I once published a piece about White privilege, and my White friend’s dad lost it. He read it and immediately called his son at work and asked him, “What are you doing right now?”
My friend replied, “Working, why?” My friend worked as a carpet cleaner, backbreaking labor for sure.
“Well, Jamie says you’re privileged. Do you feel privileged right now as you bust your ass to feed your family?”
“Are you kidding me?!? Screw him! I’ve never had anything handed to me!”
And so the story goes. How many times have you tried to discuss privilege with someone who is well-meaning but who has no sense of their own privilege and gotten a similar result?
After a while, my friend brought up the conversation he had with his dad, and we discussed it. It didn’t go well. He immediately got defensive, so did I, and the conversation ended in anger. As I reflected upon our talk, I took stock of some of the tools I have been given over the years to make this conversation more accessible and less hostile. I decided to try again, so I reached out to my friend. The second conversation was tense at times, as any conversation about privilege can be, but this time it went really well, and I think it did because I worked hard to change the tone of the conversation. Afterward, I couldn’t help but think, “I need to share these tools!!!”
Thus, whether you’re trying to talk Male privilege with your dad, White privilege with someone on the bus, or right-handed privilege with your golfing buddy, here are a few things to consider before jumping into the conversation:
1. Start by appealing to the ways in which they don’t have privilege. One of the fastest ways to disarm a person’s defensiveness about their own privilege is to take some time to listen to the ways in which they legitimately do not have privilege and validate those frustrations.
I once attended a workshop with Peggy McIntosh, the original author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The goal of the workshop was to give people tools for leading workshops of their own on privilege and oppression that get past the defensiveness. One of her suggestions was to have people divide a paper in half. Have every person start on the left side of the paper and write down all of the ways in which they do not have identity privilege. They can include everything from being left handed and having to drag your hand through the ink to being a woman and having to deal with the gender wage gap. Then folks would write on the opposite side all of the ways in which their identity does afford them privilege that they did not earn.
From there, folks pair up and do a listening exercise where they listen intently to the other person talk about both sides of their list. Doing so allows people to air their frustrations at being denied privilege while also acknowledging that they do, indeed, have privilege. From that place, it is a lot easier to help folks understand the power of privilege in creating a system of oppression and how eliminating that system is liberatory and transformative for everyone.
Now, to do this, you don’t need to turn it into a workshop. Just try asking the other person to talk about the ways in which they don’t have identity privilege, and validate those hurts and frustrations. Simply listening can go a long way! Plus, it’s a starting point for helping them build empathy for those who do not have their same privileges.