Checking your privilege: not what you think it means

Student media has a responsibility to encourage and facilitate debate about student politics, to highlight issues which are in need of attention and to behave with sensitivity rather than engaging in vitriolic personal attacks. If we focus too much on extrapolating damning condemnations from silly mistakes, then we risk detracting from constructive debates about student politics and instead stumbling into exaggeration and ultimately bullying. We should guide and inform debate, not inflame mob mentality and play out our private disputes in the public eye.

The Tab reported on Thursday that EUSA presidential candidate Faatima Osman, in response to a Facebook thread last October, had projected an allegedly racist sentiment through the use of the phrase “Fuck you white person”. The issue with this is that we risk perpetuating structural inequality through giving undue focus to this issue; though it is right to call into question rash statements by elected officials, we need to consider the personal dimensions to this incident, and, most significantly, the underlying and indeed generally unrecognised sense of privilege that permeates through the discourse of ‘reverse racism’. We should not be focusing our attention on Osman’s comment, a drop in the ocean within the problems of racism we face in our society. We should be addressing the much more important issue of structural inequality – which requests we check our privilege –  and the way it plays out in the student political arena.

As has been pointed out by various individuals over social media recently, and particularly at the ‘censorship’ on campus debate facilitated by spiked at Teviot on Wednesday, there is a consistent failure to recognise the power imbalances that free speech ultimately seeks to address, and more worryingly, has led to accusations of “racialism” within a number of students’ unions.  Instances of subordination on ethnic, racial and religious grounds are borne-out structural inequalities which have not been eradicated.  Consequently, there is no validity in the claims of spiked’s Assistant Editor Tom Slater that those checking their privilege carry out “racialism”.

Slater argues that universalist values are being suppressed by society’s need to highlight differences in colour. His rigid alignment of progressive politics with the naive notion that ‘one doesn’t see gender or race, only people’, highlights the woeful ignorance of those allegedly progressive vanguards aiming to support free speech.  Liberation politics, contrary to what Slater would have you believe, addresses structural inequalities, and unfortunately, in both cases of ‘censorship’ debate, and with regards to accusations against Osman, the reverse racism allegations obscure these imbalances.

There is in general a failure in certain circles to understand the nature of liberation politics, as well as the need for safe space and no platforming in venues like student unions, and the way in which trigger warnings and respecting people’s gender pronouns in no way impinge on free speech. These are all issues which have come up in recent debates around Edinburgh’s student politics in physical and online spaces. Students have been told that not using the gender pronouns which someone asks for is okay, and just a matter of choice; that we should face racism, sexism and homophobia on campus in order to prepare us for ‘the real world’’; and that survivors who are triggered need to ‘grow up’. And apparently, intersectionality is just ‘guff’.

But all of this, as with the controversy surrounding Osman’s statement, is missing the point, again and again, of how discrimination works, how privilege politics play out, how structural inequalities need to be addressed, and how safe spaces and no platforming allow the otherwise marginalised to exercise their free speech fully. By all means, let’s debate these issues, but we should bear in mind that these debates miss the point.  Sitting in a room or behind a computer screen, debating free speech and reverse racism without checking one’s own privilege, is not going to be what destroys the structural inequalities we are trying to fight.

 

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  1. Emily
    May 07, 2017 - 05:06 AM

    What an utterly useless article. The author, making no true point of their own, tells us how we should conduct ourselves (in accordance with the author’s beliefs), while making no effort to enact the labor of explaining why we should do any of the things they tell us. Truly, the author is abusing the concept of intersectional privilege politics for their own gain. What Osman did was use another person’s race as a weapon. At no point did she make an attempt at explaining her statement until after people cried foul at her abuse of her position – a leader in student politics at one of the top institutions in the world in a developed country. When she hurled her race-based insults, she had no clue as to the underlying identity of the person towards which she threw insult, and at no point made an effort in any way to understand where the victim had come from, their circumstance, or their personal privileges. Instead, she chose a simple hierarchy – one that placed her as the victim, and the victim as the oppressor – by only viewing the world through the lens of race. This is not intersectional. This is not a a good use of the notion of privilege. This was a reactionary attack on an individual on the basis of race, and race alone. Osman had the power in this situation as a governing leader of a student body, and as a woman of clearly equitable economic, geographical, and class-based privilege.

    This makes her a racist. She discarded all identity-based nuance, reduced her victim to a representative of their race, and threw insult on that basis. This is a very closed-shut case. We, as feminists, need to be courageous enough to call out abuses of our ideologies for personal battles whenever they occur in order to maintain validity in the eye of the public spectrum, and this was one such incident that we failed. Because she was a person of color. That’s a bigotry of low-expectations in and of itself.

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