Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Strange Rules of "Check Your Privilege"

It is tempting to think that our culture is becoming less and less a place where the principles of reason are valued, especially in areas where they should be.

As evidence of this, I recently came across an article by a university professor entitled, "I'm a Mom And A Vaccine Researcher. Here's Why You Should Vaccinate Your Children." I'm always keen to read a good argument, especially if it is one that I have not heard before, so I read the article. 
However, what I did not find was an argument about why people should vaccinate their kids. Rather, it was a line of critique against those who have concerns about modern vaccines due to their privilege, especially white privilege. She proposes that vaccines have brought so many wonderful things to the modern world, such that it is only the concern of privileged women to draw attention to possible risks associated with vaccines. And as a result of this privilege, those who have worries about modern vaccines struggle to consider the well-being of other children and the common good; they need to check their privilege. Now, to the author's credit, she briefly notes that there is a contingency of vaccine hesitant parents who are people of color. Nevertheless, the force of her critique was based on the problem of white privilege.

Now, whatever you happen to think about vaccines, it should be apparent that this is a bad argument for why people should vaccinate their children. And if it strikes you as peculiar that the author of this article is a white professor with a Ph.D. in a humanities department at a liberal arts university who is calling on people to "check their privilege," you are not alone.

But what struck me was the strange inconsistencies of when it is appropriate to throw down the "check your privilege" card.

In high school, I remember some of my white friends who were drawn to the exoticism of the East trying to convince me, an Indian, what the word "chai" means, or how to properly use the word "curry." In college, I had classes where the instructor was white, all the students were white, and I was the only person of color in the room. I found it somewhat annoying when the class laughed off the practice of arranged marriage as some relic from the dustbin of history, while sitting in the seat next to them was an Indian kid for whom the prospect of an arranged marriage was an imminent reality. 

Now someone might respond, "Come on. It was high school. It was college. Give them a break." And I say, "Yeah, that's fair. Maybe they should get a break."

Unfortunately, the problem arises when the high school and college kids grow into adults, and continue to imbibe ideals of inclusivity, diversity, and checking one's privilege, yet only so long as it does not jeopardize any of their personal values. Pop Western culture loves other cultures' values insofar as they line up with, and do not threaten their own.

Consider the Women's March. Three years ago, when my Indian wife dared to publicly express her dissenting opinion on the March as a movement trying to cut a toothpick with a chainsaw, she was nearly condemned as a heretic by a group of western, white women. Suddenly, one's ethnicity and privilege were nowhere to be found. The two closest women to me: my wife and my mother, both of whom are Indian, would likely never attend an event like the Women's March largely due to their Indian identity. And so, in this strange world, it makes sense for white people to go on about the toxic problems of white privilege and the need to "check your privilege," in the hope (facade) of promoting diversity, but when people of color share their own experiences that go against the stream of cultural orthodoxy, apparently white privilege is irrelevant, and dissolves into thin air.

No kidding.
So, when white people talk about the need to "check your privilege," I wonder who they are referring to? Who is this group of privileged white people? Apparently not themselves; after all, they drink chai and eat curry.

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