WARNING: What follows is not for the feint-of-heart. It may unleash a range of emotional reactions – among them shock, empathy, anger, denial (let alone a few choice four-letter words aimed at yours truly).
But sorry, by the time you finish this I will have been whisked off under heavy guard to one of my safe houses under a writer’s protection program. So do not come gunning for my head. With that, I pry open another hot button issue – privilege, unearned privilege that is.
Okay, before we take the leap, accept that the negative connotation of the word “privilege” makes it difficult to talk about. Believe me folks I know, having been stiff-armed with denials the few times I was brave, or naïve, enough to attempt a dialogue on the topic. I was advised that, get this, “systemic advantage” is more palatable if “privilege” is too off-putting for some.
But despite testiness over the word, privilege does deserve a place in any sincere talk about the world today. Admit it or not, we see evidence of it in hiring, college admissions, law enforcement, medical care and just about every aspect of human relations.
Now the question I grappled with is how best to get my readers to come to terms with the reality of privilege – or, okay, ‘systemic advantage’ – particularly to those who have it but cannot see it. I thought about that long and hard.
Then suddenly it occurred to me that maybe I could just do a “workshop” on privilege in this space. So hey, why not? Here goes.
Imagine yourself in a room of 30 people from different backgrounds (ethnicity, race, economic background, class, age, gender, religion, etc.). Imagine further that the group is evenly split, women and men, and that you are all standing up against a wall in the room facing outward. I am the facilitator standing on the other side of the room directly across from you.
Now as I read each of the following, take one step toward me each time you can answer “yes” to the statement:
- I can be confident that others will not think I got a job because of my gender or race.
- I can be assertive without fear of being called the “b-word” or “angry Black woman.”
Okay, now turn around and face those left standing at the wall. Remain where you are and either step forward or stay put based on your response to the next statements:
- I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see the “person in charge,” it will be a person of my race or gender, age, etc.
- The odds of my being harassed or profiled are so low as to be negligible.
Stop. Don’t stalk out. Take a deep breath. Here, take an extra strength Excedrin. You will get through this, I promise. Let us continue.
Take a step forward if you can honestly say ‘yes’ to the following:
- I am not taught what to do if I am stopped by the police.
- If I move into a town for the first time I will have no problem finding a place to get my hair done or cut.
Naughty, naughty. Put that chair down, Biffy. It is not nice to throw stuff at the facilitator. So how about a final round? Okay, okay, I see that you have had enough, so take your seats and a deep breath while we process what just happened.
Back to those left standing at the wall. How do you keep them from leaving the wall and heading to the nearest exit, taking with them some much-needed skills and talents? And what is the message, the chilling message, to those promising women and people of color who aspire one day to “be like” those who left?
Now, close your eyes and imagine that one of those consistently left standing at the wall is someone dear to you, perhaps your daughter, wife or partner. Hey, hey, hey, do not throw that cell phone at me. Would someone call Security?
Can unearned privilege be undone? Good question.
But first let’s realize that almost everyone has experienced privilege and subordination – we all know what it feels like to be an outsider. So the hope is that sheer empathy can be a strong enough motivator; that members of the privileged can somehow develop the capacity to see themselves from the perspective of those less privileged and either share their privilege or, at a minimum, work to ensure that others are not disadvantaged by their lack of privilege.
Second, understand that protecting privilege is strong because we are conditioned not to recognize it. And privilege, recognized or not, is not something people will willingly give up without compelling enough reasons to do so.
Now it’s also important to understand that not all privileged folks have a shared interest in benefiting from their privilege. Thus, it is possible for courageous privileged people to challenge the privileges their group takes for granted by refusing to reproduce their privilege and calling into question the privilege-based attitudes, comments and behaviors on the part of fellow group members.
In the end, if there’s nothing else you remember after reading this, remember this: privilege is not about things you were given, it is about things you were never subjected to.
Uh oh, I must run now. My disguise and an undisclosed safe house await me.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Echo World, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org