"Check Your Privilege"

Ameido Amevor

The first time I came across these words was on a University campus in the United States. Shortly after that, I started hearing the following phrase: “Healthcare is a privilege, not a right”. I then became very intrigued about the actual connotation of the word “privilege” and what it means in its various usages. My first understanding of the word “privilege” comes from my background as a French speaker. I have always equated privilege to honor. For example, in French we say “C’est un grand privilege de vous rencontrer”, which means “It’s a great honor to meet you”. I also speak Ewe which is a language found in at least 3 countries on the west coast of Africa. In Ewe, privilege is “monukpokpo” which could literally mean “open paths” or “open doors”. 

On the university campus, the meaning of the word “check your privilege” connotes a lot of things. In my opinion one of them is to suggest to someone to remember that they may be speaking from a place of power. In this blog post, I will discuss the phrase “check your privilege” and look at its weaknesses and strengths in the light of biblical theology.

When I was 15 years old, I was asked indirectly to check my privilege. One of my cousins who is my age told me why I had a better chance of making it in life compared to herself. She said: “You are luckier than me. Your parents can provide you with a great education. I only have my mom and she has not been educated and can barely afford to take care of us”. I remember that conversation like yesterday. I am from Togo a country located on the West Coast of Africa. Growing up in the early 90s between two countries because my country of origin was facing political turmoil and violence at the time, I don’t recall reflecting much on what it meant to be privileged even after that conversation with my cousin. I spent most of my childhood in Ivory Coast where I also attended school.  I come from a middle class family. I had all the basic necessities for a child to thrive. I had a house, food, a supportive family and an education although I lived in an unstable country.  I nonetheless witnessed poverty first hand since I had extended family members that did not have access to many of these basics.

What are the strengths of “check your privilege” in light of biblical theology?

  •  Pays attention to factors that are real and which do shape our lives.  Our biblical doctrine of creation causes us to appreciate physical and social reality and its impact on our lives.
  • Potentially fosters a praiseworthy humility.  God loves to lift up the humble and abase the proud, not for the sake of equality but to help us rightfully identify our status in relation to Him so that we neither diminish His glory nor our humanity.
  • Mimics, in some sense, the spirit of II Corinthians 8:9 as well as Philippians 2, where Christ limits His power in order to lift poor sinners up. 

But the phrase “check your privilege” for its strengths has some weaknesses as well. Let’s now look at what the Bible suggests about its weaknesses.

  • We cannot know the full story of the other person, and must instead rely upon superficial markers (gender, race, etc) . We are fallen and finite, and thus our knowledge is limited.
  • The doctrine of checking privilege seeks to impose the secular doctrine of equality by virtue of seeking the lowest common denominator, rather than fostering a desire for achievement.   Equality in biblical terms is sharing the image of God (Genesis 1:26)
  • Fails to account for personal motivation, which the Bible accounts for in a major way, and thus seeks to diminish the privileged without necessarily enhancing the success of the less than privileged.  By loving our neighbors, we seek to provide tools and access, but the effort to pick up the tools and enjoy the access must be provided by the person being helped.  In essence, our goal is to develop the image of God in another person’s, not per see try to diminish the image of God within us.

I personally don’t get offended when I am asked to “check my privilege”, but then again I am rarely asked directly or indirectly to check my privilege. I have nonetheless formed a habit of self-reflecting on my privileges when situations arise.

Ameido Amevor is a Wilberforce Academy Fellow and recent Intern.  She holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.