The buzzword on my mind this week at the pantry is everyone’s favorite: privilege. Yes, privilege, the conversation topic that frequently incites discomfort but almost always re-shapes and progresses an individual’s understanding of themselves and the world they live in. Practically everyone experiences it in one form or another on a daily basis, yet privilege is still one of the hardest subjects for us to address because (here’s the catch-22) we often experience it unknowingly. Privilege (or lack thereof) is usually granted by uncontrollable facets of appearance, ability, orientation, and economic standing that are inherent to our identity from birth. I experience privilege in a lot of different ways; I’m white, I’m able-bodied, I come from a stable, middle class family, etc. The list goes on and on, yet I’m ashamed to admit that I rarely think about these aspects of my identity. However, every time I am at a bar, or walking alone, or even in a job interview, I am very conscious of being a woman. I have to be, because it dictates whether or not I will feel safe and respected.
That’s the difference between privilege and oppression: both largely dictate your life, but only one forces you to be conscious, cautious, and sometimes ashamed of your identity on a regular basis. Can you guess which one is which?
So, what would happen if people thought just as often and as fervently about the ways they exercise privilege? Working in the food pantry has made me look at my privilege and the way it distorts my view of the world every single day. I have never known food insecurity, but I didn’t truly know that about myself until I met others who experience it relentlessly. It did not take me long to understand the privileges that kept me far from food insecurity and, more importantly, the many ways oppression works to keep others locked into poverty.
I’ve found that in discussing privilege, many people often exhibit a very similar process to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘s “5 Stages of Grief.” So, allow me to present my make-shift, working draft version of “The 5 Stages of Acknowledging Privilege.”
1.) Denial: No one likes to hear that they have an “easier time” than others exercising many rights and abilities. It’s even harder to hear that refusing to acknowledge that privilege is complicit in the oppression of others. Denial may come through unfounded stereotyping that somehow “justifies” imbalances in society or from false, placating ideologies like “I don’t see color – every person is the same.” Denial is, obviously, harmful and wrong, but it’s a very human response to new, uncomfortable shifts in perspective. But, oppression and inequality is constant, and most cannot deny it forever…
2.) Anger: After recognizing just how deeply rooted inequality is in our society, most people are outraged at the injustice. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but it often calls people to action. When many people reach this stage, they look for ways to become activists for change.
3.) Bargaining: This is the “I’m going to save the world!” phase. People are eager and excited to address inequality, but because the community or issue they are working with is so new to them, intricacies in history, attitudes, and need can often be overlooked. Consequently, quick fixes are frequently implemented through well-intentioned but overly simplified thought processes. It is logical to believe “Ok, people in poverty are hungry, so if I provide food, they won’t be in poverty anymore, right?” However, people quickly learn that issues of oppression are much, much more complicated. Remaining rooted in a privileged perspective and giving only what you think others need (rather than listening to their self-identified needs) does not help anyone “win” for long. There is no simple “trade” for erasing oppression.
4.) Hopelessness: Now we move to the “I can’t save the world, so I’ll hate the world” phase. As people realize that the forces of oppression are deeply and complexly intersectional and there is no short-term answer, fighting oppression begins to feel overwhelming if not impossible. Confused, embarrassed, and defeated, it is easy to become scornful. Most are mad at the social and political systems in place that continue to enable oppression. Some lash out at others for not realizing the effects of these systems. Many become weighed down with guilt from belonging to a privileged group. Some just hate the world for being so big and so messed up. It is easy to feel as though nothing you can do is big enough to cause any real change. Thankfully, for most, this phase does not last forever.
5.) Acceptance: Eventually, the as you examine privilege and oppression more, it becomes more important and easier (yes, easier!) to identify small ways of being a catalyst for social change. No, I am not going to single-handedly solve the AIDS crisis, but I accept that I need to be more informed about global health. Yes, I will sometimes feel guilty for being cisgender, but I recognize that shaming myself for it isn’t productive for anyone. No, I will never truly know what it’s like to be confined to a wheelchair for life, but I should listen more to the stories of those who are. I do not have all the answers. I am no one’s savior. Not every space is a space for me, and sometimes the best and only thing I can do is learn to listen more and speak less. It’s a small step, but it can be incredibly impactful to accept that yes, you are privileged, but no, that does not mean you know more or are better than anyone else.
That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes it’s a little scary to un-shelter myself from “happy, middle-class white girl land” and listen to the stories and needs of my clients at the food pantry. Sometimes I accidentally revert back to one of the first 4 steps listed above. Facing up to your own privilege is hard. But, there is no way it is ever harder than living every day under the shadow and weight of complex oppression. Sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable to work with people whose lives feel worlds away from mine. It often seems easier and faster to just hand out information and hope for the best. But, I need to take the time to hear and understand my clients and their situations through their eyes rather than my own. Empowerment is not telling someone what they need – it’s striving to provide resources, information and support to help them achieve their own goals. Privilege should not compel me to speak for others, but it should compel me to honor the voices that are too often silenced. Yes, this road is longer, and sometimes I get lost, and that’s ok, as long as I am always striving to continue towards true equality. It’s the only road that leads to lasting change.