Privilege can be one of the most difficult, complicated subjects to talk about these days. I’ll be the first to admit that learning about my own privileged status has been a process for me. It’s an ongoing one.
Here’s an un-fun confession: I’ve been the person in the room who needs to check their privilege but has no idea what that means (and so looks like a jerk). I’ve gotten into heated conversations that didn’t end well. Now, embarrassingly enough, I know that I was on the wrong end of many of those conversations.
Before I began to understand my own privileged status, I had a series of difficult conversations with many close friends. What I noticed during these conversations was that there were two approaches: One type of person talks about privilege in a way that is aggressive and accusatory. Essentially, they say, “You have privilege.” The other type of person does something really interesting and simple: They don’t use the word privilege at all.
For me, this was the type of person who was able to reach me and ultimately teach me to accept and acknowledge my own privileged status. While this way takes more time and can be frustrating, I recommend it. It worked with me, and I’ve seen it work with other people.
Here’s how to teach someone about privilege in three simple steps, from someone who had to be taught about hers.
Step One: Don’t use the word privilege.
You’ve been educated about your privileged status, and that in itself is a form of privilege. Understand this when you approach a conversation with someone who hasn’t had access to the same education.
On the face of it, privilege can sound like something very different to someone who doesn’t know the higher, academic definition of the word. This is especially true for poor whites (see this story for a good example). I was a teenager when I heard the word used politically for the first time. And as an average white suburbanite, being told I was privileged sounded absurd to me. To me, being privileged meant owning a yacht or living in a mansion or getting to leave the country for a vacation. How could I be privileged when I couldn’t afford a college education, a car, or basic freedoms?
I also struggled to understand my status because I had already faced my own lack of privilege numerous times. For example, the day I trained a new hire at my first job, my boss put him “in charge” of me. She also paid him more. I’d worked there for two years. Privileged? Me? No way.
You’ll see this reaction a lot with people who don’t understand the word in the political sense: They only see their lack of privilege. Calling them out on something they don’t think they have will never work.
Step Two: Acknowledge their struggles and ways they may lack privilege.
When you’re in a bad financial situation, you lack financial privilege. When you’re a certain race, religion, gender, or sexuality, you lack privilege as well. Privilege takes on many forms, and we all have varying levels of it based on these complicated, overlapping, and interacting factors. A perfect privilege calculator would take these – and countless other factors – into account. As mere humans, we have to consider all of these complications when trying to explain the concept to someone. We have to acknowledge that someone may understand they’re privileged in one way, but still not understand another dimension of their status.
Instead of attacking someone on the privilege they have but don’t understand, acknowledge areas where they may not have it. The friend who was able to reach me did this. He acknowledged where I had it rough: my gender and my lack of financial stability. Only after doing that could he allow me to see where others struggled even worse than I did.
What my friend did – and what you can do – is connect to this person by expressing empathy. When you acknowledge their suffering, even if it’s less than yours from a standpoint of privilege, the chances of them acknowledging yours increases. As it turns out, empathy can be taught. The chance of someone acknowledging the suffering of others in general increases, just because you’ve taken the step to empathize with them.
Step Three: Take their lack of privilege, and show them what the next level looks like.
Much of understanding privilege comes down to understanding that you and your pain aren’t the center of the universe. Yes, you suffer, but suffering is on a far larger scale. As a teenage girl, all I saw was how unprivileged I was. What bridged the gap for me were real-life stories and people that put it into perspective.
There was the guy who had fought homelessness and survived a violence-ridden neighborhood to go to Harvard. There was my friend, growing up as a minority and gay in a small, close-minded, southern town. The fact that he had patience with me blows my mind today. I’m so thankful.
Sometimes people don’t understand their privileged status because they don’t see what true lack of privilege means. I believe that most people who argue about privilege – and their lack of it – simply don’t know any better. Three steps and a handful of conversations later, that could change.
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