"Check your privilege."
It's a quick, snappy way of challenging behaviors that reinforce dominance in society, especially along the lines of racism and white supremacy. The phrase should invite a discussion where two distinct people or groups can better relate to each other and continue harmoniously. Unfortunately, that's not usually what happens. The dialogue often shuts down.
But it doesn't have to be this way, because it's a valuable opportunity to learn about how to overcome racism. Here are some knee-jerk reactions to avoid when being challenged about white privilege.
1. Denying that white privilege actually exists.
It's understandable if someone doesn't know what privilege even means, but not knowing what it means doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Even though the term has only recently eased into the mainstream lexicon, it's a concept that's been around for a while.
More than 25 years ago, for example, Wellesley professor Peggy McIntosh's essay "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" not only explained white privilege in detail but also listed dozens of ways it plays out in everyday life: from seeing people of one's race widely represented in mass media, to not being followed or harassed while shopping, to being much more likely to encounter someone of the same race when asking to speak with an authority figure.
So instead of resorting to denial, take the proactive route. Ask how privilege affects the situation at hand and be open to processing the explanation.
2. Making a claim of reverse discrimination.
People of any group can harbor bias or prejudice towards others from a different group. But it's important to remember that racism is not only about prejudice — it's also about power. Racism involves everyday privileges, as well as the power to codify privilege into laws, hiring practices, law enforcement and other areas of social and civic life. Things like the fact that white males are 31% of the U.S. population but represent 65% of elected officials are part of the reason why "reverse racism" is a faulty concept.
3. Placing the blame for racism on people of color.
Sometimes, people assert that individuals of color simply have to change their behavior to deflect the tide of racism. It usually it sounds something like this:
"Maybe the police wouldn't stop you if you dressed differently."
"If you were a bit more polite, no one would follow you around a store."
"If you consistently speak proper English, no one will think you're incompetent."
Such statements reinforce respectability politics, which falsely assume that people of color are somehow in control of how broad systems and structures treat them. While on the surface it may seem that acting like a model citizen will combat racism, it just doesn't work that way in the real world. As Mic's Zak Cheney-Rice wrote, "The myth of respectability... is little more than America's way of shirking responsibility for violating and disadvantaging its black citizens. It's used to deflect the incontrovertible fact that black safety cannot be guaranteed in a system built on white supremacy."
Comedian Chris Rock, for example, has been stopped by police three times in less than two months, each time posting a selfie on social media to document the occasion. Not even wealth, popularity, education or a good reputation will shield black and brown people from being disproportionately stopped by police.
4. Touting charity work previously done to benefit people of color.
Volunteer work is commendable, but working with school children in Mali during spring break or donating money to a relief fund for impoverished immigrant families doesn't suddenly negate the existence of privilege, and doesn't shield someone from being accountable for their other actions.
Using past charitable actions to defend oneself reinforces what writer Teju Cole dubbed the "white savior industrial complex," wherein the volunteerism is not about justice, but rather "about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."
5. Using a MLK, Jr. quote to make a statement about being "color-blind."
In his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his hope that his children would not be judged "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
It's a beautiful sentiment that often gets misused during conversations about race and privilege. While some misconstrue those words as a validation of not "seeing" race, King was actually criticizing "the horrors of anti-black police brutality, 'whites only' public accommodations, denial of voting rights and discrimination in virtually all areas of life," Mic wrote in January. "King couldn't have denounced those injustices without demonstrating an understanding of how skin color created unjust hierarchies fueling white supremacy."
6. Deploying the "not all white people" argument.
When asked to "check your privilege," it's not a wholesale indictment of white people. Of course, saying that every single white person on Earth consciously sustains racism wouldn't be fair. However, when being challenged about racial privilege, it's not so much about the intent behind one's actions. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of not knowing, and digging deeper to understand the effect of one's behavior in order to be accountable and do better in the future.
"Not all white people" doesn't work as a sound defense against a claim of racism or an exercise of white privilege, because the focus is on how one individual is furthering a larger system of oppression.
7. Ending the conversation abruptly because of a direct challenge.
Being called into accountability for problematic words or actions isn't easy. But when discussing what happened, it's important not to end the conversation prematurely, just because the idea of being told about "privilege" hurts — or because it seems exhausting to think about for just a moment.
In fact, when a person being challenged cuts off the conversation, it probably stings more than anything else they could've done. Deciding to completely disengage from thinking about racism sends an underlying message to people of color that their ongoing struggle simply doesn't matter.
They will still move through the world thinking about how racism operates and enduring its direct, negative effect on their lives. Indeed, disengaging is not a luxury — nor is it a privilege — they can afford.