18 Common Phrases That Unknowingly Perpetuate White Privilege

By Aaron Stone

Language is deeply embedded in our culture, and the words and phrases we use reflect the social norms of our communities. But, we use many words and phrases in our everyday language that seem innocent but are actually offensive to others. This is especially the case when looking at how white people use their privilege. Here are 18 phrases that reinforce white privilege, often without people knowing it:

“Colorblind” or “I Don’t See Color”

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While well-intentioned, these phrases dismiss the realities of race and racism. Race is a part of someone’s identity. Saying “I don’t see color” ignores that aspect of who they are and their lived experiences. People of color navigate the world differently than white people due to racial bias. Instead, white people should acknowledge that race exists and celebrate diversity.

“Inner-City” vs. “Urban”

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“Inner-city” can carry negative connotations associated with poverty and crime, often in communities of color. “Urban” is a more neutral term that everyone should be using. 

“Articulate” For a Person of Color

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Using the phrase “articulate” to describe a person of color implies this is unusual. As outlined by the University of Michigan and others, using terms like this can be considered microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle, everyday verbal or nonverbal interactions that can be derogatory or send negative messages to marginalized identities. 

“They’re Just Acting Ghetto”

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“Ghetto” is a term that’s loaded with racial stereotypes. Instead of describing someone’s behavior objectively, white people often used terms like “ghetto,” which reinforces stereotypes of people of color. The word has come to be associated with predominantly Black and Hispanic urban neighborhoods facing poverty, crime, and neglect. 

“Get Over It” Regarding Racism

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Racism is a serious issue and should be treated that way.  Minimizing the experience of others or dismissing their feelings around racism is an act of racism in itself and does not show any empathy for how it affects people of color. 

“Master Your Domain” or “Man Up”

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Both of these phrases have historical ties to slavery and dominance. While they should be a term of the past, some white people still use them instead of more neutral terms like “be courageous.”

“Indian Giver”

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In many indigenous cultures, gift-giving was about building relationships and establishing trust. Gifts were often seen as part of an ongoing exchange, and if the recipient didn’t reciprocate or use the gift appropriately, it could be taken back. The ceremony was misinterpreted by people in North America who wrongly believe the term “Indian giver” implies that Indigenous people are untrustworthy and can’t be relied upon to keep their promises.

“Acting Ratchet”

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Ratchet” is often used to describe behavior associated with African American culture, particularly young women. This reinforces stereotypes about black people being loud and boisterous.

“Poverty Chic”

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According to Statistica, black people have the highest rate of poverty in the U.S.A.  The term “poverty chic” trivializes the realities of poverty, which is often faced more acutely by people of color.

“Everyone Speaks English Here, Right?” 

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The U.S. has no official language, and many people speak languages other than English. This phrase assumes English is the default language everywhere, ignoring the many other languages, such as Spanish and Hispanic, spoken by citizens. 

“Why Don’t You Go Back to Your Own Country?”

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This xenophobic phrase assumes everyone is an immigrant and ignores the history of the many people of color whose families have been in the U.S. for generations. Even if people were not American residents, it is a deeply offensive slur. 

“Where Are You Really From” 

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Asking someone where they are really from has racist undertones as it infers that they don’t really belong in America. The question often comes from assumptions based on a person’s race or ethnicity. It reinforces the idea that white is the default race in America, and anyone who looks different must be from somewhere else.

Assuming Ethnic Names are Nicknames

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Many ethnic names are given names, not nicknames, as some white people assume. You should ask someone how to pronounce their name if you feel you can’t work it out, and always ask if it’s okay to shorten someone’s name.

Complimenting Black Hair by Touching It Without Permission 

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Hair is a significant part of Black culture, but there is often little respect from white people regarding it. When white people should respect personal space and ask before touching a black person’s hair and refrain from constant compliments as it can feel like unwanted attention or a microaggression.

Asking Someone to “Speak American”

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The U.S. has many dialects and accents, so not everyone speaks “American.” Lingoda estimates that 21.6% of Americans don’t speak English at home, which shows how we should celebrate linguistic diversity instead of thinking everyone should speak one language. 

Assuming Someone is Foreign Based on Their Appearance

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People of color can be American too, so assuming that someone is foreign based on their skin color assumes that white is the default color of U.S. citizens. You should avoid making assumptions based on looks and not talk down to people, thinking they won’t understand you. 

“I’m not Racist, But….”

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This phrase often precedes a statement that is racially insensitive or biased. The speaker feels the need to distance themselves from the label “racist” before making their point but will go on to say something very disrespectful, showing a person’s true colors.

“But I Have Black Friends”

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This phrase centers on the speaker’s comfort and desire to avoid being labeled racist. True allyship involves actively supporting people of color and dismantling racist structures, not just personal connections. If someone corrects you, be receptive and use it as a learning opportunity.

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