What To Do With That Privilege Everyone is Telling You You’ve Got: An Essay on Privilege, Shame and Racism
- Privilege is resplendent and thriving.
- Privilege is usually gloriously blind to those that have it.
- There are different types of privileges.
- Privilege is not a sin.
- Privilege is inherited.
- Privilege does not require grand sweeping gestures of apologies
- You cannot get rid of your privilege.
- You have to understand it.
- You have to be able to identify it.
- You have to use it as a tool with intentionality.
Many conceive of privilege as you, the owner of the privilege, actively thinking that you are better than others. That’s not true. Often, you do not even think of yourself as better than anyone else. You just mindlessly glide through a system that was designed for you, that promotes you and your lifestyle and causes you ease and rewards your efforts. And you come away from it all thinking you earned it without recognizing that the system is rigged in your favor. And rigged against other people. So you have benefits that you cannot even begin to unravel.
Privilege means that the system was built to suit you. Privilege means that you are considered the default setting. Think of a building that you go to on occasion. How many steps did you climb to get into the building? If you have able bodied privileged like me, you may not know. You just know you climbed a few steps. If you are differently abled and in a wheel chair or crutches, you would know exactly how many steps that was because the building was designed for people that are able bodied like me. Our able bodiedness means we have access to museums, schools, houses of worship, homes on picturesque hills, blah, blah – you get it.
Privilege was for years, lightest, white skin as the default, so when band-aids were created, they only came in one shade that blended in with white skin tone and not darker hued awesomenesses that roamed the planet. Now it is different – with band-aids – but what about other products and services?
Let me give you another example that will bring it home.
I was at a fancy swank hotel in another state. The lady who served me had catered to me every morning for breakfast whenever I visited that state. This morning, she was grumpy and frowning. Not like her at all. I asked, “Whatsup?”
She said she was mad because she was not allowed to take off time from work to go to her son’s best friend’s funeral. I asked, “Why not?”
“They said he is not my child. But I raised him. Him and his mama lived next door and we were both single parents and we raised our kids together. I raised that boy like he was my own. They are not even busy here today. I have worked here for 10 years and I would have lost my job if I went to that funeral. And they do not even need me here today,” she said as tear slid down her shiny ebony skin.
In African American culture, that was her child. The policies of that organization were centered around white concepts of “family.” The definition of family is embedded in the policies and culture of this swank hotel based on white concepts of what a family should look like or be.
Got it? Hold on to this revised understanding of privilege in one hand. You cannot think of racial issues without understanding its real definition in the racial context.
The entire construct of this entire country, even Western Civilization, is built on white concepts of privilege. It is designed for you if your skin is white. Not for me as a person of color.
Last week, I wrote about my own social location. You can read that post HERE.
Your social location is directly related to your privilege and how injustice shows up, or not, in your life. Your social location also determines if you perceive your privilege or not.
When I first came to this country, maybe I was scared to deal with my own partial whiteness. Maybe I was blind. I don’t know, and it does not matter. If you are not born in this complex country with its history that is mired in dehumanizing oppression and terror, sometimes, oftentimes, it is hard for us outsiders to see the nuances of racial oppression. If you are the one being the oppressor, intentionally or not, it is often too hard to come to grips with your own oppression.
The only one that sees clearly is the oppressed.
Please don’t apologize for being white. You were born into it and you cannot help it. Be aware of it and use it intentionally to build relationships based on equity and dignity and to create justice in our collective communities. That’s what it is used for. Create a picture of what you want to see in the world and begin to paint it. If you actually step on someone’s toes specifically, address it. If you get a promotion at work and you know your privilege paved the way for you and someone else, who was as qualified, did not get the job, apologize to the person, acknowledge that you recognize what happened AND make it better.
I have issues with folks that go around apologizing for their whiteness. That makes it all about you. You become the victim of whiteness. That is why it gets on folk’s nerves.
In our examples above, privilege would speak “truth to power” in HR at that hotel above and ask for revisions of the policy and make sure the revisions happened. Privilege would make sure that all demographics are represented in their band-aid products. Privilege would make sure every person had access to all buildings. And privilege would not act as if everyone always had access to all buildings at all times. They would acknowledge that there was a time that did not happen, and they would own that history.
What I do know is that race is a social construct.
Growing up in the hot, humid streets of Lagos, Nigeria, I was called “white.” My skin tone was decidedly lighter than that of the teeming masses in one of the most populous cities on the planet. People would look at me and call me “Oyinbo,” a Yoruba word that means, “One whose skin has peeled off.” Yup. In that context, whiteness was a distinction that had to be addressed. I hated that word. If I was not called “Oyinbo,” I was called “half-caste,” an even more insulting term. They also called my mother, “Oyinbo.” Daily, I was informed that I was different, and I did not fit it. People would stare at me. People would touch my hair as it felt different from coily tight curls that was everyone had. I was different. I knew it. I tried to fit in. I spoke the language, ate the food and tried to live below the radar. Daily, I tried to prove that I was the same as everyone else. My lighter hued skin was exoticized and sexualized from an early age as I was an anomaly.
I was relieved to come to this country when I was 16 as I felt I could blend in. I was tired of only being noticed based on the fact that I was female, and my skin tone was different. I had this primal urge to fit in and belong. Enter America!
Where ever you are on the planet, if you look different, it seems the human default is to commodify that difference into labor. That is how the “other” is created. The “other” becomes a working tool. Sometimes that tool is sex. The other is something that can be used for the entertainment, capital or pleasure of the oppressor.
The result of socially based racial constructs:
We’ve all read Brene Brown’s work on shame but do we relate it to race?
Othering creates shame, that isolating crippling loneliness that says you are not fully human.
You see, shame comes, when society continues to send you messages that “You are an outsider” or “Your body is only good enough for what I (the oppressor) want to do with it.”
I went from being an “exception,” growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, to being invisible in the USA. Where people stared at me growing up, here, almost everyone does not make eye contact. All of a sudden, I did not matter. I was not “seen.” I was not worthy of acknowledgement. My opinions did not matter. My “pedigree” was even less important. Often, I was told that I did not “earn” my place at the table. Instead, I was “charity,” or a result of “affirmative action.” That I could be smart enough, competent enough, or even hardworking enough to be at the table was not enough.
You see, shame comes, when society continues to send you messages that “You are invisible. You do not matter because you do not exist.” You only matter when I can use you as labor, to increase my own net worth.
- Simple eye contact for 5 to 10 seconds on an ongoing basis.
- A simple smile.
- A wave.
- Acknowledgement that I am equally human.
…… It would have healed the shame wound.
Humans were designed to belong. I don’t care how introverted you are, we all need, what one of my professors called, “a community of reliable others.” Babies die without touch and eye contact that affirms and says, “You are alive and I, your beholder, want you alive. I celebrate your aliveness.”
Guess what? Adults die too when we do not have touch that affirms us and social constructs that celebrate our presence on the earth. Our brains stop producing serotonin when we are socially deprived, and we begin to die a slow death through depression, loneliness and anxiety.
You must see your psychic reflection in the eyes of others to be fully alive and be turned on and tapped into your own humaneness.
Without it, we live in a toxic soup of shame, which only breeds more shame and more degradation. The problem with shame is that it is the simultaneous evidence of:
- A personal belief that you are “less than” fully humanely human; and
- It is a reflection that society does not value you as fully humanely human.
What we see happening in the US now, is communities of color are now separating themselves and celebrating their difference in ways that show clarity of cultural identity. Where previously many African American women would straighten their hair to blend in and attempt to assimilate into the majority culture, now you see much more natural hair than was ever present. You see young boys, exploring aspects of their identity that show difference in how they dress, what they do with their hair and their physical appearance. It is a glorious cry for life as these communities are saying, “We will be seen and appreciated for who we are. No more blending in. If you won’t give it to us, we will give it to ourselves on our terms.”
We live in transformative times.
When a person says, “No more shame” and it becomes a rally cry in entire communities, we are forced to deal with it. I believe these are the times we live in.
Racism is such a transformative gift to our world right now.
You see, I believe in the power of “Conflict Transformation” and not just “Conflict Resolution.” The beauty of the gift is that it is changing our world fundamentally and, the status quo is no longer the status quo. We are building a new way of relating. The conflict that racism brings up is transformative.
Racism is an issue that cannot be resolved like a negotiation and each side has an equal number or losses or wins.
Racism can help us transform as a culture by inviting us to all embody dignity, equity and economic collaboration in our daily lives, relationships and communities.
Our individual shame has blossomed into such a grand, malevolent toxicity of racism, and has become the container for our cultural collective shame, right now at this time in history.
Shame will always find a home. Always. But it is our job to sweep it out of our homes and our communities.
Let’s get theological for a minute. Bear with me. I acknowledge my Christian faith has been a highly effective tool of oppression yet that does not invalidate the basic truths of it for me. Whether or not you are a professing Christian, the faith has shaped Western civilization. Let’s play with it for a second. Back to the beginning…..
The Abrahamic faiths share the same creation story (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). So, dude Adam and his side kick Eve are glorious autonomous beings, designed in cosmic divinity, curious and enjoy a sense of wonder and adventure and they go do that thing their Cosmic Source Mama/Papa told ‘em not to do. (Can you relate? I can!) and they go a-apple-pickin’. Boom!
“Adam, dude, where are you?”
“Lord, I was naked, so I hid.”
“Huh? Who told you, you was nikkid?”
“Shame whispered to me that something was wrong with me because I had done something wrong and I should hide. Shame told me I was not enough for you. Shame said I am not lovable anymore. I don’t want you to see me like this, so I hid. I hid my soul. I hid my body. I hid my spirit.”
Beloveds, the first negative emotion communicated in our grand mythology of creation was shame. (Mythology not meaning “lie” but “culture shaping stories upon which we lay our foundation and create life from”).
To me it is “hugely” significant that shame is in the foundational ethos of our existence because it hints at what the sages knew to be true – we would always struggle with it.
We are at a tipping point where individual shame is so overwhelming it has fully spilled over into every aspect of our communal lives and it is part of the fabric of our entire culture. And racism is the container.
We have all been victims of shame and we have learned to use shame to regain power and to regain our dignity.
However, shame can never be the source of true power or true dignity.
Antidote to shame:
None of us can tolerate shame anymore. We owe it to our collective survival to uproot shame and show it the light. We cannot afford host shame, to be shamed or to shame others. We cannot afford to shame those who mess up. We can no longer coddle shame and use it as a tool. We can no longer give shame power. If we do, our mutually assured destruction is imminent.
We all – ALL – have to look at how we have been taught to use shame as a weapon to regain our power and dignity.
- We have to stop shaming behavior.
- We have to stop shaming others we do not agree with.
- We have to replace shame with constructive, positive values that promote human dignity.
Ahhhhhh…..dignity – the antidote to shame.
Healing the shame as it shows up in racism:
Analogy time: If a cis-woman has been in a toxic domestic violent relationship and now she hates all men, it is understandable. She does not trust men. She can’t stand them. Understandable. She hates her boss because he has an “outie” and not an “innie” like her. Understandable. She rages at every man on the street and at her brother, her father, the president, the governor, the male TV newscaster. Understandable.
Yet, get it out of your system, woman. That anger is not keeping you alive. It is killing you and killing the opportunity for you to have sober, life giving relationships with others.
Do what you must but you are entitled to wholeness. Please know this.
We can all see the toxicity of handling this by staying in that anger. This is all she has been handed. How do we support her in healing towards that wholeness? It is very understandable. It may even be justified. But this is not her best life. This is not where her gifts start to show up in the world. This is not how she gains economic, emotional and spiritual independence.
It is so easy to see it in this situation.
When we respond to those who make glaringly racist overtures (be it ignorantly, or intentionally) with anger and vitriol directed to that person overtly, we have added gasoline to the flame of our collective shame.
We have momentary relief and we feel justified.
But have we brought healing, not just to that person, but to the world? Have we added beauty to the collective? Have we sowed one iota of seed of light?
Ok, you may not owe that person any healing. But here is my objection:
When you use the tool that the oppressor designed to dehumanize you to now dehumanize those that you perceive of as the oppressor, you are now equal to the oppressor.
And your entire definition is shaped and designed by the oppressor.
Is that who you want to be?
Has the oppressor become the one that sets the standard for how you live your life?
Naw, naw, naw – hell, naw!!!!
You are better than that!
You go figure out your values and your strengths. You go sit down somewhere and figure out who you were designed to be before you entered this manifestation called life.
You, thou oppressor, you go sit down somewhere too. Take that foolishness off called “numbing, blinding privilege” and get to know yourself without that awfully expensive fake mask. Who are you when you show up in your community in an equal power stance? Who are you when you recognize that “your privilege” is actually a very low standard for your life?
Where does your power reside when it is curious, interested and lovingly exchanged?
You are better than this mediocrity!
Privilege is mediocrity because it creates a false sense of ease and lies to you that you have earned something when you are actually walking on the backs of others.
It is like walking on a treadmill and thinking you got a great workout and the treadmill was doing almost all the work for you.
When you actually do the real work of digging deep, learning and growing in authenticity and wokeness, then you are buff and truly healthy.
Given that racism holds our collective shame, each of us have an obligation to work towards healing it as we are all part of the collective. You have the obligation to engage in healing as healing is life-giving. If you are breathing, you have an obligation to life to regenerate life. You do not bring healing, growth, transformation, light to the situation by shaming, raging, name calling and yelling at those that don’t get it right. You will not always get it right and yelling at yourself does not bring growth, or life.
Y’all, maybe one day I will tell you my full story. I have messed up in epic ways and when that happened, to be shamed and humiliated because I was now defined by the one screw up in my life, set me back over 25 years. I literally had to fight (spiritually and psychologically) to get my life back. I understand shame, not just for a moment, but for endless years. I now know myself as a dignified human, separated from the tentacles of shame. That is why I write this today.
Some of us shame others because it is all we know. Some of us are finally happy to be acknowledged but we only know how to show up with the face of anger which masks the shame that lurks beneath. Some of us so know shame deep in our bones that when the collective jumps on the shame bandwagon, we have automated our responses and we are on that carriage before we even know what happened.
My beloveds, Stop!
Loosen that metaphorical stick of shame and just lay it down. See me laying my own down with these words. If I can do it, you can too.
Just lay it down. You don’t need it. You are so much more than that. Just because someone told you your middle name was “shame,” just because your life experiences taught you that shame is powerful, just because someone else had the audacity to trigger your shame with their own shame, does not mean that you sink to sub-humane levels just, so you can find your voice.
Yes, your voice. Your beautiful, worthy, valuable, magnificent voice.
Don’t be silenced. Silence is another iteration of shame. Yelling. Rage. Silence. All shame iterations.
My invitation to you is to allow your voice to sing her birdsong of Truth with compassion, the fabric that hold us together in glorious interdependence.
Many missteps will be made along the way. People are going to step on your toes. You must correct them. You must stand for truth. But don’t lose your dignity in the process. Love them anyway.
Those of you who make missteps, learn.
Come on now. All of us. Let us step up our game and leave this mediocrity and distraction behind.
Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).
Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).
Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com
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