Recently, I’ve been focusing more of my attention on the reality of privilege. And I don’t just mean that thing that parents may take away from their kids in order to teach a lesson. ;)
The kind of privilege I’ve been focusing on lately has more to do with areas in my life in which I’ve benefited simply, for example, by being born who I am, into the family, race, class, and gender which I was born. And that’s not an all-inclusive list, by any means.
For instance, as a white, straight, cisgender female, with inherent and learned emotional intelligence, born into a middle-class family, with parents who believed strongly in the value of education, I’ve been afforded a ton of privilege in my life. I have not been a direct recipient of racism. I’ve not been watched or followed around in stores due to perceived suspicions. I have never gone hungry or thirsty due to lack of resources and have always had a stable roof over my head. I also have a deep inherent sense of empathy and emotional understanding, and I continue to grow and develop that ability over time.
When I go out with my husband, I can hold his hand in public without worrying about being harassed. I also don’t have to worry about which bathroom to use if there are bathrooms clearly marked for separate genders.
I have such a drive and desire to learn. I also have the ability to read, and a mind that can put together smaller pieces to form bigger pictures about many different topics. So when I don’t know something, it’s second nature for me to try to find out the answer or research and ask questions to learn more until I do find out or decide on a solution.
Again, that just scratches the surface of privilege for someone like me.
There are so many other ways that privilege can show up in our lives. Maybe it has shown up in what decisions our parents made or didn’t make on our behalf. For instance, if we went to college, were we able to receive financial assistance or benefits from our family or from other organizations? Were we even able to attend school if we’d hoped to, or did other things (maybe our culture, social norms, or the financial needs of our families) pull us away from that hope and in a different direction?
Maybe privilege has shown up in areas in our lives where we’ve felt like we’ve been very lucky. Have we been able to find or create good work, even work that fulfills us? Do we have a supportive partner if we desire one? Does our family support us in being our own, real, authentic self, even if that self is different from who they may have hoped us to be? Have we benefited financially from the work of others, even if those others enjoy their work?
Even if none of those things are true for us, can we focus on things that we may have that we may often take for granted? Do we have access to nourishing food and fresh water? Can we find some type of indoor shelter if we seek it?
Or, at the very least, are we still breathing? Do we still have another chance, in this moment, in this day, to learn, to grow, and to receive help when we need it and give help to others if we are able?
Why does any of this matter?
Because when we recognize our own privilege and realize others may not have the same, we can work toward making our society more equal, just, fair, and loving—for all of us.
Now, this doesn’t mean we have to stand on a picket line for a huge social justice cause, although we can certainly choose to do that if our heart is calling us to. But in very basic ways, we can work toward making our world a more loving, kind, equal, and fair place. Every interaction we have with others—and with ourselves—is a chance to do just that.
Yet, it can be difficult at times for us to really come to terms with our privilege. I don’t know about you, but there have been many times in my life where I have been reminded of my privilege in some way. And often, those times have made me feel quite uncomfortable.
I’ve seen homeless people asking for help on street corners. I’ve encountered many people in different financial situations that were more challenging than my own. I’ve met those who may appear to have it all on the outside, but seem to often feel very anxious and stressed about their lives. I’ve felt that way at times myself and still do sometimes, even with as much peace as I have been so grateful to find with my past. I’m still very much a multidimensional being.
I think there are a couple of main reasons why we may initially feel uncomfortable when the circumstances or simply the inherent characteristics of others may remind us of our own privilege.
First of all, when we see someone who we may perceive to have less privilege, or who may actually have been treated as such due to life circumstances or to society’s “rules,” we we are reminded that there is some difference between us and them. We can struggle to relate to them if we’ve not shared in their experience of life. This can make us uncomfortable, because ultimately, we are social beings. It’s in our human nature to want to connect with others.
Second, if we feel that we are the “more fortunate” in any given situation, again, based on society’s treatment of different groups of people, it can naturally feel awkward. I really feel that’s because deep in our hearts, we don’t want to feel that we’ve been afforded a privilege that someone else we encounter has not been. As humans, I really feel that we all want things to be fair and equal for everyone.
(Now—it’s more than obvious that there are many people, especially in our current society, who don’t act like they want things to be fair and equal to everyone. This, I believe, is because they’ve fallen for the illusion of scarcity, that is, the illusion that there is only so much to go around. This idea of scarcity may have been true over millions of years of human evolution, when necessary resources were harder to obtain. However, it’s not true anymore in our Western society, where we have more than enough resources to go around, to help everyone obtain basic human rights. We may definitely feel and see that that there is scarcity and lack in many ways in our country. But I believe that’s simply because we as a country haven’t used our abundant resources in the healthiest ways possible for all.)
So, when we encounter and admit to our privilege, how can we make sure that we are using our resources healthily and abundantly?
And how can we release any kind of awkward feelings we may have?
I think one of the hardest things to do, but one of the best things we can do, is to really admit to the equality of our shared humanity. It may feel uncomfortable, but can we take some time to try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, as best as we are able? If we’re really unable to do so, can we learn more about their situation or the circumstances of others who may have had similar experiences?
What if we were in that situation?
Can we admit that under different circumstances, we actually could be?
It’s so hard to admit that to ourselves. When we are afforded privilege, or if our life circumstances have changed over time and we now find ourselves more privileged than before, we often don’t want to imagine not having that privilege. We’ve reaped the benefits that privilege has offered us. We humans generally like our lives made easier. None of us likes to struggle.
Yet, if we just allow ourselves a little time to perhaps be uncomfortable, trying to imagine ourselves in the situation of another, we can gain so much more perspective, not only on their lives, but on our own.
We can know that it’s very possible that we could have been in that circumstance. We can decide to use any privilege we may have in order to benefit others around us, or others in this world who could really use our time, talent, and treasure. And we can continuously be grateful for the privilege we do have, because life can change very quickly.
We never know—we may indeed be in the shoes of another, needing some similar type of assistance at some point in our lives. Wouldn’t we be so grateful at that time if someone were to give us a helping hand in our time of need?
Confronting our privilege takes a lot of courage. It can guide us to confront many possibly deeply ingrained beliefs about ourselves, others, our life circumstances, and society. But I know for sure that confronting our privilege helps make us more empathetic, caring, greater-educated, giving, and grateful people. And that is truly a privilege in itself—one that can have wonderful effects on any others who we may encounter during our lives.
I’d like to share a personal story—one that has recently guided me to confront some definite privilege that I’ve been quite uncomfortable with over the last few years. I’ve had the huge privilege of time to begin my career in writing without having to worry about where my next meal is coming from. My husband has the privilege of working at a job that provides us with more than our necessities. And it’s a job that he enjoys and is very skilled at. Even so, I am provided for through that job.
My privilege to work from home has been a huge blessing, but it has really forced me to confront some very uncomfortable feelings. I was raised by a mother who supported me, as well as my father before they divorced. When they got married, they were quite poor, and my dad had a hard time finding work and holding jobs. Mom held a steady teaching job for over 20 years so that I could be well provided for.
Mom didn’t spend much on herself, and she taught me the importance of giving to those who needed assistance. And overall, she really seemed to love her teaching job. She was able to see visible differences in the reading abilities of the students she worked with over the years, and I think that was quite satisfying to her. She took herself and our family from poor to middle-class in a generation, thanks to her dedication to her job.
So, seeing that example, I’ve always wanted to be a financial provider—at the very least, to contribute something to the money pot, to feel that I’m at least “earning my keep,” as the saying goes. And there have definitely been long periods when I have contributed financially since my husband and I have been together. Yet, it's been quite awhile since the last time I’ve had a job with steady income.
As many who have tried can surely attest, starting a business is usually no piece of cake and often takes some time to get off the ground and be financially viable. As I’ve been experimenting with how to both share the work I love and be able to take home a paycheck from it, I’ve hit some roadblocks along the way. And for awhile before I wrote this blog post, I was really feeling the self-imposed guilt of not being a financial provider in our household, due to my very strong drive to be one, and due to the example I saw and the beliefs I learned growing up.
This issue came to a head in order that I could work through it and release it. And I’m happy to say that I took the time to do just that.
I accept my privilege. And the only way I’ve been able to accept this particular privilege is to focus even more often on how grateful I am that I’m provided for, not just financially but in so many other ways. I’ve also committed even greater to finding ways to use my true gifts to put good into the world, including ways that might continue to help others and also allow me to receive payment for doing so.
I share this story not to encourage you to compare your life stories to mine, and definitely not to prompt you to look at my privilege with any contempt. I share this story so that you may perhaps feel more comfortable confronting and eventually being able to accept any ways that you are privileged. And in doing so, maybe you may be able to be even more grateful for those ways, and continue your commitment to try to use your privilege to help others in this world, in whatever ways call the most to you.
If you or your family or friends are struggling deeply right now, not feeling at all in a place of privilege, I just want you to know that you are not alone, even if you may definitely feel that way at times. I want you to know that there are so many people in the world with kind, generous, giving hearts--the same qualities that you also have, no matter what else you may have experienced in your life. And I hope that you are able to continue in your life doing the best you can at any given time. I also hope that you are able to find help when you most need it, in whatever ways that may come.
I don't believe in an idea that we all should be left to fend for ourselves in this world. Why? Because I know that even though I've been very fortunate in many ways, there have been other ways in my life when I haven't felt at all privileged. And it is only because I came to learn about other people in the world who could help me--directly or indirectly--through sharing their time, their stories, and even their resources, that I have been able to become who I am today.
Privilege can definitely be a sticky, uncomfortable subject. If you’ve been paying attention to any news lately, you may have noticed that it seems to be that some of the people who have the most privilege in our society are the same ones who may be the most uncomfortable with it, as they can be the ones who sometimes seem the least empathetic toward others who are different from them.
But as so many of us in the Western world will find, we have privilege in some way or at some points in our lives. And when we confront and accept these uncomfortable feelings, we can truly be more grateful, more empathetic, and more giving—not only to others who may be in need, but to ourselves, the gift of kindness and love within.
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No matter what, always remember this: You are deserving, you are worthy, and you are good enough. Keep being you, keep shining, and keep growing!
With great love,