How to Overcome Privilege Guilt and Use Your Privilege

There are many different kinds of privilege, from privilege associated with whiteness and/or skin color to privilege associated with gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin and naturalization status, socioeconomic status, physical abled-ness, conventional standards of attractiveness, and even whether or not you were brought up by parents who would be able to give you sound business, professional or life advice. This list does not exhaust the types of privilege there are and the ways someone might have relative privilege on the basis of who they are and factors that they did not earn or ask for.

Whew! Let me pause a minute because that whole paragraph was a little unwieldy and aesthetically displeasing. But it got the point across and started us out on the right foot (I hope). There is a fascinating way in which the collective is reflected within the personal and vice versa. In other words, our “stuff” is constantly in an intimate, bidirectional relationship with bigger, political “stuff” going on “out there”. And the big, political stuff going on “out there” can bring up some really, really deep shit for each and every one of us. Our personal stuff commingles and interacts with it.

That’s why, if we represent any (or many) of those indices of privilege, and we already have self-loathing that is related to our own, personal, deeper stuff, then our internal self-loathing goblins may latch onto our privilege as a perfect excuse or reason why we should continue to hate ourselves, or feel chronic shame or low self-worth. The key here is to recognize that larger, political issues are activating your own, personal, deeper stuff, and that the best and most responsible thing you can do is seek help to address this in a 1:1 healing relationship. Also, I’d be bullshitting you if I didn’t add that, even without your own deeper stuff, there are some uncomfortable realities associated with certain privileged identities that no amount of personal, deep healing work will ever wipe away. You can do your own healing work until the cows come home, and there those horrible realities (of the history and current reality of racism in America, for example) will continue to be. So there is also an element of accepting and sitting with discomfort (in the whole endeavor of overcoming privilege guilt) but also alchemizing your shitty feelings about some of those horrible realities into action in various forms. It can certainly be helpful to find groups that can support and hold you in difficult feelings about those difficult realities.

In other words, if you feel deep guilt or shame because you are categorized as a white person (for example), within our current American race constructs, a great first thing to do is to recognize how this points to your “stuff”, and take care of yourself, ideally with the help of a therapist. It is not helpful for anyone if we (I say “we” because I, the author, am categorized as a white person) hand this guilt or shame to a BIPOC, implicitly asking for them to somehow take this away and make us feel better. This is an implicit demand for them to do emotional labor on our behalves, and neither person will feel better or leave the conversation feeling as though some kind of important connection has been established. Of course, if it is a best friend or partner relationship, my hope would be that the relationship is open, honest and direct enough that you can negotiate amongst yourselves the unique boundaries and needs of each individual in the relationship, which will be different in every case. But again, the key (and the ideal) would be for the individual experiencing privilege guilt of any kind (serious or deep enough that they’re feeling like they need to talk about it regularly) to seek support for this, ideally with a therapist, or through other forms of personal growth work that call to them. And listen to what your best friend or partner is telling you about what it is like for them to hear you talk about this. Believe them. Keep trying to get better at understanding.

Also, you may be feeling really difficult feelings about all of this because you genuinely feel the horrific nature of what has happened to people of color in this country, since its inception and still to this day. Use that as rocket fuel! That horrible feeling un-alchemized isn’t doing anyone any good. That horrible feeling could be rocket fuel for social justice work grounded in revolutionary love.

NOW. How do you actually use or deploy your privilege? Again, the answer to this is about as complex and multi-layered as the many kinds of privilege. For the purposes of this short blurb, let’s focus on privilege associated with race and/or socioeconomic status. I am a white business owner so I’ll start with the things I’ve been able to come up with, but I welcome additional thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

-If you have the time and the ability to do so, participate in local BLM demonstrations and/or any activism geared towards creating a world where all people have the privileges of safety, respect and plenty of opportunities. If you are not a BIPOC, the key is to be a supportive presence and to let other people speak, and listen. Don’t try to make it about you. (If that brings stuff up for you, then consider that a sacred mirror being held up to your stuff, and once again, do your own work!)

-If you are a business owner and/or you have the funds to do so, make donations to organizations that support the advancement of communities of color. The really wonderful thing about being a business owner (if you are one), is that you can choose causes to which you would like to donate, and then write that off in your taxes. That way you can take more control over the ways you are giving back to your community. Certainly a way to use privilege!

-If you have any kind of platform (on social media, or through any actual level of renown or celebrity), use your platform to speak about things that matter.

-Vote for racial justice and other forms of equity.

-If you are in a position to hire staff, make sure you are hiring a highly diverse workforce (in every way), regardless of the regular statistical demographics of your field or industry and the demographic trends in your pool of applicants. Be ready and willing to make personal sacrifices to compensate your staff well and fairly, as needed. Bring them onto your team in a circular way that subverts the traditional power paradigm of employer and employee. Bring them on in a way that is all about autonomy, a personally designed growth path, and empowerment. Not that anyone needs you, in any special way, to contribute to their empowerment. The personal power of people is inherent and God-given, if you will, and it flourishes when you refrain from attitudes, behaviors and choices that directly disempower. An employer, manager or supervisor position is, more than anything, a relational position.
–> A quick word on making sacrifices: You shouldn’t hire anyone if it feels like a huge stretch to be able to compensate them well. (I don’t generally advocate for ‘sacrifice’ as it can breed resentment.) Re-evaluate your business systems if it does feel like a big stretch before bringing them on. But understand that, once you do, their paycheck is more important than your own. Period.

-Share what you have and what you know in accessible ways, without pushing it on anyone but making it available if anyone is interested.

-If you see something, say something. If someone in your vicinity espouses a racist or bigoted idea, say something. To do otherwise is to imply that this is permissible. (This is a large topic, and I have heard different ideas about the best way to go about this with different people in different situations. It deserves more treatment in its own, longer post.)

-Consider running for public office if you are in a position to do so, and gear your campaign and your leadership towards racial justice and other forms of equity.

-Use your time and resources to continue educating yourself on these topics. They are deep and broad, and the more we know, the more likely we are to be able to use our privilege effectively.

Drop a comment below if you have more ideas, and/or feel free to reach out if you’re interested in therapy or need any other kind of helpful resource in this vein.

Until next time,
Stay centered in love and compassion,

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