“Check your privilege!”
Few phrases have come to symbolize the American leftist movement as much as this one. Going as far as becoming an Internet meme, it has been used to either make fun of the left-wing, or to construct certain strawmen against the left which are then heroically defeated. But what’s behind that phrase?
What is the origin of “check your privilege”?
The idea behind “check your privilege” is the idea that some people are privileged over others, i.e. some people have an inherent advantage in life due to their race, gender, ethnicity, nationality or health. Few people would seriously deny that white people are privileged in life; there is a lot of empirical evidence that proves that black people are disadvantaged due to widespread racism in American society, that they experience racial profiling, are faced with prejudices such as them being more violent or less intelligent and black culture is synonymous with ghetto and crime culture for many. The result is that black people have more difficulty getting hired than whites, more difficulty getting an adequate education and are more likely to be incarcerated than whites for the same crimes along with many other disadvantages. The same way, there is empirical evidence that proves that men are advantaged over women – and even though outright misogyny is decreasing every year in western liberal democracies, sexism still exists: there are still way too many women harassed or assaulted daily by men, often in positions of power; women are still rare in leadership positions; women’s bodies are still often used as mere decoration for products.
However, there is much more than that to “check your privilege.” The phrase implies that the recipient of the phrase has just said something that is wrong and the reason for being wrong is the privilege that person has. The idea is that, for example, a white person – Critical Whiteness is what this article will be focusing on – will and does not understand how a PoC (people/person of color) feels, what their reality is like and what they feel about what you just said. You are supposed to check your privilege and understand that you, as a white person, are advantaged in society and thus perceive a different reality from the one that the PoC sees. Your whiteness is the reason you don’t – and will likely never – understand how minorities feel.
But don’t just trust me, let’s look at what the proponents of “Critical Whiteness” say themselves.
“[Critical Whiteness] is an interdisciplinary arena of academic inquiry that has developed beginning in the United States, particularly since the late 20th century, and is focused on what proponents describe as the cultural, historical and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the social construction of whiteness as an ideology tied to social status.
A central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history and its effects on the present, inspired by postmodernism and historicism, in which the very concept of racial superiority is said to have been socially constructed in order to justify discrimination against non-whites. Since the 19th century, critics of the concept of race have questioned if human races exist; they note that arbitrary categories based on phenotypical characteristics are chosen, and that the idea of race is not about important differences within the human species.”
Theodore W. Allen says:
The “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in the late 17th-/early-18th century Anglo-American plantation colonies (principally Virginia and Maryland) […]
Central to this process was the ruling-class plantation bourgeoisie conferring ‘white race’ privileges on European-American working people
The core idea is that whiteness is a concept that was “created” by the bourgeoisie in the US in order to justify slavery and the idea of critical whiteness is to deconstruct this concept. We can find the very first problem here: The idea that racism was “created” by a bourgeoisie for their own self-interest. From a materialist, Marxist perspective, racism is necessary false consciousness. The mode of production produces ideologies which are of course false, however, they is also “necessary”. Necessary in the sense that it correctly derives from the material conditions. It means that, considering the material conditions, the consciousness is actually not wrong. It is false only because it is generated by the mode of production and mode of production only, “correct” consciousness then, of course, would be to understand that the the world around us is created by the mode of production and that the reality, “superstructure” of the mode of production is merely a mirror of it.
In this case, in the case of the United States, that is, we have the mode of production of slavery. We have had European merchants buying or making slaves in the western Africa and bringing them to the Americas for profit reasons. The reality that this mode of production creates, that is, that the technologically advanced capitalists/slave owners happen to be white and the subjugated slaves happen to be black is that blacks are inferior to whites because they are enslaved.
Because the reality shows us enslaved blacks and white slaveowners, the ideology that necessarily derives from it is that whites must be superior. What critique of said ideology does is understanding where it comes from – from the mode of production, the slave economy with black slaves and white land- and slaveowners.
So far, so good. So where is the problem here? The problem here is that Theodore W. Allen claims that the bourgeoisie invented it. The problem is that he believes the bourgeoisie are sitting in a secret room, thinking up of arbitrary categories on which to categorize races for the only reason to justify their slavery. What actually happens is that the bourgeoisie don’t even invent it themselves, the material conditions creates a misleading reality and people take conclusions from the apparent reality without seeing the materialist reality. All classes and participants – the bourgeoisie, the land owners, the workers and even the slaves themselves end up believing the ideology.
Is this nitpicking? No. Instead of being a materialist and seeing racism as a natural result of the material conditions at the time, he needs to create the “evil whites” that conspire among each other to specifically create racism for their own gain, possibly without even believing in it themselves. That is pure ideology.
But that’s far from all.
“Western concepts of research and writing have dominated what is known about Indigenous people and created facts that are not necessarily considered correct by Indigenous people and which are shaped by power relations that exist within society…” “As well as this, it is argued that white people have the power to define and articulate knowledges,in which they may distort, overlook, exaggerate, and in turn perpetuate and extend ignorance in a number of ways…”
“One way in which this happens is through the construction of particular categories and the process of deciding who belongs to these categories. For instance, what it means to be ‘human’ has been determined by imperialism and colonialism, as well as science. The West views itself as possessing and determining what legitimate knowledge is and therefore what ‘civilisation’ is…” “Civilisation is understood as something introduced from the West, for which indigenous people are expected to be grateful, but to which they have no claim.”
The premise is here that whatever white people say, do or plan involving “indigenous people” is tainted with racism due to the inherent “power” and “hegemony” whites have in society. What the whites then do is construct “knowledge” about the indigenous that are derived from said power and privilege. For example, if a white historian writes about the indigenous populations of the Americas, whatever he writes is tainted by his privilege and power. Said power and privilege is for example his “knoweldge” of what ‘civilization’ means. The critical race theorists would claim that said definition of civilization derives from ‘whiteness,’ white supremacist ideas. White people in their construction of whiteness assert that civilization was created by white people and if a white historian doesn’t consider an indigenous population civilized, then he doesn’t do so because of his notion that civilization is something white and thus can’t be something the indigenous create. The job of the critical white theorist is to critique white supremacist ideologies in, for example, anthropology.
Again, the critical race theorist perversely reverts to Hegelian idealism. Having replaced class with whiteness, the critical race theorist believes that white people do not see the world, just like everyone else does, as it appears to them due to the materialist conditions.
Instead, white people see the world through ‘whiteness.’ For him, white people inherently and unavoidably see everything through the ‘whiteness’ glasses and thus, whatever they say, is tainted with racism. There is nothing wrong with trying to point out racist biases in people which believe the racist ideology, however, something very dangerous is happening here: white people are inherently wrong about the indigenous, wrong about their ideas on what a human is, or what civilization is. What does this mean in the end for the anti-racist practice?
Let’s talk a bit about an important concept of ‘Critical Whiteness’ – cultural appropriation. Some define it as:
A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
And what is the problem?
Cultural appropriation remains a concern for a variety of reasons. For one, this sort of “borrowing” is exploitative because it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve. Art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity. In addition, when members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce stereotypes about minority groups.
The claim is that when white people appropriated or adopted musical styles associated with African-Americans, the latter group is deemed “uncreative” and “unintelligent”. What ‘whiteness’ does is that it adopts what other ethnicities do, claims it as their own, but then continues to claim that the ethnicities are subhuman.
The reality is that white people adopting black musical styles actually helped raise the esteem black people had in American society tremendously. Let’s take a famous example: Elvis Presley. Today, he is accused of being a racist, because he appropriated black music and claimed it as his own and instead of him becoming famous, an African-American should have become famous. Sure, there may have been some injustice in the American music industry involved, but the ideology here declares that whatever white people do involving the indigenous is racist and increases oppression.
It says here: “the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity”.
The negative stereotypes continue to exist, but did cultural appropriation create them or make them worse, more prevalent? Thus the question:
Did the negative stereotypes increase as a result of cultural appropriation or decrease?
I’ll just lazily quote Wikipedia here:
Presley was quoted as saying: “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” Little Richard said of Presley: “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.” B. B. King said he began to respect Presley after he did Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup material and that after he met him, he thought the singer really was something else and was someone whose music was growing all the time right up to his death.
In his scholarly work Race, Rock, and Elvis, Tennessee State University professor Michael T. Bertrand examined the relationship between popular culture and social change in America and these allegations against Presley. Professor Bertrand postulated that Presley’s rock and roll music brought an unprecedented access to African American culture that challenged the 1950s segregated generation to reassess ingrained segregationist stereotypes. The American Historical Review wrote that the author “convincingly argues that the black-and-white character of the sound, as well as Presley’s own persona, helped to relax the rigid color line and thereby fed the fires of the civil rights movement.” The U.S. government report stated: “Presley has been accused of “stealing” black rhythm and blues, but such accusations indicate little knowledge of his many musical influences.” “However much Elvis may have ‘borrowed’ from black blues performers (e.g., ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, ‘Big Mama’ Thornton), he borrowed no less from white country stars (e.g., Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe) and white pop singers,” and most of his borrowings came from the church; its gospel music was his primary musical influence and foundation.”
Basically, the reality is, that what Presley was doing was critiquing racist ideology by challenging the conditions that generates it, i.e. y appropriating black music he made it accessible to white people, changing their perception of black music as being primitive. What a white person using black music in reality did was make it accessible to whites. Appropriating black music in fact decreased negative perception of blacks.
How did he do it? Hegemonic ideology at the time was that black people did X which was primitive and white people did Y which was civilization and it’s better if those things don’t mix. By explicitly doing the same thing blacks did and exciting myriads of whites he challenged that notion: the cultural output of the African-American population is interesting, can excite people and is much more than merely primitive. In fact, the quoted scholar posits that appropriating black music in fact has contributed significantly to the end of segregation and the civil rights movement.
Woah. Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? Well, not to the critical race theorists:
Because African Americans weren’t widely accepted in U.S. society at that time, record executives chose to have white recording artists replicate the sound of black musicians. This led to musical forms such as rock-n-roll being largely associated with whites in spite of the fact that black musicians were pioneers of the art form. This move also had financial consequences, as many of the black musicians who helped pave the way for rock-n-roll’s success never saw a dime for their contributions to the music.
Despite cultural appropriation actually decreasing racist stereotypes, it is still being condemned. And the reason it is condemned is ideological: whatever whites do involving the indigenous, Critical Whiteness tells us, is racist or creates racism – or to be more accurate – whenever white people involve themselves with the indigenous, everything they do is done in order to put the indigenous down, because the whites are convinced of their ‘whiteness’ which is the white supremacist construct.
What happened to the critical race theorists is quite simple. They have necessary false consciousness. What they see is this: Capitalist nations which are predominately white colonizing and exploiting non-white populations. What they derive from this materialist condition is that white people must be trying to oppress blacks in everything they do. And of course, if you look at the situation, it must be correct. White people are privileged over blacks, as I absolutely believe myself, so isn’t it logical that the white people continuously do something to keep up that privilege? Couldn’t it be that, like Mr. Allan thinks, that they conspire among each other in order to keep the racism up?
What is happening is that in the end it is not important that racism is actually thought, what is important that whites stay away from the “ethnics” or “indigenous.” Seeing racism not as a reality deriving from the mode of production, but as something that whites create to oppress blacks and to profit lead to the idea that whatever whites do is necessarily racist as they are guided by ‘whiteness’ ideas.
For the critical race theorists, racism is something that ontologically derives from white people. That racism, colonialism and slavery is not something that only white people did doesn’t fit into this narrative. That slavery was simply economically fruitful and that is why the Arab slave trade flourished massively is ignored. That black people enslaved blacks is ignored. That racism in fact can be committed by non-whites – for example by Saudi citizens against the guest workers – is also ignored. That white people can sometimes challenge racism themselves is ignored.
A problematic side effect of ‘Critical Whiteness’ is that it becomes quite literally critical of all things white. Coming back to the example of civilization at the beginning which is criticized, all kinds of things which are perceived as ‘white’ are now seen through the Critical Whiteness glasses, including the enlightenment and its achievements and even Karl Marx is often dismissed as a “dead old white man” who’s got nothing to say about the reality of the minorities of today.
Critical race theorists, in their quest to dismantle racism, end up at a bizarre ideology that is, as we have seen, not concerned with actually dismantling racism and segregation, but is instead concerned with keeping ‘indigenous’ cultures free from the racist contamination of whites and all they have ever done.
And thus I say: “Check your ideology!”