Note: I am white. I am still working on privilege. I am not very good at dealing with my white privilege. Please tell me if this is totally and completely wrong. Thanks 🙂
When someone of privilege has to accept their privilege and make changes to attempt to help those who are less privileged, the conversation is most often about the people in the oppressed position. This is totally appropriate, because your privilege isn’t really about you it’s about a system. But there is one element of privilege that IS about the privileged person, and that’s how that individual comes to accept their privilege and feelings that they have while doing so. Of course this is not as important as the oppressed that the non-privileged person feels, but let’s be perfectly honest: accepting your privilege is hard and uncomfortable. That’s just the truth.
While this is a selfish truth on the part of the privileged, it is also simply what happens. It is normal and human to feel some measure of confusion and guilt when you realize that you have been benefiting at the expense of others. I have yet to meet someone who, when faced with their privilege simply goes “OK! What can I do to help?”. There are stages of guilt, acceptance, bargaining, confusion, and self-hatred (at least there are for someone who accepts that privilege exists and they have it). These things just happen because it really sucks to realize that simply by existing as you are you are contributing to oppression. It happens because it’s extremely difficult to look at the situation and know how to change your behavior and become the perfect ally. It happens because you know you’ve screwed up in the past and you know you’ll screw up again.
It is important to quickly move on from this moment because this is a moment of inertia: it is hard to move or do anything when caught in a whirl of emotions. But as someone who both wants to respect others’ mental health and promote dialogue around race, it’s important for both of those goals to validate that it is hard to accept your own privilege. First, this is a normal and understandable reaction. It doesn’t help to invalidate someone’s emotions. Second, when we validate people’s emotions, we allow them to accept those emotions and then move on. We allow them to wrestle and see that that struggle is ok, but still make movements.
When we are talking about race, we need to be honest. White people need to be honest when they are not being good allies. They need to be honest when they’re lost or confused. It needs to be ok for that to happen, because race is hard and it’s complicated, and yeah, white people need hand holding. Hopefully we can make it the minimal amount by understanding where they are. It would be ideal if white people could simply jump in and get over whatever guilt they might have, but that is simply not the way human emotions work. If we’re going to be effective at talking about and combating racism, we have to be willing to accept reality as it is because only once we see reality can we change it.
For people who are exposing others to the concept of privilege for the first time, I beg some patience. Of course it is annoying to have to do 101 for the first time, but you cannot change that human beings will have emotions when exposed to something new and difficult. Instead of telling someone that their guilt is not helpful, recognize that the guilt exists and that they can process that guilt, but that there are ways forward.
As a final note, I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of people of color to do all this work. I think a great deal of it needs to be internal work on the part of the privileged, and I also think that white people who have already started to figure their shit out need to do a lot of the work to walk their friends and family through things. I know how frustrating it is when people continue not to get it, and I know that it isn’t fair that white people need time to process. All I know is that the guilt happens and if we want to be as effective as possible we have to understand that.