Demanding is less effective than opening up a dialogue

Katherine Coughlin
Contributor
kcoughli@unca.edu

The phrase “check your privilege” has become widely used to inform others to be more aware of their own positions in society in relation to others.

It stems from the idea that those with white, cisgender, heteronormative backgrounds are at a greater advantage than others and that is certainly true. No reasonable person could deny that if you are born white you are born with an advantage that others do not have.  

As it turns out, this buzz phrase may create more of a dichotomy than a platform for people to understand how they are being politically incorrect or arrogant based on elements of their own life. The phrase “check your privilege” is simply a catchy phrase passed around so much the meaning becomes distorted.

In the case of telling someone to check their privilege, the distortion produces animosity. The message becomes accusatory rather than explicatory about something important: making others feel safe and included in a mutual space. In order to produce social change we need to reword and reexamine our attitudes toward those acting offensively in order to help them.

“I’m not sure it would really get them to check their privilege. I think if there’s somebody who would respond positively to it they would already be doing that,” said Patrick Weaver, sophomore English student at UNC Asheville. “Where as if they’re already showing their privilege in a bad way they’re not going to respond to it well.”

White males are perhaps the most reprimanded — and sometimes with good reason — when it comes to privilege. But Weaver, though white and male, is asexual. This diverts him from the cookie cutter model Americans so often assume a person fits. Someone could make a poor assumption about him when talking about privilege, another issue with telling someone to  check their privilege.

The widely-used phrase “check your privilege” loses some of its meaning when used in an accusative manner. Photo courtesy of Tony Webster.

“I’ve certainly thought it but I’ve never said it,” Weaver said. “I think if there was someone who didn’t really need it they would probably respond positively or just kind of say, ‘Oh yeah, I’d do that,’ or something, whereas if they actually needed the reminder they’d probably be angry or offended.”   

It could set someone off—trigger them, so to speak. Mostly, when people are angry with you, they do not respond in a way that you want them to. Once someone has done that, they become an angry person who says offensive, politically incorrect things. Two wrongs do not fix the first situation.

“I don’t think it’s productive because it puts people on the defensive and I think there’s better ways to point out that somebody has privilege or is acting in an entitled way. Saying, ‘You better check your privilege’ just sounds like you’re name calling at someone and I don’t think anyone’s gonna listen after you say something like that,” said Megan Underhill, assistant sociology professor.

Yes, it is awkward. Someone is calling you out on where you are or where they think you are from. By putting someone down the situation can only be exacerbated. It is possible you put yourself at odds with the person you call out as well as the others around you. Even when not being told to check your privilege yourself, the phenomena can be strange.

“A lot of my friends have been told to check their privilege. It was very interesting. It was something that I didn’t really expect. It’s definitely not an effective way —it hits a soft spot I would say,” said Jaelyn Blake, a freshman biology student.

What check your privilege seems to be is a snap decision made based on something someone ha ssaid. It can make everyone else feel uncomfortable too. People can not help where or what they were born into.

“As a general rule, I think it’s better to call in than call out. So call in means you take somebody aside and you invite them to reflect on the fact that they may have more privileges than somebody else. You’re inviting people to reflect on things. You’re not accusing them of being more privileged,” Underhill said.

It is not to say privilege does not exist or that those in a position of power defined by race, class or gender are off the hook for making inconsiderate statements. But in order to make change, people must be made fully aware of what they do wrong and how to correct their behavior. Most importantly, what you do with your privilege regardless of whether you were born into it.

“Well, first people have to be educated on what privilege is. Because sometimes you speak to people and they don’t know or understand what the privilege is,” said Tamiah Lewis, a freshman biology student.

When the idea of privilege is explained in a compassionate and productive way, people will begin to understand and make changes.

Perhaps it is time to change the way we speak to people about what privilege they may have. There is absolutely no question those white and male have a greater advantage. But accusing someone will only turn them further away from you. So, as Underhill suggested, having a calm, open conversation with someone may be a better way to get your point across.

“Just because you’re in a dominant position in a variety of ways doesn’t mean that you’re an uninformed person,” Underhill said.

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