Your Privilege’
Religion & Liberty Online

The False Notion Of ‘Checking Your Privilege’

Students attending Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government have a new mandatory class: Checking Your Privilege 101. This is, in part, a response to the conversation started by Princeton’s Tory Fortgang, who wanted to be known by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin (which happens to be white.) Reetu Mody, a master’s degree student is thrilled by the Harvard’s new class and describes it thus:

The substance of the training, while still under discussion, is to prepare students to understand the broad impact of identity on their decision-making and to engage them in constructive tools for dialogue,” Mody says. She likens it to the math classes masters candidates are sent to so they can apply economic theories. “If you don’t have an understanding of sociology, political science, critical race theory, feminist critique, and revisionist history,” Mody warns, “it’s going to be very difficult to talk about certain groups’ experiences, and why these other groups continually have this advantage in society.”

I am left to wonder about a couple of things. First, I wonder if this “understanding” will include a critical look at whether or not climate change is junk science, abortion as the taking of a human life, that the choice by a woman to stay home and raise her children is a valid one, or whether or not Catholics experience discrimination in our country. These are all valid topics, and would certainly broaden the scope of these students’ “experiences” yet somehow I doubt that this Harvard class will include such things.

Second, while I know that many students at Harvard come from wealthy backgrounds, many are from working-class families, and I bet some of them are right at the poverty line, eating their Ramen noodles and counting pennies til payday. Ms. Mody says the class is designed to help with the mindset of what if you’ve “been told all your life is you’re really talented and you deserve what you have, it’s going to be really hard to find out Maybe I don’t deserve it.” My response to this is, “Wha…?” My parents never told me I was “really talented and deserved what I had.” I don’t know anyone raised this way. But I’m from a small, Midwestern town – does that mean I’m privileged?

My husband worked his way through college (a pricey liberal arts college) by working in the campus food service. He was up at 5 a.m. every day to get breakfast ready for his fellow students. I waited tables, worked lights and sound at a theater, babysat. I did a quick check of my co-workers: campus cleaning crew, parking lot attendant, hotel desk clerk, camp counselor, pool cleaning, and administrative work. I know I learned valuable lessons from the work I did, and I assume the others did as well. But does this sound like “privilege” to you? Do we all need a class in order to “understand the broad impact of identity?”

Writing at American Spectator, Ross Kaminsky tells us that “straight white men are terrible.” Well, not really, but that sure is the message we’re getting when places like Harvard are offering up Checking Your Privilege 101. Kaminsky comments on this course offering:

If you come from an inherently powerful group in the United States, which is defined as being a straight white man, you have inherent (and unfair) advantages in life and although you’ll try hard you’ll never really understand anybody else. And you should feel really really bad about that.

Therefore, Mr. Ordinary White Guy, you should look at the world though filters such as “critical race theory, feminist critique, and revisionist history” which are designed to guide to you more correct thinking about people not like you. And everyone who isn’t a straight white man should treat you with great skepticism because you are the vessel for political original sin. In short, Mr. Ordinary White Guy, you must be badgered, scolded, and punished — although we certainly won’t admit that that’s what we’re doing nor let you proclaim your innocence.

And what Ordinary White Guy (other, perhaps, than me) will dare to ask the question: If you think I don’t understand you, why should I assume the reverse is not equally true, or perhaps even more true since you’re willing to make baseless assumptions about a person you’ve never met? The Achilles’ heel of the anti-privilege movement is their insulting necessity to avoid treating people as individuals.

Here’s the real privilege: if you’re an American, you are free to apply to places like Harvard where, if accepted, you are free to spout ideas like checking your privilege. All Americans are privileged: privileged to live in a country where we won’t get beheaded if we don’t convert to a specific religion, where homeless kids can end up at Harvard, and where navel-gazing can be taken to stupendously stupid levels. You can blog, hold up a sign on a street corner, post YouTube videos, comment on Facebook pages, and generally rant and rave to your heart’s content. See, our privilege is this: our Founding Fathers had the foresight to protect our rights as Americans – rights like free speech and the free exercise of religion. Go ahead, Harvard. Check your privilege. Just realize that it’s a privilege that began by a bunch of straight white men about 240 years ago.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.