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The phrase "check your privilege" is currently enjoying some popularity on the Internet. It seems that "check" could have several meanings:

  • holding back so as to avoid applying unwanted force: "The batter checked her swing."
  • examine closely: "This item has been checked for defects."
  • give to one's host for safekeeping: "All firearms must be stowed in checked baggage."

Which meaning best applies in this phrase? It's not entirely clear if the intent is to get people to halt the oppressive use of unearned authority (the "holding back" or "safekeeping" meanings) or to get people to look more carefully at it (the "examine" meaning).

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It could have either of the first two meanings, depending on the context. I'd need to see the text to be able to comment further. –  Erik Kowal May 15 '14 at 21:29
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"Checked" as in "checked baggage" is a contraction of "checked-in", anyway. You check in baggage to a flight, in much the same way you check in computer program code to a version control system. –  Lightness Races in Orbit May 16 '14 at 13:07

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Here it is being discussed on The Guardian...

roughly speaking, ["check your privilege"] is a way of telling a person who is making a political point that they should remember they are speaking from a privileged position, because they are, for example, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or wealthy.

Of OP's suggested meanings for check, the best one is examine closely.The person being addressed is being told/reminded that he should consider carefully whether the opinions he's expressing might perhaps owe more to his privileged perspective than to objective reasoning. Obviously in practice the strong implication is that the speaker invariably thinks it does.


As @Janus comments below, it's perfectly possible to interpret the usage as a combination of OP's #1 and #3 (leave your privileged perspective outside when you enter this discussion). It should normally be obvious from context which exact sense the speaker intends (is he giving advice before you express any opinion at all, or after you said something ascribable to privileged circumstances?).

The difference in meaning between the two is relatively small, and it's quite possible that different speakers (or the same speakers at different times) may have either "nuance" in mind.

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A combination of senses 1 and 3 is also possible: “check your privilege (at the door before participating in this discussion)” is how I've always understood it in the contexts I've seen it. I'd say the fact that the verb is so ambiguous and hard to pin down exactly has caused people to understand it in different ways and consequently also use the expression in different ways matching the different senses of the verb. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet May 15 '14 at 22:29
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It isn't a polite reminder; in fact, it is an aggressive admonishment but as of late, I have heard it used in jest –  Third News May 15 '14 at 22:38
    
@Janus: Point taken. I'll edit to reflect that. –  FumbleFingers May 15 '14 at 22:38
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I was trying to express that the statement is used as a replacement for 'STFU', and the Guardian definition gives the impression it is about conversing –  Third News May 16 '14 at 13:02
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@Third News: Well, it is The Guardian, after all. A significant proportion of whose readership is retired civil servants and others who have index-linked pensions paid for by the state. Since they mostly speak from a "privileged position", it's hardly surprising that their overall position re the usage would be somewhat disparaging. Just like everyone else, Guardian columnists and readers typically take it for granted that they can evaluate the hardship of others objectively, even though it's a million miles from their own personal experience. –  FumbleFingers May 16 '14 at 15:58

I think everyone's missing the simple answer:

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=check

  1. to put someone in their place
  2. to realize your current position in any of many situations
  3. paper money you write

best check yo self, before you reck yourelf

In particular, the cited example is probably the phrase that most popularized this usage of the word check:

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/icecube/checkyoself.html

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That may be the meaning (something between #1 and #2), but it's not obvious. "Check yourself" here apparently means to "Stop and consider your attitude, position, and assumptions before proceeding, and possibly making an ass of yourself." –  Phil Perry May 16 '14 at 13:50
    
I looked at the Ice Cube track when formulating the question. I think if we use "Check Yo Self" as a guide to the definition, it would be the "examine closely" definition because the lyrics include "run a check", which means querying a database. But I wasn't sure, because the tone of the lyrics is also fairly combative, which suggests a meaning closer to the "restrain" definition. –  sigil May 16 '14 at 20:10

This phrase has been in use among information technologists for decades, where user privs are registered and enforced by the information system involved.

It was inevitable that the usage of the phrase would sooner or later spill into the general public. For the past few decades, it has even been used as an organizational and process management idiom.

The recent exposure of this phrase to lay usage would mean its meaning is still fluid, such that it is begging everyone including yourself to use it as you see fit, but in a reasonable manner that is idiomatic or analogous to its IT or management usage.

To contribute to the solidification of its meaning, I recommend the following usage ...

  • before you offend the organizational inertia, check your pay grade in comparison to the procedures or opinions you wish to displace.
  • to avoid getting frustrated and encountering insurmountable road blocks, check your authoritativeness in the subject and fields concerned
  • before getting frustrated by organizational inertia, check your cognizance by the people and systems with whom you wish to rub shoulders.
  • check the charter and bylaws of an organization (like a country club or gated community) whether your standing would allow you to pursue your intent.
  • check quality specs, SOPs (std operating procs), ISO 9000 etc, legal constraints of your organization if you are among those allowed to pursue your intent.
  • check your caste/social/class/nerd/popularity status (like before attempting to date someone),

It can be an advice or admonishment given, in sarcasm, condescension, or well-meaning concern. It is consideration of standing compared to inertia to be made before taking on an endeavour.

Appendix

One of the corollaries of checking your privileges, is the priority with which you are perceived by others.

In computing (as well as management) a low priority entity would not have its tasks completely blocked but it would receive lesser attention and allowed less resources to complete its task. Frequently, a low privilege entity would also correlate to low priority.

Therefore, when you encounter situations where your issues and problems are resolved more slowly than others, it is also time to check your privileges.

The antithetical resolutions to use against low privileges and priorities are elevation, escalation, and expediting. A process planner would take steps to "bump up" the priorities of a product that is perceived to be moving too slowly by either elevating its product status both in both the information systems as well as among the human organisational perception.

The more obvious solution to your low standing is to canvass the support of a high standing member to be the proxy-front of your tasks.

Therefore, on discovering your privileged standing in a country club to be too low, and you wish to hold your wedding there next month, you should either request for a temporary elevation in status, a one time escalation, or look for a member of high privileges to move the mountains for you.

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Do you have a reference for the phrase's usage among the IT community? –  sigil May 15 '14 at 23:28
    
    
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This is utterly, completely wrong, and isn't at all the etymology of this word. I have never, ever heard an IT person use the phrase "check your privilege". This google trends graph shows it exploded quite recently, but had no usage before 2012. Not the "decades" you suggested. –  Lego Stormtroopr May 16 '14 at 5:57
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This is completely wrong, sorry. Just because computer systems use the term "privileges" to describe access control, does not mean that "check your privilege" originated in IT. The term "privilege" has a completely different meaning here, as does the "check". So the only thing they have in common is "the"; woop woop –  Lightness Races in Orbit May 16 '14 at 13:08

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