The Tensions of Privilege

Five stressors that challenge progress in social justice

In the game of life, I was dealt a good hand. Though not necessarily a winning hand, I’ve got access to a lot of extra cards that could help me change my fate. Not everyone who plays has that advantage.

  • I’m part of a racial demographic that constitutes 78 percent of the U.S. population. Since diversity in this country is not distributed equally, my experience living in Indiana pushes that up to almost 86 percent.
  • As a cisgendered straight male, my slice of the demographic pie includes a 3:1 dominance in societal power, as indicated by representation in government and board rooms.
  • If you ignore all my student loan debt—and I’m trying—my family is firmly middle class, right where my parents were before wealth started to concentrate unevenly in the 1970s.

With race, gender and wealth on my side, there aren’t many minority experiences I can claim.

Being a member of any majority affords me an upper hand. My path to success doesn’t have to clear the same hurdles, so I’m inclined to normalize a reality unavailable to many. As someone capable of placing the barriers, it becomes my responsibility to improve my self-awareness and consciously act against my biases.

Neither awareness nor action is easy, however. It is work never completed, with many opportunities to abandon the task.

Sometimes, positive goals come into conflict. I need to fill gaps in my humanity without intruding, find empathy without losing my identity, and cultivate safe places for others to speak without losing my own voice. I need to find the strength to act through my respect for authority, all while balancing care of myself and others.

When tensions surface, it can be paralyzing, slowing social progress and presenting ready-made excuses not to proceed further. Such struggles can be perceived as a rejection of diversity and equity, which itself presents an obstacle. Charting a better world requires the patience and courage to navigate a new path.

Seek New Voices | Keep Respectful Distance

The best way to internalize other experiences is to let diverse voices speak to you every day. Conveniently, the Internet provides a means to achieve this, but usually without acknowledgement or explicit permission from others.

For the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to evolve my Twitter feed, my main source for news and human experience. It began by paying close attention to Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project. That served to inject my days with the realities of being a woman in this world. Inspired by Bree Newsome’s courageous climb up a flag pole a few years later, I’ve invested most of my attention identifying and listening to voices from underrepresented groups.

The good news is that there is no shortage of such voices, especially on Twitter. The bad news is that it is easy to confuse the intimacy of what is shared with the establishment of mutual relationships. You are welcome to become a voyeur, by nature of what people choose to share publicly, but publishing is not an invitation to be more.

This limitation is significant. A mutual relationship deepens the urgency of social issues. Anything else affords the privilege of walking away. You care more deeply about those who care about you.

Strangers don’t have much incentive to enter into mutuality, particularly when lives are uneven. One sad truth about privilege is that it is profoundly understood by those who lack it. What you can share is not likely to be novel. Furthermore, overtures to connect through unsolicited sharing and questions can be perceived as an attempt to control the conversation. Despite good intentions, your presence may be unwanted and unnecessary.

That frustration can be debilitating, to want to be considered Woke by people most affected by your privilege whose attention is difficult to get. Acknowledgement of your goodness is a trap, especially if it becomes a means to absolve you of being complicit.

It is a slow process to listen for an opportunity to ask in context, for the conversation to find your questions. It may have to be enough that you continue to listen, without acknowledgement, and to apply what you learn to the relationships you already have.

Gain Empathy | Honor Identity

The things you do in this world are driven by your understanding of it. Every choice you make draws from experience you have gained, either reinforcing or rejecting your past. First-hand experience may be the best teacher, but it is not available to everyone. Privilege, in fact, is the good fortune to be able to avoid harmful experiences.

Because you cannot experience everything, the only way you can fully inform your actions is to supplement your own experiences with those you lack. Empathy is about understanding the world from someone else’s perspective, by listening to second-hand experiences you cannot replicate. To do so requires a willingness to live a world where your beliefs are always incomplete.

Empathy fosters change. Psychologist Maureen Walker suggests it is our work to reconcile the stories we tell about ourselves and others:

“Our narratives about who we are are not so much about difference, or what we sometimes euphemistically call ‘diversity.’ Our narratives are about differential valuation.”

Encountering new experiences affords us the opportunity to reflect on our own power structures and adjust our own behaviors.

This is not a zero-sum process, however. Gaining empathy does not mean you replace your own experience with someone else’s truth.

You can hold multiple truths at the same time. You do not have to agree with another perspective to validate it. You do not have to absolve undesired actions of others simply because you understand the context in which they took place. Your own self-worth is not sacrificed to honor the worth of others.

Open yourself up to connection. Even the most deplorable person you encounter shares your humanity. They, too, continue to be a work-in-progress, changed by new experiences. They, too, make decisions informed by their understanding of the world, however different it is from your own. As your privilege allows, listening through difference will make it possible for your experiences to be available for others.

Create Safe Spaces | Engage Uncomfortable Truths

The world is not a safe place for those with less privilege. Dangers they must avoid or overcome distort how they move through the world. The same opinion expressed by two people, for example, can bring vitriol and threats to one but not the other. Walking to a parked car necessitates mace or keys held as a weapon. Sometimes, the most attractive path to safety is to become silent and invisible.

You cannot force the whole world to change, but you can try to change the parts you inhabit. Carving out and holding space for others allows them to find their voice and to find connection with others who share their experience. Making safe spaces is an obligation of privilege.

When safe, people can express themselves and make meaning with each other without the overhead from dealing with danger and ignorance. Safety protects us from the repercussions of mistakes, allowing us to learn and grow. This is the work that makes us stronger.

Conversations conducted in safety are usually not available in the wild. To someone with privilege, they can sound hurtful more than hurt. Our desire to empathize gives us the strength to listen and face their truth, even if it is uncomfortable. That is also work that makes us stronger.

When you work to hold space for others, you may see opportunity in joining that community to hear those conversations and face someone else’s truth. A safe space may be one that excludes you, however. You are not the host, after all; you are the bouncer.

One tradeoff for establishing safety is sacrificing power. Just because you exerted effort doesn’t mean you control what happens inside. In fact, your presence can symbolize the same danger and ignorance others are trying to avoid. If your intent is to gain audience, the space you create likely will not be safe.

Take Action | Respect Authority

Social justice issues are plentiful, as they always have been. In recent years, many causes have taken more tangible form. Especially notable are Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. Options to support these movements vary in degree.

Activism starts with gaining awareness and education about a problem. I can do this from websites and videos shared online, by grabbing my phone or laptop resting nearby. I can also attend meetings and other local events to get that information in person.

In some cases, knowledge leads to modified behavior. Understanding a different perspective on a situation makes yours less familiar, urging you to re-evaluate actions that may contribute to the problem. The decision to make that adjustment is meaningful, but it is never enough to simply not make things worse.

When institutionalized, the structures of inequity can only be moved with intent. Laws dictate what is acceptable, and power is concentrated in opposition to the cause. It takes coordination, cooperation and courage to change a system, especially when it defies authority.

Like many, my childhood was filled with indoctrination about respecting authority. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school, and we were punished whenever we defied rules. Authority wasn’t always unyielding, but there was a right way to go about change and often a subset of people who were allowed to affect reform.

As adults, we are asked to systematically challenge authority every year in the form of elections. Our leaders are called into question, and we are given an opportunity to replace them. The U.S. constitution expects us to protest, and our Founding Fathers even anticipated a future need for revolution. Limits placed on such challenges reflect a trade-off between freedom and safety.

Outside of these affordances, though, change is risky. Civil disobedience intentionally breaks laws as a means of provoking reform. Even in permissible forms, protest can lead to violence and unintentional sacrifice. These aren’t casual consequences.

One of the criticisms of the Safety Pin movement in the aftermath of the 2016 elections was its superficiality. It isn’t enough to say, “I’m with you,” without being willing to act on that pledge, to know that your life may be the only thing protecting the life of someone else. We aren’t often tested with that extreme, but the same cannot be said of those without my privilege.

Showing up for the easy parts is necessary, but it is only the start. Come to terms with your willingness to challenge authority on behalf of others. Not everyone is capable of placing themselves in harm’s way, so it is important to know and communicate the limits of your activism before someone gets hurt as you watch.

Give to Others | Administer Self-Care

When someone is in need, we care. Our brains are hardwired to do so, particularly among those with whom we have affinity. Relationships are part of our identity, so we literally perceive friends as extensions of ourselves. However, acting on that impulse is a choice.

One way we care is financially. Philanthropy accounts for only about 5 percent of the GNP, small potatoes compared to the advertising budget for some Fortune 500 companies. Helped by technology, financial giving is trending upward, largely in response to the current political climate. People who have never donated before are doing so, even in small amounts, thanks to crowdsourcing options like GoFundMe, Crowdrise and Patreon.

Money is critical to advocacy in the modern world, but it does not stimulate connective relationships in the same way as volunteering and feet-on-the-ground activism. The work of showing up affords opportunity for face-to-face interaction, often extending networks and the flow or future resources.

There is overhead to support volunteers, but there is also a payoff in how that work invests in building long-term human relationships. Social media can turn a rally into a flood of digital artifacts that can be shared and discussed, especially if the photos show a crowded event.

Volunteers and donors overlap, and each feeds the other. Both also come with risks.

The expectation that your dollars will directly benefit a particular group are mitigated by the operating expense of the organization. Corporate pledges to donate money based on revenue can imply greater financial contribution than actually occurs.

Similarly, the time given by volunteers is implicitly less efficient than that of trained and paid staff. Menial jobs are easiest to learn, but still require oversight by people who have other responsibilities. As the commitment of volunteers waxes and wanes, overworked staff are left with the stress of unpredictable help. One of the criticisms of service learning is its negative impact from the hit-and-run nature of student contributions.

Giving money is constrained by your available resources. Giving time is constrained by the physical and mental energy you can exert. Burnout is not a badge to earn. An activist approaching burnout can become a detriment to the cause, prone to damaging relationships and health.

Taking time for self-care seems at odds with the motivation to work on behalf of others. Selflessness can be reckless, however, unless you take time to re-fill your own cup. As you work, be aware of your own needs and responses to power dynamics within the organization. Practice saying, “No.” Most importantly, support yourself with a network of growth-fostering relationships.

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