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Part 2: Why is the privilege conversation so hard to have? (and why that limits us)

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series exploring the concept of “privilege” in our lives. (Read the introduction, Part 1, Part 3 and Part 4.)

By Aprajita Pandey and Jayati Doshi

To summarise the previous parts, if we understand privilege as discussed until now, it highlights:

  1. That our world has engendered habits and ways of being that are valued more in society.
  2. What is valued is arbitrary, determined by privileged people.
  3. Our upbringing prepared us to take on a position of relative power and be successful in the world, and
  4. While that is not enough to get us where we are, it did give us an extra boost that was unearned and we don’t know how to fit that into our “hero” story.

Adding our “privilege” to our story often shatters the premises that story is built on.

We all have a story we tell about our lives — about who we are, how we got to where we are, who and what helped us get there, what obstacles and hurdles we overcame along the way,and the things we learned to do that. If we were to draw an arc of this story, for most of us, it might look a little bit like this:

We are heroes in our own stories, and we use these stories to explain how we navigated the world. The stories and narratives thus reflect not just about the way we see ourselves but also about how we see the world, and how we claim our place in it. Think of them like the maps we draw to tell someone what way we took to get to where we are. What the conversation on privilege often does is that it begins to challenge the basic terrain of that map by zooming out of your route only to reflect the big picture. It begins to question if the steep slopes that you struggled with are actually that steep, if the rocky terrain that slashed your tire was probably not as bumpy as so many others’ paths are. And when that happens, the very basic map — which one assumes to be a certain extent of foundational reality to tell one’s story — is now shaken. This is disorienting and uncomfortable, and it makes one feel displaced because it challenges how we experience our life.

Acknowledging that we received some advantage due to privileges we did not earn is extremely difficult to do because:

(1) It brings up existential questions that are core to our sense of self:

  • Righteous questions about “goodness”: Am I a bad person?
  • Doubt-filled questions around “worthiness”: Do I not deserve what I have/ have achieved?
  • Painful questions around one’s own lived experience: But what about my struggles?

(2) It brings up a moral conundrum: Is the world inherently unfair? If it is, how do I process my place within this unfairness — the ways in which I have both benefited and suffered due to this unfairness? And if it isn’t inherently unfair, how do I process the unfairness that we live in?

Now, none of these two questions have absolute “right” answers and we are not going to pretend like we have any. However, as we set about exploring this conversation, we decided to not dismiss them because they don’t have answers and engage with them a little bit, and suddenly a lot of things began to make sense.

This shattering causes strong emotional responses.

When faced with these questions that do not have answers, our minds struggle to deal with this dissonance, and so, in order to restore some sense of equilibrium in our heads, we cue in all sorts of emotions and responses, which are secretly our way of protecting ourselves. Most commonly: denial, guilt, shame, entitlement, defensiveness. (more about this in this article)

One framework that we speculate might explain the source of these responses is the following matrix:

Let’s start with this question — what do you think your baseline is for how much unfairness is okay. How jarring is the current state of “unfairness in the world from this?

Now, let’s add another layer to this. What was your first response when faced with our even slightly privileged place/ position within this unfair world — a “place” that assumes that you had some advantage that the others didn’t? Imagine this “place” was some sort of award — how do you respond to being presented with that award? Do you respond with “thank you! It was a tough ride with all these obstacles, but I/ my ancestors overcame that to get here”, or do you tend to lean more towards “thank you, I guess I just got lucky to get all the opportunities/ support I received.” The response to the moral conundrum would be slightly different for both these kinds of people.

For the record, we aren’t really questioning the truth in any of the stories. What we want to bring your attention to is more about how one tell’s one’s story — how they make meaning of what has happened to them.

Moreover, because both guilt and defensiveness are icky emotions to hold, some of us who feel this way might also tend to project these outwards by shaming others who we see responding to this differently than we do. This can be further exacerbated if one experiences one’s own feelings or stories of struggles being dismissed because they have also had privileges, regardless of whether that accusation comes from outside or within them.

For example, say I am struggling to make sense of the inequality in the world and feeling guilt for the place I have within that equality. Every time that I feel a sense of sadness, despair or anxiety, I am telling myself that I don’t have the right to feel that way because so many people are struggling, and as a result, denying my feelings, and I continue to be even more miserable. Now, every time that I see someone else feeling the way I have decided one is not supposed to feel (and thus justified my suffering), I get more annoyed at them, am less likely to empathise and shame them. On the other hand, if I am an entrepreneur who is struggling to pay my employees right now or being in debt because my industry has come to a standstill, but am sensitive to the realities of the situation and aware that I am still secure in some ways, a conversation about privilege might make me feel defensive, because I interpret that as my feelings about my situation not being valid enough. Now imagine these two people responding to each other, or worse, someone who is more on the entitled side of the spectrum and only talking about how bored they are and how much they miss their Dominos pizza. To some extent, this is what is happening with the privilege conversation.

To clarify — we are not talking about what one must feel — judging one’s feelings often is only counter-productive. These feelings by themselves are only natural. We are also not saying that we remain completely and absolutely in one of these quadrants. We might feel other things or more than one thing depending on the situation and context. These feelings become a problem when one remains shackled by these feelings and stuck in these quadrants instead of moving beyond them to ask what one can do.

What we, the authors — as co-sensemakers and organisers — were interested in figuring out was, what made it more likely that people would move to more constructive and empathetic responses. How do we understand the link between these feelings and the responses they generate?

How do we move beyond these emotional responses?

Our hypothesis is that one’s beliefs around one’s agency in the world is what allows these emotions to not have a hold on us.

If we believe that nothing can change or that one’s actions make no difference whatsoever, we will perhaps continue to seethe in these helpless emotions and remain bound by them, paralysed to do anything.

Those who believe that we do have some agency but put the onus for changing the situation outside of oneself, often turn the emotions into more noxious ones such as shame, bitterness, blame, or might simply wait for “others” to change things while continuing to complain and whine. This might be especially true for those of us in the lower quadrants of the table above where we believe that our achievements are mostly because of factors outside of ourselves. The “callout/ cancel culture” is one way that this manifests — i.e. we show public outrage or publicly humiliate or withdraw support towards those we perceive as being “insensitive” towards this as a way of holding them accountable. While holding people accountable is important and essential (more on that later), doing that through shame is often counterproductive because it puts the other person in the defensive. This is also why a lot of us might also feel extra frustrated and defensive about being told to “check one’s privilege”.

On the other hand, those of us who believe that we do have agency in the world and that we can make some difference in the situation may often be more likely to do something about this realisation. There are two main approaches we frame our own personal theory of change in:

Approach 1: “Making up” for the gap by “balancing the scale”

For example, some of us may claim our agency by “sharing” some of the resources that we have received, (often due to our privileges) — i.e. donating. Some of us may decide that we want to “use our privilege for good” by fighting for those less privileged than us. We then turn to forms of activism, movement-building to enable those with lesser privileges than us to have access to some of the advantages we have received.

These forms of agency — often (if not always), allow us to help fill the gap while continuing to maintain our place (and our power) in the world. It makes us feel good about ourselves to be “helping” others, which to be fair, need not always be a bad thing. To some degree, this may be even necessary.

The risk with this though is that it continues to maintain the power structure that led to the inequality in the first place. While not always, it can sometimes come from a place of, “I still want the power, but it is okay for me to have that power and I even deserve that power because I do good with it”.

Approach 2: Working to remove the gap

Sometimes though, agency is harder to exercise when it requires giving up on some of the things we take for granted and letting go of the attachment to unearned benefits such as our power, and dismantling our place in the order of the world . Sometimes, claiming one’s agency in order to ensure a fairer world also means giving up our sense of rightness and/or the power we get by being more of “the norm”. It requires ceding our control of the narrative, and handing out the center-stage and the control of the “normal” to those in the margins. Sometimes, it also means losing some of the default access and advantage that we are used to. Some other times, it might be subtler but still powerful losses — such as no longer being an obvious leader or the one in celebrated with the spotlight because the definition and language of what leadership looks like has shifted. Or losing social capital (i.e. friendships or respect within certain populations) because those around us who also have these privileges shun us for trying to take it away from them.

For those of us who tie our worth to our place in the world, who attach their value to being the ones to know the answers, who are too used to fitting into the messy power our privilege grants us, this can be immensely threatening. This is what so many anti-oppression leaders try to tell us when they say that the status quo benefits from keeping the status quo intact — it is often not (or at least not entirely) a response out of malice, but out of this deep-seated existential fear.

While this is observed everywhere, it can get particularly problematic in the non-profit and social-justice world. Despite the best intentions, several leaders struggle to give up on this power, and as a result, they retain the status quo within the sector, detaching it from the people it seeks to serve. By using the language and value definitions of the status quo — which often also represents the donors, they continue to keep underserved populations in the margins and do little to really dismantle the system of privilege.

The question then becomes — do we really want to dismantle the system of privilege? And why does that matter anyway? Something we get into in Part 3. Or you can read about how one claim agency to make choices in Part 4.

Aprajita is the Founder & CEO of Haiyya. Young feminist entrepreneur, community organizer and social justice campaigns trainer. She tweets at @AprajitaPan

Jayati is a story-curator, facilitator and coach at sensemaking lab who wonders about how people make sense of themselves, their worlds, and themselves within that world, and how to help them do that better. She tweets at @jayatidoshi

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Jayati Doshi

Jayati Doshi

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Story-curator. Facilitator. Wondering about collective sensemaking, stories, love, belonging & questions that have no complete answers. https://jayatidoshi.com/