What to Do About Privilege

My recent post about privilege and the problematic maxim of “do what you love” got a lot of shares and comments on Facebook (for a post of mine, that is!):

So it’s true that it’s a privilege to do what I do—it’s fulfilling and interesting and fun and pays well enough—but it’s critically important to remember the personal privilege that helped me get to this point in my life.

However, one person commented that they weren’t a “‘privilege’ fan.” I didn’t get a clarification on exactly why, but it did raise a point in my mind: Acknowledging privilege is not enough; it’s just a start.

“Checking Privilege Checking” in The Atlantic summarizes the problem pretty well:

Use of the term “privilege” has, I’d argue, actually set back the cultural conversation about privilege. It’s not just that “privilege,” when used as an accusation, silences. It’s also that it’s made cluelessness a greater crime than inequality. These ubiquitous expressions—“check your privilege” or “your privilege is showing”—ask the accused to own up to privilege, not to do anything about it. There may be a vague, implied hope that privilege checking will lead to efforts to remedy some injustice, but the more direct concern is not coming across as entitled, not offending anyone underprivileged who theoretically might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in the room.

The whole piece is worth reading.

What to Do About Privilege

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few small things you and I can do today.

Listen

One problem caused by privilege is that it shields the holder of it from certain experiences. The remedy is to listen to—or read—the voices of those with other experiences. Listen. Then listen some more. When you think you’re ready to talk, keep listening. Then ask a question and listen. Then maybe talk.

Until you begin to understand the perspectives of those with less privilege, ((Everyone has privilege in some way.))  it’s unlikely you can do much about it.

Amplify the Voices of Others

I posted about this earlier.

In the echo chamber that is the internet, it’s easy to end up reposting articles and ideas from dominant, privileged, mainstream voices.  Pay attention to what you share and post and work to make it more diverse, even if you’re uncomfortable with certain ideas.

No Code of Conduct? No you.

This idea comes courtesy of the science fiction writer John Scalzi: If you speak at or attend conferences, make sure they have a Code of Conduct and will actually enforce it. A [good] code of conduct clearly identifies unacceptable behaviors and outlines the processes to to educate attendees on, report, and handle those behaviors should they occur. ((For more on codes of conduct, consult Ashe Dryden’s excellent “Codes of Conduct 101 +FAQ.”))

If a conference doesn’t have a code of conduct—or it’s clearly inadequate—say something, and engage the organizers so that it gets changed. If one isn’t adopted or improved, let them know about your displeasure and don’t go.

It’s Not About You

And here’s the main point: when you have privilege and recognize inequity, addressing it is for the benefit of others and the world, not your ego. Actively supporting other people’s right to fair treatment in society is often called being an “ally,” and it’s something I continue to work on. And just like acknowledging privilege, being an ally means taking action, not talking. I try to keep the words of Mia McKenzie on her Black Girl Dangerous blog in the article “No More Allies” in mind:

[Being an ally is] not supposed to be about you. It’s not supposed to be about your feelings. It’s not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of the folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance. It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against

For a person with a lot of privilege, being an ally means going beyond talking and using your power to make real changes.

What Do You Think?

In the spirit of listening and sharing, what are other ways you manage your privilege online? I’d love to hear more ideas and critiques and additions to what I shared.

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4 thoughts on “What to Do About Privilege”

  1. Great thoughts Mark. I’ve been confronted and aware of many of my privileges for a while now… but don’t always do a great job of taking the next step and “doing anything about it”. I like your list of ideas… will think more about things I might be able to do.

    1. I hear you, Grant. This post is as much for me as it is for others. What seems most important in some ways is just not relaxing and getting too comfortable. Much like a website, fighting for equality is never finished.

  2. Another great post and follow-up. I see this so much and can really relate. I love “Amplify the Voices of Others”. This is so important and very few people keep this in mind. Social media becomes nothing but a regurgitation of information. I like to see a more, well-rounded sharing experience. Cheers Mark, thanks!

    1. Glad you found it worthwhile, Bob. I know you’re very active on social media so I’m glad I could share the “Amplify the Voices of Others” point. As with many things in this realm, increasing the diversity of thought isn’t just fairer, it’s more interesting and useful!

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