A little over a week ago, I came across an article on my newsfeed titled “Women, We Need to Stop Arguing About Privilege.” The author, Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, felt compelled to write the piece because of the emerging “Check Your Privilege” campaign that is sweeping social media, especially Twitter. According to the author, feminists who use the phrase are “well-intentioned and are making an attempt to maintain the sanctity of the feminist movement”; however, conversations about privilege “threaten to cut off the legs of the feminist movement before it can even crawl.” The author’s solution to the supposed privilege policing is to curb the conversations, since everyone has some form of privilege, and get to working on securing the rights “that we all want afforded to each other.” She ends by calling for a new hashtag on social media; instead of #CheckMyPrivilege we should utilize #CheckMyWork.
It would be an understatement to say that this article angered me. I read over it a few times and I continuously found reasons as to why this perspective on privilege is quite problematic. Ok, Caroline, who is a host and producer at HuffPost Live, wanted to weigh in on the conversation. After all, it is one that has become ubiquitous in social media, given the atrocities that have occurred in 2014, especially pertaining to police brutality. Additionally, it has been a topic of concern on the feminist agenda with Iggy Azalea’s shenanigans, the leakage of nude photos of Jill Scott and Jennifer Lawerence, and Emma Watson being appointed as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. It may appear, and the author makes such implications, as if the conversation is being dragged out, especially since “everyone has privilege”; however, I believe that discussions about privilege are critical and should not cease for the following reasons:
1. Privilege sets up a hierarchy; it allows certain individuals to thrive while marginalizing “the less fit.” More specifically, it allows White, middle-class individuals to have sole power and decide the outcome of others’ lives. There are countless examples to highlight this fact: colonialism of Native American land (that’s the real Thanksgiving story); the Trail of Tears, which further decimated Native Americans; slavery; Jim Crow laws; involuntary sterilization; The Tulsa race riot; and Japanese internment camps. Though different people were involved, the goal was the same each time: to dehumanize a group while using privilege to advance the dominant one. The hierarchy has been so entrenched in society that it has now become normalized. Therefore, a London born woman writing about how “we need to stop arguing about privilege” is acceptable simply because she has privilege.
2. Privilege silences others. When there is a hierarchy, those who are at the bottom are not recognized. It is as if they are rendered invisible. Whenever there have been movements against injustices, the privileged have led it and often ignored the concerns of those who were most oppressed. Ironic much? Take the women’s movements for example since that was the focal point of the article: White, middle-class women have always been the leaders. No, the feminist movement isn’t crawling as the author suggests, it’s been running for decades all over women of color and poor women. They are the ones who had to march in the back during the suffrage movement and the ones who were fighting to escape reproductive control and have their motherhood recognized during the reproductive rights movement. White, middle-class privilege silenced their voices and pushed them further down while their counterparts made advances.
3. Privilege allows blame to be placed on the oppressed instead of the real culprit. One example of this is the reverse racism argument and it works in the following way: the dominant group can destroy another group’s culture, deprive them of educational opportunities and economic stability, and devalue their reproduction, but when they speak out against the cruelty, they are then victimizing the dominant group. If they speak out against educational inequities and gain an ounce of opportunity, they are then taking all of the spots at colleges and now the dominant group is “experiencing discrimination.” If they speak out against the appropriation and exploitation of their culture, now the dominant group feels as if they are “being marginalized.” Privilege allows individuals to use the oppressed as the scapegoat so they can continue to exercise power over them and keep them in a certain place, leaving little room for mobility.
“Women, We Need to Stop Arguing About Privilege” was an attempt to unify the feminist movement, but there are certain things that the author should have considered before writing it. First, it is difficult to come together as one when you have been historically placed at the bottom of the hierarchy and your voice has been silenced and continues to be silenced in contemporary society. Second, it’s insulting to say that “everyone has some privilege” when only CERTAIN individuals benefit from that privilege. Yes, it may be a privilege to live in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, but what does that even matter when America continuously devalues your humanity and you are brutalized for just walking down the street in “your” country. As Malcolm X so eloquently stated, “when we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism. We see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.”
So no, Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani. We don’t need to halt our conversations about privilege just because you have checked yours and you feel it is not necessary to examine who has more. We don’t need to re-focus that passion and fight for the real issues at stake because to be honest, we are NOT fighting for the same thing. What we need is for individuals to recognize AND relinquish some of that privilege. We need to uplift the voices of marginalized women and encourage them to lead the feminist movement instead of implying that they assimilate into what has always been dominated by White, middle-class women.