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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Is Being Privileged A Bad Thing?

  So many of my clients, listeners, and readers are horrified to discover something I have known about myself for a long, long time--that they, like me, are...gasp...PRIVILEGED!

The common response to such a charged bit of information is often "what do you mean I'm privileged?

 I have struggled too, after all. I grew up poor/had an abusive relationship/abusive parent/etc." followed by "how dare anyone say I'm privileged?!" followed by the stages of grief, as laid out to such wonderful effect by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, to describe the grief of a loved one after someone important to them has died. 

 The stages of grief are as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and, this tends to be the program that privileged folks follow when they've come nose to nose with an unpleasant fact. First, it's "I can't be privileged," then it's "but I've struggled! How dare anyone call me privileged?" then it's "but I donate my time to charities/volunteer/help the needy, so how can I possibly be privileged?" oft followed by "I guess I'll just go away since no one wants to hear from me," and then, finally, "well maybe I'm privileged, but..."

 Anyone who has been through these stages of grief themselves can identify them in someone else, and certainly, those of us who fall into the non-cis, non-hetero, non-white, non-male, non-wealthy categories can see these stages from miles away when folks who have never been forced to confront their own privileges start experiencing them firsthand. 

 The natural tendency when someone is incredibly privileged and this privilege is not something they are comfortable having pointed out is to simply get snarky, deflect or even deny their privilege altogether. But that in and of itself IS a form of privilege!

 And you know what? It's okay to be privileged.

 Did you hear that?

I said it's okay.

No one is telling you you're not deserving of love, affection, attention, an opinion, a vote, a choice, a voice, or anything else humans are entitled to via human rights. 

Are you with me?

Okay, now that that's settled, let's talk about the nuances of what IS in fact being said when someone has pointed out to you that you are privileged.

Firstly, let's acknowledge something. That pain you're feeling; that anger; that resentment; that guilt; that rage...that IS privilege rearing its head. That's your entitlement telling you that you're entitled to have your privilege go unnoticed--to go without being called out. That's your ego telling you that having an advantage doesn't matter--that having a performance-enhancing edge doesn't change the game at all, and that rather than looking at the performance enhancement you've been using (even if you've thus far been using it without being fully conscious of it--without owning it) shouldn't matter, and that people should JUST look at your performance, without looking at the fact that you've been given performance enhancements. But that argument is fallacious. Having been given a performance enhancement of any kind, while not negating any good you have done or are doing, does matter, and it should be looked at. Lance Armstrong didn't win the Tour de France on his own, right? He did it using performance-enhancing drugs. And if you agree that that isn't fair and that it should be looked at, then maybe, just maybe, you also agree that a frank acknowledgment of game-changing privilege (and, in case you were wondering, all privilege is game-changing) is in order.  

Secondly, let's take a look at the emotional component of being called out on your privilege. So often, we look at being called out as a bad thing, when really it's an opportunity--an opportunity for learning, for building relationships, for acknowledging something important that may aid us and others in our development as human beings. And that emotion you're feeling--that feeling of righteous indignation--of anger--of hurt? Well, that's a good jumping-off point to start the aforementioned learning and growing. That reaction is the best way that I know for others to be able to identify with you, and for you to be able to, in turn, identify with others. That reaction is something that lgbtqi+ folks, black folks, brown folks, other non-white and mixed people feel every time a white person, cis person, wealthy person, or a man cuts in front of us in line, takes our seat on the bus, explains something to us that we already know as if we were slow, developmentally deficient kindergartners--every time someone gets a raise or a promotion we were on track for, every time our pain is shrugged off at the doctor's office, every time we get a higher bill for education or medical care than a white person or a man gets, every time we are pulled over and harassed while driving, stopped while walking, every time the police are called on us because we dared to exist in a public space. When you feel those feelings of anger and outrage, you begin to have a small window of opportunity to feel a portion of what we feel on a daily basis. You have an opportunity here. That is a good thing.

 I realize that it can be upsetting and jarring to learn that you may be privileged, with all of the connotations which go along with that loaded term, and I'm sure that takes some time and space to process--some allowance for the engagement of critical thought. We can't expect you to have the reaction that suits us, right off the bat, but not learning--not self-correcting--well that's a real loss. It's not a loss for us. We of the black and brown and mixed skin, of the textured hair, of the gender which doesn't fit your norms--we of the lgbtqi+ persuasion--we already know your privilege. We get it. We just hope you will too because that's when we can really start working together to do some good.

Privilege is, as I mentioned before, not inherently bad. Nobody is asking you to hate yourself because you happen to be privileged. After all, we all exist within some sort of a paradigm of privilege--a personal reality affected by things we were born into. Nobody wants you to publicly whip yourself in the town square. We do not expect your personal apology for the existence of racism, sexism, bigotry, misogyny or hate. What we do want is for you--for us--for everyone to acknowledge our own inherent privileges--those things we were born with which give us a leg up on those who were born without them. We want you, the white man, to stop explaining our jobs and our collective place in society to us, we want you, the white woman to stop speaking for us rather than using your white voice to allow us to step up and use ours. We, the people with privilege and without, want to encourage everyone to do what those of us who have long acknowledged our personal privilege have been doing, and to signal boost for those who do not have the platform you have because of your privilege. We don't need financially privileged cis, hetero, white folks to tell us to think differently or to just be positive and things will change. We also don't need those same people standing in for us to tell others how important our rights and our causes are. We don't want you to acknowledge your privilege to save face--we want you to acknowledge your privilege to save soul--yours, to be exact. 

 The uncomfortable but nonetheless true fact is that those of us with privilege (and I include myself, broadly at least, in that statement) owe it to ourselves and to those without the privilege we have to actively work against that privilege and the damage it has done (and yes, my friend, it has done and does continue to do damage, no matter what good works you do, particularly when your privilege goes unacknowledged), and the damage it continues to do. Doing good things is important, but doing them mindfully is better by far.

 But how? You might ask.

 Well, next time you come off of your plane stressed and ready to do nothing but check into your hotel, go to the pool and relax with a drink, yet you are faced with the choice of checking into that hotel before the black or brown person or the gay or lesbian couple ahead of you who have clearly been waiting a longer time to be served because the white hospitality agent recognizes you first, you can speak up and politely let that hospitality service worker know that you notice that the people ahead of you in line have been waiting for quite some time. Better yet, you could even simply ask the people in front of you if they'd like to go ahead and check-in first. 

 Next time you're in line behind that disabled person in a wheelchair at Starbucks and the barista notices you first and calls you to the register, you can ask the person in the wheelchair if they'd like to go ahead.

 Next time you're out with a group of friends and someone makes a joke that's racist in front of your black, brown, or mixed friends, you can let them know that you'd like to make sure they're comfortable in this discussion and ask them whether they are. 

 Next time that guy at work (you know the guy, so I'll spare you the description) sounds off on building "the wall," you can speak up, or, better yet, if one of your black or brown or mixed ethnicity colleagues happens to speak on the subject, you can support them and make sure they have an opportunity to make the point they need to make.

 A good rule of thumb to use when considering whether you might bear the burden of privilege personally is the following checklist, which is eloquently laid out in the 1986 piece "White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Napsack," written by Peggy McIntosh, which I'll enumerate below:

Per Ms. McIntosh:

"I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions which I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can see, my African American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.
  1. I can if I wish [to] arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
  22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
  23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
  26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more [or] less match my skin.
I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own."

 Do any of these checklist items apply to you? Some of them apply to me. And that's okay. What we must realize, however, is that those unearned privileges with which we are born also come with a high cost and an added level of responsibility to boot. We weren't selected for those privileges based on merit, they were awarded to us through luck and chance. The responsibility we hold includes acknowledgment--but not JUST acknowledgment. Self-hate on behalf of the privileged is, on the other hand, neither required, nor wished for, nor is it helpful. 

 The sum of all parts of this particular social equation is simple. A rising tide lifts all boats. All humans deserve basic human rights. The fact that groups of people who are marginalized culturally, societally and systemically who are rightfully looking for their own rights and freedoms to be supported and upheld is not a challenge to those whose rights are not under attack. However, the shadow side of this equation is that while we acknowledge that certain groups of people are marginalized, we must also acknowledge that other groups of people are, conversely, overly privileged. There are people in our society who are, due solely to inborn, unearned privilege (see the checklist above), granted MORE rights. This is the very definition of privileges that are unearned. Acknowledgment of this fact is essential to moving forward on the path toward equality. 

 I recognize that equality won't happen overnight. Complete equality may never happen, but that doesn't mean that we should stop working toward it, and step one on that path is radical honesty and radical self-knowledge.

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