The Flaws in Literally Checking Your Privilege

A couple years ago Buzzfeed published a quiz called How Privileged are You? It contains 100 statements of which the quiz taker is supposed to mark each which applies to them. Each statement is meant to be a point of social and cultural privilege. I have noticed that the quiz is being shared again so I wanted to comment on it and how I feel it can be used but also that it needs to be acknowledged that there are serious flaws in its design and delivery.

The quiz is presented largely without context, it does not discuss the role of intersectionality or even how some of the things that limit privilege for some people may actually expand privilege to others.

I expect the quiz is meant to give people a general idea of how someone can exist with both points of privilege and oppression. It could function as a sort of tempering to the “yes, but” arguments that come up far to often in activist discussions, particularly coming from allies who may not want to acknowledge their privileged position because of how they might fall into a different oppressed category.

The problem is, that as I was taking this quiz, I had a lot of “yes, but…” moments and none of them had to do with me denying my own privilege. In fact one of the first statements that gave me pause was “I have never been the only person of my race in the room” the test assumes that being the only person of your race is always due to a lack of power. However as a white person who has not only been the only white person in the room but the only white person for miles, I can say with certainty that my ability to be in that situation was most definitely a point of privilege. A point that was accentuated by the fact that I was treated with undue deference while I was there. I am also aware that in a reverse situation where any one of those people was brought into a majority white context that the situation of respect and deference would not transfer.

The quiz in no way allows for how privilege intersects with scenarios that would be oppressive for anyone who didn’t share that privilege.

The next one that gave me pause was “I have never worked as a waiter, barista, bartender, or salesperson”, the intent of this one is to highlight financial privilege, the fact that a person has never been in a situation that they have had to take work that is considered to be menial service industry labour.

The problem here is that I personally am physically incapable of doing 3 of the 4 jobs listed. It is not a privilege that I have never held those jobs. I have certainly been in financially precarious enough of a position where you are forced to take any job you can get. The problem was that due to disability, many of the so called “low skill” jobs aren’t even options for me.

This last issue is compounded by how little consideration disability is given on the list. While every other area of privilege and its corresponding oppression used in the quiz (race, gender, sexuality, class, affluence, etc) is given a number of points that deal specifically with the experience of those identities like,

“I have never been told that I am attractive for someone of my race”

“I have never doubted my parents’ acceptance of my sexuality”

“I have never been catcalled”

Disability however is given no nuance, it only has statements like ” I do not have [insert type of disability]”. There are only two statements that might be considered to be about the experience of disability, first “I can afford medication if/when I need it”, though this is not a situation that is as much to do with poverty as disability. There are also two statements dealing with either considering or attempting suicide. There are no statements like,

“I can make spontaneous plans without worrying that the place I want to visit will be physically accessible to me”

“My parents were never advised to institutionalize me”

“I have never been denied a needed work/school accommodation because someone decided it would give me an unfair advantage”

According to that list our oppression stems from out disabilities themselves and reinforces the idea that disability itself is horrible by having the only lived experience context be poverty and suicide, with no mention of how we are treated.

In this way the quiz actually reinforces the oppression of disabled people because rather than highlighting the privilege of not dealing with disability discrimination, the privilege lies solely in not being disabled.

I do understand that the quiz is not meant to be taken while critically analyzing each point of privilege because doing so only lends itself to the sort of “yes, but…” thinking used to deny personal privilege and by extension, the oppressions that must continue to maintain them.

The problem is that the quiz is delivered with no context, there is no disclaimer that acknowledges that due to the intersection of privilege and some of these statements, not everything will affect everyone equally. There is no acknowledgement that the quiz is incomplete and that some statements associated with privilege may actually mean disadvantage. there is equally no mention that due to various privileges of the people who compiled the quiz that not all oppressions might have been dealt with accurately or equally. There should also be a statement explaining that the score you receive at the end will almost certainly be inaccurate because of the aforementioned flaws and that depending on considerations of intersectionality it may be higher or lower.

Being aware of one’s privilege and how it interacts with experiences of oppression and how an individual can experience both privilege and oppression is important and quizzes like this one can be a useful tool to illustrate this but by simply releasing a quiz where all points are presented to have the same impact on everyone that they apply to. This is false. A point that is oppressive to one person can very well be a point of privilege to someone else, the reverse is also true.

I know that it would be impossible to deliver a quiz like this that is flawless, that would consider those intersectionalities and was completely free of the bias of the creators but without acknowledgement of those flaws, you will end up just reinforcing the knee-jerk “yes, but…” reactions that enter into discussions of privilege and oppression. So I wish that at the very least the test had been delivered with a disclaimer rather than simply released without context or commentary.

If it had included that context it would have been a more effective tool in starting conversations about the complex nature of privilege and oppression and how those two things intersect.

Privilege isn’t a checklist, it is far more complicated than that. For true or at least better awareness of privilege, it must come with an acknowledgement of how intersectionality functions, not simply the idea that someone can experience both points of privilege and oppression.

 

 

 

In Defense of the Radical Idea of Letting Disabled People Exist in Public Without Comment

Today, I was reading a blog post by Dominick Evans called Don’t “Just Say Hi” to Me…Just Fuck Off Instead. He’s referencing the Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s ill advised campaign to combat people’s discomfort around disability by inviting them to engage with disabled people and “Just Say Hi“.

In my experience people don’t have trouble saying hi, my friends do it all the time, shockingly even the ones who aren’t disabled happen to manage it. The problem with campaigns like “just say hi” is that they lack context. You should really have a reason to talk to someone. The existence of disability in your general proximity is not a reason to talk to them. Not that this stops complete strangers from doing so.

Random people have been doing this to me in public since I was a child.

Let me make this very clear adults (most often men) have felt perfectly comfortable coming up to me and saying “hi” since I was a child. Almost exclusively when I was alone (walking home from school, perusing books in the library, etc), yes there is a serious creep factor going on.

These interactions have followed me into adulthood and the creep factor has diminished but not disappeared. These interactions are entirely fixated around the fact that I am disabled. They have nothing to do with me as a person. They invariably involve probing questions about my body and involve such enlightened questions as “what’s wrong with your arm” or “what happened to you?”

The answer to both is “nothing” by the way.

Believe me people have no problem interacting with disabled people for the very reason that they’re disabled. I also assure you that when they do this, I don’t feel included. I feel like someone is very publicly pointing me out while chanting “Different, Different”. Talking to someone just because they’re disabled is not progressive it’s actively hurting people and contributing to a sense of entitlement from nondisabled people.

As Evans notes in his piece

Having a disability takes away most people’s access to privacy. The world truly has little concern for what is going on in our lives as disabled people. Instead there is this innate curiosity about us, which makes it impossible for most people to not say something.

This is the real issue that the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and any other organization should be tackling. The fact that disabled people are not seen as being entitled to personal privacy. The fact that our bodies deviate from the norm seems to give people the idea that they have the right to ask us probing personal questions and they don’t take refusal very well.

Perhaps this is why Evans says that despite his dislike of these interactions, he tends to comply with a smile.

In my experience attempts to deflect just lead to more probing questions. An outright refusal to comply is met with shock and frustration. It also in my experience rarely if ever leads to them backing down because as I mentioned these people feel entitled to my personal information. They usually respond by attempting to shame me by saying something along the lines of “I’m just trying to learn, don’t you want people to be educated”

The fact that I have been trying to teach them that I have the right to exist in public without being accosted is inevitably lost on them.

So rather than telling people to “just say hi” a more appropriate lesson would be to make it clear that disabled people should have the right to exist in public without comment.

I am not suggesting that people ignore issues important to disabled people but rather learn to distinguish between discussing disability in general and needing to know someone’s personal information. It is time for people to learn how to discuss disability only when it is relevant.

The existence of a disabled person in public whether it be someone just walking down the street, shopping in the mall or even being the contestant on a TV talent show does not constitute relevance.

Engaging with disabled people just because they are disabled is dehumanizing.

Unfortunately, that kind of shift in conversation requires a social shift in how society views disability, which is still very much as a spectacle.

Ultimately, initiatives like “just say hi” are lazy faux attempts at inclusion that actually reinforce the status quo, while allowing nondisabled people to feel like they’re helping.

So please, if you don’t know what to say to a disabled person, it’s more likely than not that you have no business talking to them in the first place.

If they actually happen to be a peer (classmate, coworker, etc) and you haven’t figured out that you can talk to them just like anyone else then there’s probably no hope for you anyway.

Learning to talk about disability only when it’s relevant and in a way that doesn’t reduce the experience of disability into something that can be explained by a single person, will do a lot more good than expecting me to be happy that you’re talking to me just because you noticed that I’m different than you.