Stop Telling People to Check Their Privilege

It can be a very satisfying thing. You encounter someone who is unaware of their status in society spouting off about this and that  claiming that injustices don’t exist or you’re over-reacting and the situation is overblown.  You know that if they would just be aware  of their privilege they would see why they are misguided or even plain wrong and change their tune – so you say, “Hey. Check your  privilege”.  Job done right? 

Unfortunately, no.

Likely what you just did in their eyes is attack them for being who they are – because of accident, birth, circumstance, or  individual effort. Privilege is a term used inside social activist circles where its definition and use widely known and  accepted; outside these circles, however, it is simply a word – one that is often stigmatized and charged with negativity.

People see privilege used to silence and attack or as a weapon to guilt and shame. They don’t understand why someone would  check their privilege before they start speaking. So telling them to “check their privilege” has no constructive purpose and only  serves to further disenfranchise them from your greater point.

Ok so unfortunately the “check your privilege” shortcut is out. 


What can we do to get the point across and be better understood?


1. Make sure you are right about the privilege.

Privilege is a set of assumptions and assumptions are not always correct. The world isn’t black and white enough anymore to  simply say “He’s a man therefore he gets more respect automatically” or “that person is white, so they don’t have to worry  about racial prejudice”. Listen to what the person is saying, not how they are saying it, and ask questions to make sure you  understand the situation before you bring privilege to their attention.

2. Be specific

The biggest problem with telling someone to check their privilege is context. Those simple words don’t give people an  understanding of what they are supposed to do and why.  Remember that you are likely going to have to give them a primer  on social activism so they can be the positive force you want them to be.
Say for example you have two engineers one male and one female. The female may ask “Do people believe you when you tell  them you’re an engineer?”.  If he says yes, then she can follow up with “I often have to convince people.  It’s very frustrating and  makes me lose confidence that I should be doing this”. This gets the same point across in a way the man can understand and  gives him the tools to help her be more accepted by their peers and others thus creating a more equitable world.

3. Don’t attack or shame

Privilege is, by definition, unseen and passive – people are rarely aware of it by default. Statements like “You’re a white man.  Check your privilege.” don’t help. They alienate and create rifts between people that make them shy away instead of being  willing to help. Table those reactions and let the better angel of your nature take over. If you are not in a place to do that in  the moment it is understandable we are not saints. Remove yourself from the situation and come back to it later either  physically or mentally. You don’t need that stress in your life.

4. Answer questions

Remember you are dealing with people that may not be socially aware. If you were clear enough to have them understand their  privilege then they will inevitably have questions, with the most common one being “Ok I have privilege, what can I do about  it?”.   Be patient and calm. Don’t expect the world but give them tangible things they can realistically do – “just be aware” or “I  don’t know, be better” are not valid answers here.
Back to our engineer example, if the male engineer asked, “What can I do to help?” she could say “My idea was ignored in the  meeting last week can you back me up if you agree with me” or “Can you avoid saying ‘you guys’? It always reminds me I’m  not a guy.” These are tangible things that won’t overhaul the culture but will make a better world for her. Follow-ups will come  if the person has a vested interest and so long as suggestions don’t turn into demands you will likely find a willing response.

5. Don’t always expect agreement

People are as different as can be. Hopefully you are associating with people that understand, respect, and care for you but  that’s not always possible. There will be times when you have been calm, specific and you didn’t attack, but the person still  doesn’t agree. This is something you will have to accept. As Captain Picard so poignantly said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That’s a weakness, that is life.” Make peace with this and  know not everyone is reachable.
These are steps you can take to make yourself better understood. They are a pain and I get that, but hopefully in the end you will  find that it is well worth your effort and time to engage someone rather then tell them to “check their privilege.” I mean, I just  wrote 900 words to explain  why you should stop telling people to  check their  privilege  because I knew that the shortcut title  wouldn’t cut it.
If you would like to hear more about being understood and social issues please tune into the Entre Nous Radio podcast on  iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music, and TuneIn. Feedback is always welcome and remember the space between us leaves us room to  grow.