Sunday, May 20, 2012

Life is not a checklist

Have you seen “privilege checklists”?

A privilege checklist is a list written by a member of a historically disadvantaged group that is meant to show people outside of the group the privileges they enjoy thanks to being born who they are and not members of a historically disadvantaged group. The purpose of privilege checklists is honorable – to teach people what it is like to live in the shoes of “the other” and develop empathy. (Here is an anthology of privilege checklists.)
Still, tiny wisps of smoke rise from my ears every time I see one.

I see an implicit message in privilege checklists – “You are getting unearned and unfair advantages because you were born what you are.” But what about unearned and unfair guilt? A person can’t take privileges; someone else has to give them. The burden of privilege belongs to the giver, not the receiver. If the head of HR has bias against blacks and Hispanics, does the white person who eventually gets hired share in the blame? I think not. This is how privilege checklists alienate potential allies to the cause.

There’s another implicit message in privilege checklists, this one for the disadvantaged groups – “Your life is going to stink because you were born what you are.” Privilege checklists, in emphasizing all of the negative parts of being born female, gay, transgendered, etc., etc., create a heavy cloak of victimhood that serves no one, least of all the historically disadvantaged.

The truth is, life has good and bad in store for everyone, no matter your accident of birth. A person in a historically disadvantaged group can be upbeat, cheerful, and prosperous…and straight white men can end up depressed, chemically dependent, and living under bridges.

Humans have great privileges…among them the ability to think, to create, to reason, and to enjoy. (If you can’t do any of these…well, that is a story for another post.)

If you write anyone’s biography, it will certainly not look like a checklist. Thank goodness.

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