Checking Privilege: A Lesson in Pain


The other day, I was surfing Facebook (like ya do) and came across an argument unfolding on a friend’s page. The friend – who identifies as lesbian – had posted a picture and lamented that someone at her (Catholic) university had identified heterosexual marriage as “true” marriage on a poster in a public area at the college. The argument that ensued was not about marriage equality – rather, only tangentially – but it was enlightening when it comes to a form of false equivalence that pervades and halts the engagement of many evangelicals on political discussions. These discussions include not just marriage equality but extend to matters of race, slut-shaming, trans* acceptance, and religious tolerance. It’s a close cousin to the “you have to be tolerant of my intolerance!” argument, but is more closely summarized as “my feelings of discomfort are just as (if not more) important than your experience of oppression.”

It’s a false equivalence for the ages!

My friend’s FB debate was a perfect exemplification of this. The person arguing (seen in the screenshot below) claimed that her pain at being essentially called a “bigot” was just as important as my friend’s pain at seeing someone in her dorm invalidate her existence and right to love whomever she wants.

[image description: a facebook post reading: "This is what sucks about freedom. I think everyone has a right to feel what they feel, but no matter what, it is going to hurt some people. There are people who feel hurt by LGBTQ discrimination... There are some people who feel hurt that the LGBTQ can have marriage equality. The important thing is to recognize that we all there a right or wrong here? I'm not really sure. This is a bad analogy, but something like if a kid has a dad who was attacked by a dog when he was young, that dad is afraid of dogs and is always telling his kid, 'dogs are bad,' 'dogs will hurt you, etc,' when that kids best friend gets a dog his response is to be afraid for his friend and he might tell him 'you shouldn't have a dog' because that's all he has ever been told...and the friend may say he's jealous or he's mean, but really that friend is just confused or scared... When it comes to stuff like this, I think someone will always be hurt by it. It hurts when something your familiar with changes...and I think we just have to recognize that freedom and equality mean the freedom to express yourself and the right to like or dislike what's going on with the LGBTQ community."]

The simple and easy response to this is a laugh and a “hell no.”

But since this is a blog, and I like to explain things, I’ll expound for those in the back who may have missed the lesson.

First, I want to acknowledge for the privileged that, yeah, being called a bigot kind of sucks. A couple of months ago, I said something that caused a friend of mine to basically call me racist. It sucked, and my instinct was to lash out and say, “No I’m not and it hurts that you called me that!”

But, y’know, he was right. I’d said something incredibly stupid that amounted to white-splaining. It was bad and he was absolutely right in calling me out on it. But the only reason that I was able to handle that without an explosion of drama and fighting was that I realized a basic principle: my pain at having my privilege called out in no way trumps the pain of the oppressed. In fighting back against that simple scale, in the debate loses. Everyone.

The marginalized person you’re talking to? They learn that they can’t trust you to understand their pain with care.

The people listening in? Learn that you are unapproachable when it comes to matters of justice.

And you? You lose your credibility.

And here’s why: if you think your momentary pain at being called out as an agent of injustice in any way trumps the injustice that is happening, you have essentially proven the point. You are, indeed, an agent of injustice if you think your pain at being called a bigot, for whatever reason, trumps the pain of the person who won’t be able to visit her wife in the hospital, trumps the pain of the person forced to live every day as a gender they feel is not them. Your pain at being called a bigot is fleeting, temporary. Nothing in your life actually changes unless you want it to (you may lose friends for it, yes, but you can move on with your identity intact).

Basically: It's not about you. Your privilege as a part of an oppressive, patriarchal, racist, heteronormative, sexist, neurotypical and cis-sexist system? It is only about you insofar as you are acting as an agent of that system.

And this, ultimately, is why you are the one who shuts down debate when you demand, in the face of an oppressed person telling you of their pain, that your pain take priority, that your momentary bad feelings at being called a name is somehow bigger and greater.

At this point, I don’t care about being nice when it comes to injustice. I don’t care about the pain you have to go through to change – because giving up and checking your own privilege in a discussion is, in fact, a daily, painful process. If you are continuing to be an agent of injustice and intolerance, I will continue to call you on it.

And for God's sakes, don't respond like this:

[image description: a facebook conversation between two people. The first person says, "Cause, really, isnt' saying 'I don't like that people like gay marriage' the same thing as saying 'I don't like that people don't like gay marriage?'" The second person responds: "As a lesbian, my right to marriage infringes on no one else's. I'm not asking YOU to take part in gay marriage. And yes, I will freely say that people who don't 'like' gay marriage are no friends of mine. It's not a matter of liking or not liking. It's simply a matter of civil rights." And the first person responds again: "Yeah, but then isn't that discrimination, too? And if not, why isn't it?"]