Privilege Is Not An Accusation

By: Rosalind Wiseman

Source: UnSplash

We recently received a provocative question from a mother. Below is the question and our response:

My 16-year-old son is an open-minded person who sees people for what they do, not what they look like. I’m proud of his acceptance of people who are different than him. The other day he said that he feels hated because he is a white male. He doesn’t want to be defensive but it’s hard to know what to tell him when so many seem to be against the demographic that he fits into. I’m sure he’s not alone in feeling this way. Any thoughts?

Yes, we have a lot of thoughts because this question sits directly in creating cultures of dignity and the difficulty of doing so:

Your son, like anyone, has the right to his experiences and his feelings about those experiences . And I’m sure it’s annoying for him to experience people making negative assumptions about him because he is a white male. But it’s also time for him to grow up.

People who are in the minority of anything often experience negative assumptions and judgments about them. It can be exhausting for people of minority groups to choose which battles to fight and how to fight them. Choosing battles is part of their lived experience. So it’s good for your son to be uncomfortable and experience this for himself. It’s good for him to feel what it’s like for people to make assumptions about him that he thinks are unfair and inaccurate. It’s good for him to feel what it’s like to be labeled. Then he can take those experiences, learn from them, and use them to increase his own understanding of the people who live around him.

But how? It’s understandable that people in his situation are nervous about making “a mistake” and saying the wrong thing. So here are some suggestions for what he (and any of us) can say when we feel like we’re getting into an uncomfortable conversation where we are being misinterpreted or it’s running off the rails in any other way:

I’m asking because I’m curious and I really want to know what you think and how you experienced x.
If I say something that comes across as hurtful or ignorant, I want you to tell me.
Help me understand…
I’m asking that you listen to me and don’t assume I’m only what you see. Yes, I’m male and white but I’m also a lot of other things. It doesn’t take away from my privilege but the other parts of me are important to who I am and how I want to show up in the world.

As a white male, he has race and gender privilege. But using the word privilege isn’t an accusation, it’s just a way to self-reflect about how you operate in the larger culture you live in. And almost all of us have ways in which we are privileged and ways we aren’t. In this case, is he willing to speak out when he sees other people, especially people who look like him, abuse their privilege? The reality is that many young, white men don’t speak out when their peers abuse their privilege; they laugh, make excuses, or tell the person with less power to stop making such a big deal of it.

And this young man’s situation isn’t unique. All of us can develop the the courage to speak out. All of us can learn to stay in conversations with people who may be angry at what we represent or even something we ourselves said. It’s the only way we can really see each other for who we really are.


This piece was adapted from White Boy Problems

As we continue to think about these issues, acknowledge feedback from young people, and refine our work we realize that the tone of White Boy Problems is not consistent with how we believe we should communicate around these topics.

Read more on the Cultures of Dignity blog