Chapter 4, Why am I always being told to “check my privilege”? 

Oluo describes her isolation as a minority member in Seattle until she finds a Facebook group consisting of people of color with whom she holds a picnic in an affluent, majority-white Seattle neighborhood. She describes an afternoon of children playing while friends discuss their jobs and hobbies over a picnic. Eventually, a group of Black basketball players approach them and ask to join them. Oluo and her group of friends hesitate before agreeing, and she realizes that her group and the local athletes seem to belong to different social groups. They are separated not by their experiences or their interests but by privilege. Oluo and her friend group had attained the type of success that America values, measured in terms of careers, families, and money. She feels that this led them to discriminate, momentarily. 

The phrase “check your privilege” is often used deridingly in social justice conversations. Oluo tries to diffuse its effect as a guilt mechanism by defining privilege as an advantage you have that others do not. Advantages can be social, economic, and even biological. She uses her own college education as an example to show that while she worked hard to earn it, she also benefited from many advantages others do not possess. She extends the example to explore how assuming that she earned her career success might cause her to discriminate against others who have not had the same advantages. Such assumptions and behaviors perpetuate the discriminatory system that grants privilege to some and denies it to others.  

Oluo understands that acknowledging our privilege, that of others, and that denied to others violates a sense of fair play and a belief in the American Dream. It is also damaging to a person’s ego. These painful facts make it difficult for a person to check their privilege, but not doing so forces others to live in a disadvantaged world. Oluo encourages readers to make a list of their advantages, to think about how those advantages have benefited them, and to listen to and learn from those who do not benefit from such advantages. Doing so is good practice for staying humble and for learning to participate in uncomfortable discussions. She then offers practical suggestions for how to use what a person learns about privilege in their daily lives, by being both more compassionate and, more importantly, more proactive.  


Clothing can be used as a signal of personal and cultural identity as well as a status symbol, facts that Oluo uses to make her point about privilege. Initially, Oluo decries Seattle’s wealthy white teenagers who intentionally wear thrift-store clothing, despite their ability to afford more expensive attire. Her tone betrays the anger she feels toward their insensitivity at choosing these clothes as ironic status symbols, a way of saying that they are so wealthy and good looking that they don’t have to care about what they wear. Meanwhile, for Oluo, secondhand clothes are a reminder of the limited clothing choices she had as a child. Many families struggling with poverty cannot afford to buy new clothes as children grow. Oluo views other people wearing thrift-store clothes as insensitive to her own struggles growing up, and it acts as a source of anxiety for her. However, she also realizes how her clothing choices set her apart from other people of color in the same neighborhood. She uses her clothing to signal her privileged status as an educated member of the city’s financially successful minority elite, a fact that causes her to “check her privilege.”  

Checking privilege can be painful because it forces people to realize that they cannot claim full responsibility for their own successes. The experience is humbling and can cause disillusionment in ourselves and our systems. These results are intended and beneficial because of privilege’s flip side. When people assume that all of their success is self-earned, they also assume that others’ failures are deserved. The result is a system of rewards and punishments that looks fair to those who are rewarded but that, in reality, isn’t fair. People who have not been treated fairly generally understand this system well. But people who benefit from this system must work to realize their own complicity in it in order to effect change. Oluo softens the blow of this experience first by exposing herself to the process. Oluo is a queer woman of color, so the analysis of her own privilege is both humble and edifying. She also makes the process easier by illuminating the ways doing so can help us make more and more practical changes to our communities. Her parting suggestions about how to use the new understanding of privilege give readers a sense of hope that such exercises can result in meaningful change rather than simply being a cruel comment tossed out casually during a heated discussion.