“Check your privilege” is a meme that’s gained traction on college campuses and other venues where privileged people tend to gather. Loosely translated, it means “Shut up.”
More specifically, it means that your attitudes, habits, values—and hence any idea you may express—are caused by the unearned privileges you enjoy based on your demographic classification. So, your mission—whether or not you choose to accept it—is to engage in self-criticism instead of conversation.
Confused? Privilege theorists are here to help. They explain that privileges—whether material, social, or professional—come from being male, healthy, prosperous, safe, white-skinned, heterosexual, non-gender-dysphoric, or any number of things that cause you to experience the world in a different way than somebody who comes from a different category in today’s social matrix. If you’re still confused, you can consult this chart to keep score.
Oh, one other thing. Even if you score low on privilege, you are still guilty (even more so) if you’ve “assimilated” into a culture that values the attitudes or habits associated with privilege. This means you need to further check your behavior and your language. Indeed, David Marcus explained in a recent Federalist essay how quickly privilege theory is infecting our language. Ironically, when we deem the speech of some more equal than the speech of others, the result is social inequality.
In any event, privilege theorists today most strongly classify privilege with something they call “whiteness.” Your helpful campus diversity specialists define whiteness as an ideology. This means that if you are labeled white, you possess privileges connected with “an ideology based on beliefs, values, behaviors, habits, and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin color.”
But there is a remedy for such guilt. It involves attending re-education camps, which seem to be popping up like mushrooms today on college campuses. It’s even popped up inside the U.S. Marines: since surveys have found many Marines oppose the new policy of putting men and women into the same combat units, all must now attend “prejudice training.” From Portland Community College’s educational project aimed at telling students that their very existence as white-skinned actually causes racial inequality to University of Vermont sending “white” students off to a re-education retreat, self-criticism is the order of the day.
Let’s Get Beyond the Skin-Deep Understanding of ‘Privilege’
This view of the world lacks depth as well as order. It begs for another interpretation of the concept of privilege. If you asked me what the single greatest indicator of happiness and success is, I would answer: a happy, healthy childhood.
When all is said and done, strong and healthy personal relationships are the root source of all power and privilege. Only through our personal relationships can we learn deeply about the world, exchange ideas, get inspired, invent things, and create independent communities. These are the surest paths to knowledge and joy.
Strong personal relationships start with the family. The husband-wife and mother-father-child bonds are the bedrock of relationships that most satisfactorily answer that first transcendental question of every child: “Where did I come from?”
A good answer to that question is key to a child’s emotional health. Being able to place oneself in the world, in relationship to others, allows the child to begin the process of building personal identity and empathizing with others.
The child can then feel secure enough to express natural curiosity and explore the world out of sheer joy. A happy home life stokes a child’s thirst for learning and for friendship. It helps inspire the child to develop good habits and attitudes that lay the groundwork for success.
What kinds of habits and attitudes? Well, is she trustworthy? Cheerful? Helpful? Just check the Boy Scout Laws for more such habits. Is he courteous, thrifty, clean, and so on? In fact, the idea of merit, which privilege theorists have severely degraded, permeates scouting.
That’s because merit is a formula for success, no matter your ethnicity or background. Merit can’t be separated from attitudes of loyalty, friendship, courtesy, thrift, patience, valor, virtue, etc. All of these intangibles build privilege, especially when reinforced through good relationships.
This Is—or Ought to Be—Obvious
Let’s listen to what NFL Hall of Famer Allen Marcus has to say about the roots of his success. Allen is black and comes from a loving home headed by parents who sacrificed for him and his siblings.
In the ad from the series “Football Is Family,” Allen says, “My parents did what they were supposed to do. They provided for and nurtured us. They were tough on us. They made a choice to say ‘This is the most important thing in the world.’ Everything I’ve accomplished, I certainly owe to my parents, because they were front and center.”
In fact, Allen’s father proudly introduced Allen when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003. His father talked about all of the great things they did together when Marcus was a kid—fishing, sports, carpentry. Then Marcus praised mother and father in his own speech:
Yes, my great team has been my family. My mother and father – every single step of the way. They had six kids. My mother’s been my team mother. My dad has been my little league coach, my football coach, he picks me up, he picks up my brothers from different practices. He goes from one place to another. He works from 7 to 3, gets up, coaches – he’s done it all. And I would not be here if it wasn’t for my parents.
Herein lies the real root of “privilege”—its deepest root, in fact. Having loving family bonds is the foundation for success. The good news is that a society need only have an ethos that recognizes and supports such family bonds to make them accessible to virtually all children.
Obviously, there’s nothing “white” about valuing family and personal relationships. Likewise for good habits, such as thrift, common courtesy, or diligence. What about attitudes of kindness and generosity? Good attitudes are equal-opportunity decisions. They don’t belong to an ethnic “ideology” that causes inequality. Quite the contrary. Everyone is capable of good habits, and such habits are worth praising and instilling in everyone.
If we all promoted these attitudes, we’d be a lot happier. We’d have much better things to do than constantly inspect the proverbial grass on the other side. We’d learn more and prosper more. But of course, not every child today is blessed (“privileged”) with a mother and father together willing to nurture and sacrifice for their child.
Family breakdown makes it harder for a child to confidently go forth in the world. It’s probably the biggest source of baggage for those who suffer from feeling unprivileged. Wherever there is family breakdown—whether through divorce, abandonment, neglect, or abuse—you’re sure to find childhood trauma and brokenness. When childhood trauma becomes epidemic, as it is today, you will get deep veins of sorrow that turn into bitterness that floods into all of the society. Family breakdown causes community breakdown.
Is a Loving Family an Unfair Advantage?
I fear that family breakdown is causing a growing divide that the privilege industry is exploiting. If we are to shun all attitudes, behaviors, and values deemed to be part of the “dominant culture” and success—something related to Euro-centrism or “whiteness”—must we reject the family as a source of unearned privilege? It sure feels that way.
You may not hear a loud attack on intact families or loving parents or happy childhoods coming from campus social justice warriors yet. But it’s coming. Everything you hear today about privilege is a warm-up act for that.
Consider a recent argument from a social justice warrior perspective. Two philosophy academics, Adam Swift (no relation to Jonathan, I presume) and Jerry Bridgehouse, last year discussed their modest proposal to replace love with guilt, under the headline “Is Having a Loving Family an Unfair Advantage?”
In addition to arguing that strong families are unfair to people who don’t have them, Swift offers this choice quote: “I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.”
Can we unpack the idea that reading bedtime stories to your child “unfairly disadvantages other people’s children”? Let’s try.
The loyalty and love one human being shows another cannot be exactly replicated, and not every human being enjoys such relationships. This clearly implies that these bonds of loyalty and love should eventually be snuffed out under the all-purpose moniker “equality.” Never mind that only through such bonds can all people—no matter their origins—can truly experience success and joy. Or privilege.
To Equalize Misery, Destroy the Good Families
Instead, we’re likely to hear louder calls for abolishing family. One example is this 1999 article “Is the Family to be Abolished, Then?” which pushes the perverse notion that the very existence of the family is unjust. The concept keeps rearing its head, as it did a couple of years ago with Melissa Harris-Perry’s spot for the Obama “Forward” campaign urging us to get rid of the idea of private families.
The question then becomes: how to get people to willingly give up their family and friendship bonds in the name of social justice? Well, I suppose first you’d have to promote policies that foster the conditions that normalize family disintegration. The groundwork for that has been well-laid.
According the Centers for Disease Control, the current rate of births to unmarried black women is at a mind-blowing 71.5 percent—three times higher than it was in 1965 when Daniel Patrick Moynihan sounded the alarm over the disintegration of black families. In 1965, the out-of-wedlock birth rate for white women was 3.1 percent. Today it is more than eight times higher than that for white women: 29.3 percent. Instead of heeding Moynihan’s 1965 report, elites maligned it.
We should wonder why they did so, because a lot of misery has come from that brokenness. Yet it seems those same elites are stoking resentment to get folks on board with the lie that having a loving family gives a person an unfair privilege.
Privilege theorists are already laying the guilt primarily on the children who succeeded because of mothers and fathers who devoted themselves to raising their children together in loving homes and then sent them off to college.
How the Privilege Racket Plays Out on College Campuses
Now that more than half of all children do not live in a household with both biological parents, I would lay the blame squarely on the agents of that brokenness. That means politicians, academics, and other elites who habitually support social policies (such as no-fault divorce, single parenting, hook-up culture) that devalue marriage and facilitate family brokenness. Their policies have worsened the childhood poverty linked to family breakdown. In this context, privilege theory looks almost like an attempted cover-up.
On college campuses we can see how agents of brokenness are shifting the blame: by serving up more brokenness. It comes in the form of identity politics and the war on the humanities. Identity politics, and the gender/class/ethnicity studies that prop it up, is a virtual war on friendship. It demands that we not look at individuals as unique, but compartmentalize every human being according to demographic classification. Privilege theory is the spawn of identity politics.
Killing the humanities in education, in effect, has destroyed a major antidote to the alienation that privilege theory promotes. The humanities—classics of literature, history, art, religion—have always been a balm for the loneliness caused by social brokenness. The great and ancient stories address our deepest longings and fears. They are universal, and they unite us in our common humanity. But access to them is vanishing in the K-12 Common Core era, as well as in higher education. Why? Because, they’re deemed “Western.”
Worse, a student who shows an interest in the humanities today is liable to face the privilege police, whose activities degrade such interest. Maybe you’ll “check your privilege.” Perhaps you’ll be invited to attend one of those re-education camps where you’ll learn new habits of self-criticism, in which you confess to feelings you never really had. These can wash your mind of any notion that your life has value or meaning, insisting it’s instead harmed others.
Like a battered wife, perhaps you’ll absorb the gaslighter’s words, telling you what awful thoughts you’ve always harbored about race or privilege without even knowing it. Perhaps the lesson will sink in: there is no universal humanity, just demographics.
Privilege-Shaming Is Becoming a National Sport
We can all see how the invention of privilege-shaming is permeating the culture. The white hip-hop guy Macklemore recently released a jingle based on his “expropriation” of the black hip-hop culture. There was also a petition drive urging the singer Adele to acknowledge that her success is based on her white privilege. Philosophy professor George Yancy published a New York Times commentary entitled “Dear White America” inviting offenders to come forward with mea maxima culpas.
Whether you believe such a practice would result in racial healing is irrelevant. Even if all complied with Yancy’s wish, it would only add up to empty self-flagellation. It could never suffice.
That’s because this sense of invisible privilege serves primarily as a scapegoat for wounded dignity. And only real love can heal wounded dignity. It’s attained and developed only through one-on-one and face-to-face encounters that have restorative qualities and allow for the growth of trust. Collectivism of the sort we’re seeing—especially through the social pressure of political correctness and the privilege industry—kills love. That seems to be the whole point of it.
It’s about Family, Not Race
In the end, race is merely the vehicle by which privilege theorists are shifting cultural values from individualism to collectivism, and from family autonomy to state control. This undermines the very conditions that lead to success for anybody. Family devotion is accessible to anyone capable of self-sacrificial love, regardless of race, class, religion, or other designations. It begins with the bonding of mother and child, neither of whom are aware of “privilege.”
But with the growth of devotion and loyalty within the bond of family, something akin to privilege seems to accrue. At least, it accrues in the eyes of the deprived beholder. When the deprived beholder sees the fruits of love as an unearned privilege, bitterness is bound to set in. That seems to be what we’re really dealing with here.
Big Privilege is a movement rooted in sadness and deprivation. Not the deprivation of material things, but the deprivation of the sort of love that allows one to explore the world with a sense of security and happiness. The big question is whether the purveyors of Big Privilege are interested in the growth of family, trust, and real friendship. Sadly, it looks more like they are whitewashing their own guilt by destroying the family.
Having an intact and devoted family could look like unearned privilege to someone who through no fault of his or her own was deprived of it. I can understand that pain and anger.
That’s because having a strong relationship with both parents, wherever possible, isn’t really about privilege. It’s about the child’s right to have that relationship. Ultimately, it looks like children will be openly stripped of that right under the false flag of unearned privilege. That will prove to be the gravest injustice.