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Part 4: How then do we act from a place of awareness and justice?

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

By Aprajita Pandey and Jayati Doshi

At this point, we want to come back to the existential questions for a moment and offer a different lens to think of them. What if — stay with us for a bit — another way of looking at these was to remember that while completely valid, these questions are also self-centered, and the reasons they bother us so much are not because of privilege itself but because they are questions around our worthiness, goodness and validation that vex us even generally?

What if instead of telling the story of privilege as something that challenges our sense of self, we turned the lens outwards and saw our privileges as facts that we could do something about — not out of a sense of guilt or shame, or even some kind of “should” or out of a sense of duty, but as our commitment to a fairer world? What if instead of letting it have a hold on us, we saw it as a macro-problem that we have to make choices about?

A few things that seem important and crucial to move the needle forward could be:

Reframing of our story of privilege

Which is why, we invite you to create alternative stories about privilege. To take a step back from these stories and as we make sense of our privilege, to tweak them a little bit. And while we are at it, what stories are we making about privilege itself? .

On a piece of paper, make two circles.

(1) In one of them, write down the privileges you have and acknowledge them. Pay attention to what that makes you feel, especially if it brings up icky feelings. Why does it make you feel that way? Which story about yourself does that begin to challenge? This challenged story, which is important to you, is what is causing the ickiness.

(2) Let’s get to the root of this story — what are things that you think you aren’t allowed to have/ feel/ do because of this privilege? In the second circle, write down these things. Some examples of what this might look like are:

(3) Now, let’s unpack these. Your icky feelings probably come up because at some level, you are believing that acknowledging that your privileges did give you some advantage in life takes away from some of these beliefs in the second circle that are core to the story you are building. You are adding an “or” between these two circles.

(4) What happens if you add an “and” instead (that alliteration was completely natural!)? If it is becoming hard for you to hold both these together at the same time, you may be holding some assumptions about what it means to be privileged. Write these down. Some of these assumptions might be:

  • Am I assuming that acknowledging privilege implies that all success comes because of that?
  • Am I assuming that only bad folks have privileges?
  • Am I assuming that struggle can look only one way and that other struggles are not worth being bummed about?

(5) Is there a way you can begin to question or reframe these assumptions? For example, can I reframe my meanings of worthiness in a way that recognises hard work instead of attaching worth only to the final “win” — that way remembering that these privileges played a part in making it easier for me to win than those who didn’t have these privileges?

(6) Look for evidence around you for these alternative assumptions. (If you feel like you need more framework in order to do this, look up the “Immunity-to-Change map”).

(7) This is a critical step. Ensure you are continuing to account for the circle on the left to ensure that rethinking these assumptions doesn’t become an excuse for you to not acknowledge your privileges. A quick reminder here that the reasons these privileges give you an added advantage might be systemic and you may not be personally to blame for that, AND AT THE SAME TIME, you are responsible for not perpetuating these systems that cause the unfairness and injustices.

Steps 1 to 6 help you create a healthier story about privileges — and if done well, that enables you to act, as Step 7 will remind you. Act, not out of shame or guilt, but because you are inspired to do so. Which is emphatically essential to do.

Alternative choices we can make

The conversation on “‘privilege check’ is happening all around us. Infact, we may take pride in being a global generation that will be remembered for opening up this discourse. We are also more aware than ever of even the smallest injustices — and doing nothing about them as big funding agencies, international organisations, political leaders, human rights agencies, development practitioners, activists, organizers and as citizens. Phoebe Maltz Bovy, also argues in one of her latest article that given these conversations and exchanges have mostly shifted on social media in the recent past, the online privilege controversies frequently stem from poorly worded or otherwise naive attempts at “challenging privilege.

Yes! The injustices happening to womxn should make every man feel distressed, injustices happening to LGBTQIA+ community should make every heterosexual person feel distressed, injustices that Dalits and Adivasis go through everyday should make every upper caste person feel distressed, colonization and its aftermath should make every white person feel distressed and so on. Which infact is very different than being ashamed of born a man, a heterosexual, an upper caste, a Hindu, or a white person. Being born with an identity is different from the privilege that is drawn from the identity.

Hence, when we are held accountable, it is for the sense of entitlement that comes from our privilege, and not for shaming the identity one is born with. It’s starting to seem like a progressive infighting and shaming phenomena recently, and it’s worth asking ourselves, is ‘privilege check’ framework leading towards a more just society? And perhaps also asking ourselves, how can we extrapolate this conversation to ‘building up our commitments towards justice’?

  • Privilege for good is not necessarily ‘equal’ to actions against oppression. Using our ‘privilege for good’ is the most common and simplistic model of our engagement with privilege. But the fact that doing ‘moral good’ doesn’t compensate for our status of privilege. We also often hear ourselves say that, ‘I use my privilege to help [insert oppressed group].’ While privileged identities can sometimes be leveraged as part of action, to see our privilege as something we can use to ‘help’ only reinforces the very systems of oppression we claim to oppose. It’s about ‘acting with’ and ‘in solidarity’ as opposed to ‘acting for and acting on behalf of’. The fundamental difference between acting for charity vs acting for justice is an important value demarcation to make, before we act.
  • Unpack the Invisible Knapsack every day. Peggy McIntosh, the Wellesley scholar responsible for our current understanding of ‘privilege’, mentions that our understanding of our privilege is something that puts others at a disadvantage, and we have not been taught to see it as something that puts us at an advantage. And hence educating ourselves and each other to see the invisible package of unearned list of things in our day to day lives is imperative. For example, I can be pretty sure that I will never be denied a house for rent, I do not have to educate my children to be aware of casteism for their own daily physical protection, and the list goes on. Create what your invisible knapsack is!
  • Our holistic stories are key to us understanding power and intersectionality. And it means our stories of both privilege and oppression. It is through stories that we can increase understanding and make a difference. By listening to each other’s stories we can empathize with experiences that we will never have. It is through our stories we will understand and ground the convergence of oppression and privilege.
  • Being careful of the identities we claim. Oppression has cruel and unfair stories of lived experiences. Hence it becomes vital to consider how our sense of entitlement gives us access to claim marginalized identities even when our lived experiences don’t support it. So really think hard, what it means to claim a marginalized political identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience. For example, if you are a Savarna born and raised in an Adivasi dominated village, you feel more connected to Adivasi culture and politically aligned to them, and you start to call yourself ‘Adivasi’…rethink that!
  • There is a difference between allyship and friendship. Sometimes allies can be friends, and friends can be allies. However, these words are not synonyms to each other. And the key differentiating factor is that allyship is a public relationship and alliance formed on shared values and for political solidarity and commitment, which is different from friendship that is more about personal likeness and interest sharing with or without any shared political consciousness.
  • We can start by sharing and relinquishing power in many ways. If we have recognized that part of the reason we are in the position of formal power (say in work setups) is our privilege, then it means sharing that power with, and sometimes relinquishing it to people around us who have less privilege and therefore have less power. An example of this could be, starting to create a new line of leadership from marginalized identities in your organization/movement who you can share power with.
  • Taking accountability for our privilege. Creating an environment and culture in our personal and professional lives to hold ourselves to account for the behaviour we perpetuate is a must. At the same time, it’s important to open up the space that allows imperfection — to engage deeper, make mistakes, check blind spots, grow, learn, heal and move forward.
  • Learning to navigate the intersections of privilege and oppression. The co-existence of our identities and the ones around us could be confusing and feel tough to navigate. But whenever we react to certain situations, we have to ask ourselves if it’s due to my marginalized status or my privileged status? For example, if I ended up taking up a lot of air time in a meeting, did I do it because I was the only womxn present in the room (acting from my oppressed identity and claiming my space) or did it do it without even realizing if I took space of other womxn who were from further marginalized groups? (acting from my privileged identity)
  • Can we source empathy instead of hostility and self-righteousness? Empathy is one of the core pillars of social justice and equity work. Unfortunately the system is designed to pit ourselves against each other. This is perpetuated when we individualize the problem, attack, shame and mark our claim to be self-proclaimed moral agents. When we begin to see the privilege conversation as yet another “should” — to judge ourselves and others, it continues to keep people out. Sometimes, we slip into thinking that our way of dealing with privilege is right and in trying to justify that — to ourselves and others, we may judge anyone who doesn’t see it that way. We all have our blindspots and fears — and instead of shaming, judging and preaching, what if we saw this process as shedding light for each other in ways that illuminates the topic as a whole ? Empathy has a distinct advantage over guilt and shame: it motivates you to inspire others and simultaneously increases your ability to learn and evolve.

Social justice actions and accountability map

Here’s a framework that we are sharing called ‘Social justice actions and accountability map’ that might help us in our on-going journey of action, reflection and accountability towards social justice work. (This map has been inspired and adapted from the ‘Empathy map’ created by the founder of XPLANE, Dave Gray).

If you want to download this tool, click here and download for free

It’s advised to work on the ‘doing’ section at the end of the exercise. You can use this framework individually or even facilitate a conversation with your group or community to build up your commitment to justice, and to your growth as leaders and allies of social justice movements. The point of this tool is to enable you to shape and ground your actions from a place of awareness, authentic solidarity and agency — to transition from ‘doing good and distributing solutions’ to ‘disrupting the visible and invisible status quo to level the playing field’.

Note (We have used the following terms in the articles that might be new):

  • The term ‘Dalit’ means ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken’ in Sanskrit and is a political term used for a member of lower caste communities in India
  • ‘Womxn’ is an inclusive term for cis women, trans women, non-binary and queer persons
  • The term ‘Savarna’ is used for a member of upper caste Hindu communities in India
  • The term ‘Adivasi’ is the collective term used for all the tribes and indigenous people of India

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/