A Brief History of “Checking Your Privilege” on Campus

What Does Checking Your Privilege Mean?

Posted on 26 October 2015 |

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Now that school is back in full swing, you may have noticed people using the phrase “checking your privilege” and wondered, “What’s that about?” While it’s a complex topic with many nuances and perspectives, this blog post is intended to give you a brief synopsis by answering these four questions:

  1. How is privilege defined?
  2. When did the phrase hit college campuses?
  3. What has the reaction been?
  4. What’s going to happen next?

The Emerging Idea of Inherent Privileges

The phrase got its start in the social justice movement – community forces advocating for treating everyone the same under the law, regardless of their race, religion, gender, national origin, etc. – and in the literature on increasing diversity and acceptance in our workforces and communities. According to the University of San Francisco Intercultural Center, privilege is the “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.”

Also, in her 1998 paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” researcher Peggy McIntosh described it as, “an elusive and fugitive subject. … a pattern of assumptions” about how the world works. At the time, McIntosh only addressed white privilege and male privilege.

But as more voices have joined the conversation, five additional privileges have been acknowledged: class, Christian, cisgender, able-bodied and heterosexual.

The Start of the Privilege Dialog on College Campuses

Tal Fortgang published what proved to be a controversial piece in Princeton’s school paper in April of 2014. Within a month, Time Magazine ran a crystallized version of his essay, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.”

Not unrelated, in their May issue, The Atlantic ran a piece called “Segregation Now,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, about the creeping return of separate and unequal conditions to Alabama schools sixty years after Brown v. Board. 

Also, an unnamed Resident Assistant (RA) in the East Hall of Appalachian State University in North Carolina was met with chagrin and criticism when students returning from Spring Break discovered his new hall bulletin board, decorated with a “Check Your Privilege” display.

The RA had posted fliers from the University of San Francisco Intercultural Center’s Check Your Privilege Campaign, whose stated goals are increasing knowledge and improving beliefs about privilege, heightening awareness, and advocating for others.

By May of 2014, Worldwide Google searches for “check your privilege” peaked.

Examining the Reactions to “Check Your Privilege”

Writing for The New York Times Magazine, NYU Professor of Philosophy and Law, Kwame Anthony Appiah drew the distinction between the two major tensions that today’s universities must hold in balance – Utility U. and Utopia U.

He writes,

If Utility U. is concerned with value, Utopia U. is concerned with values. The values agenda can involve the content of classes, the nature of campus communities or both. … At Utopia U., the aim is to create a safe space, to check your privilege and suspend the prejudices of the larger world, to promote human development and advance moral progress.

Because, as he points out, people don’t think or learn well when they don’t feel safe, when they feel insulted, or perceive countless “micro-aggressions” throughout their day.

Not more than three days after the NYT op-ed appeared, another authority figure at another famous college went viral with his thoughts on the matter. Payton Head, the President of the Missouri Students Association wrote a Facebook post about an ugly experience he had walking through the Mizzou campus that evening.

The University of Missouri student paper, The Maneater, did not link to the post but said “it wasn’t just a rant.” In an interview, Head explained,

“Of course there’s a lot of hurt and pain that’s associated with living in a world that’s not created for you,” he said, “but at the same time, if you’re not able to vocalize that to the people with privilege, who can help change that world, who have the institutional privilege to create change, then there’s no way to see change.”

What’s the Next Step?

At this point, there’s no denying that “checking your privilege” has become a part of the dialog on college campuses. And what started as a movement for positive change, has alienated students and created a divide across college campuses.

But what if there is a way to re-focus the conversation?

How about instead of focusing on the negative aspects of singling out someone or a group of people, we change the conversation to focus on embracing diversity and creating a safe learning environment for each and every student?

We already know from countless sources like this one that businesses that promote diversity are more successful. So how can your school create a more diverse campus that focuses on inclusion?

To answer this question, we teamed up with a panel of experts to discuss ways community members and higher education leaders can lead change to create a positive, diverse culture on campus. Watch the on-demand webinar to learn what they had to say.

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