October 27, 2014

ZHA | Check Your ‘Check Your Privilege’ Privilege

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By DAVID ZHA

There are people out there who absolve themselves of a deep-seated white guilt by crusading against white privilege in social settings.

Allow me to explain why this is bullshit.

When some douchebag cracks a joke about affirmative action and you decide to be a hero by telling him loudly to check his privilege in front of a crowd of disinterested minority students you’re hoping to impress, you too are playing into America’s racial superstructure.

Sure, the douchebag crossed a line and treaded on the toes of the politically correct. He might even have managed to offend some of the thinner-skinned. So you strike with, “Check your privilege.”

But, you have just acknowledged and validated his higher socio-racial position. Plus, you dignified his trolling with a serious response.

“Check your privilege” is a way for gender studies majors hiding their comfortable upper middle-class backgrounds to feel like they are accomplishing some real social progress from the affluent confines of high society. It’s the net equivalent of “Liking” things on the Internet.

Smoking pot, making picket signs, proselytizing against shaving and hating daddy who pays your tuition by being a television studio executive might be a good start towards inner peace, but that doesn’t mean “Check your privilege” is going to save your moonbeam-colored behind from looking like you live on Majority Avenue. Nowadays, there are people who think it’s cool to be underprivileged, and this whole white guilt thing has become young, rich Caucasians’ vain attempt at finding a place amongst the colored.

The biggest paradox of the white privilege phenomenon to me is that it promotes looking at the world in racial terms. You are criticizing someone’s opinion (and often times merely crude jest) by highlighting their ethos.

A) That’s racist, and B) assuming privilege based on phenotype opens a whole new portal of racial … what’s the term … “intersectionalities” (right, that’s the word) that can be just as assumptuous and misinterpretive as traditional ones.

But worst of all is this: “Check your privilege” actually reinforces the idea of white superiority.

A chubby, flustered, feminist once “stuck up” for me when my white friend made a joke about my Chinese heritage. She dropped the “privilege” line. The gesture was cute, but I felt patronized. Did I need this person to defend me as she seemed to believe?

“Check your privilege” suggests that white people, regardless of their true socioeconomic origins, are on a social tier so intrinsically higher than everyone else that they themselves need to consciously reign in their identity for being “too well-off.” No, you do not owe me something. You will never be able to pay off that enormously intangible racial debt of blood we somehow both gained awareness of. No, I do not want your handouts of pity.

Dear guilty white people, the crusade you are waging against white privilege feels like an attempt at reparation for the “White Man’s Burden.” But a similar idea of white exceptionalism drives it; you’re extending your burden in a way. You realize your social justice warpath still has a white-savior complex? Not all minorities are trapped in an unlivable underclass needing you to drag them out, only those left over from what your great granddaddy did.

Besides, telling a white person to check their privilege doesn’t really accomplish anything for the minority besides a fleeting sense of gratification in the soundproof corners of packed third-round interview cocktail parties. We will still have to work harder and be smarter about navigating the treacherous social American ladder. Nothing is equalized. Only emotions are satisfied.

Progressive white America sees itself as a champion of desperate minorities, incapable and hungry for their aid. I decided this dangling olive branch is just another form of the system’s ability to co-opt individuals. Acceptance of this new social context still means accepting the racial superstructure. I propose we burn it all to the ground. To do that is easy: just let go of the past.

Honestly, it’s not all on white people to repair the damage their ancestors caused, because that’s frankly impossible. Keeping privilege around perpetuates race though. If we want to live in a truly raceless society, it’s on minorities to be bigger and forgive the crimes of the past. Those crimes happened in an outdated framework for humanity, one based in primitive and shallow skin-tone differentiation. It’s on minorities to take up the white man’s sin as their own, if we are to truly view each other as one species.

But that’ll never happen.

David Zha is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dzha@cornellsun.com. The Angry Spirit Bear appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.