Four Stages of Owning Your Privilege

If you've got privilege, have you learned about it? Listened to others? And sat with it before moving to action?

Last week I wrote about the Glasses of Privilege. The main idea was to imagine that each of us, when we’re born, through a combination of nature (our biology, our ethnicity, our personality, etc) and nurture (where we’re raised, by whom, how, when, etc) we receive a set of glasses that inform how we see the world.

Then I suggested that various kinds of privilege are like lenses layered within our glasses. Each lens of privilege lends a degree of ease to the owner because the world in which they live in has been bent to favor that specific lens. (I love how Marie Beecham puts it: “privilege isn’t bonus points for you and your team, it’s unfair penalties the other team gets that you don’t.”)

Seen in this way, with each lens of privilege it’s as though you are inoculated from a particular kind of societal penalty.

Additionally, each lens distorts how the viewer sees the world, making it hard to see how life can be experienced from other (specifically non-privileged) people’s perspective.

As I mentioned last week, my glasses contain multiple lenses of privilege including (but not limited to): heterosexual, white, cis-gendered, male, middle-class, able bodied, and educated.

Which means that, on one hand, many aspects of the world “work really well” for me. Or, at least, they are less hard for me than for others (again, Beecham’s idea of “penalties” that I’m not being given is helpful here).

But it also means that without a lot of intentional effort and work and humility, I can be embarrassingly blind to the experiences of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and so on.

One of the areas I’ve tried to do a lot of work in, and still have a lot of work left to do, is to figure out how to best steward the many layers of privilege I posses. (Next week I’ll reference an article about why this language of “stewarding privilege” can be complicated and unhelpful. I still see value in the term/concept—so I’m using it here—but I’m open to alternative ways of thinking/talking about it).

It’s not about feeling guilty for being a straight, white, male, as is often the straw-man argument when people want to either deny that privilege is a thing, or get defensive about the fact they may have it. Rather, as I understand it, the goal is to gain awareness and understanding of what privilege is so that you might be a more compassionate person in general and a more effective advocate for justice in particular.

To explain that a bit more, consider the following four stages of development when it comes to owning and stewarding your privilege.

Stage 1: LEARN

Since I touched on this last week I won’t belabor the point here, but the whole thing must start with becoming aware of what privilege is and how you might have it. For example:

White people, do you understand how our country came in to existence intertwined with systems of racial injustice? Do you understand how our history is littered with unjust policies that discriminate against people of color, causing generational complications? Do you understand how being white in our country shields you from so many “penalties” such as prejudicial attitudes, opinions, laws and policies?

On the average, it is “easier” to be white in our country than not. And if we (white people) don’t understand this, or understand how we got here, then we’ll keep perpetuating many of the harmful ideas and systems and cycles that got us here.

Or fellas, do you understand how the world treats men and women differently? And how these differences can often lead to unfair benefits just because we’re guys?

We could break down each identity marker in this way, but the point is, learning about this stuff matters. If you’re in the more privileged category, you have a responsibility to understand why that is.

Education is where it starts.

Stage 2: LISTEN

Next, close your mouth and open your ears. Seek out the stories and experiences of those who do not have your privilege.

Read what it’s like for people of color (“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates was instrumental for me in this).

Read what it’s like for transgender people (“As a Woman” by Paula Stone Williams).

Read what it’s like to be gay/lesbian in a home or community or world that doesn’t accept you (“Torn” by Justin Lee, or “Outlove” by Julie Rodgers).

In this stage, once you’ve educated yourself on what kinds of privileges you might possess, now you must seek understanding of the experiences of those who do not have the same lenses in their glasses.

As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, understanding leads to compassion, and compassion leads to love.

If your goal at all in life is to be a better lover of other humans, you must understand them as best as you can.

Stage 3: SIT

Armed with some education around why you might be privileged and how that impacts others, you might naturally get excited to jump in the fray and start trying to make a difference.

What’s the saying here? The road to hell is paved with good intentions?

I’ve been there. In fact, I’d wager most people who intentionally enter the space of social justice have been there, too. We rush in to start “saving the day,” but we haven’t really done the necessary stuff in this third stage, where the sole purpose is to sit with all that we’ve learned.

For people like me who thrive on doing stuff and getting things done and productivity, this stage can feel both agonizing and unnecessary. Truth be told, I’m still pretty bad at this stage.

We must sit with the reality that we have what we do in life through a combination of things such as hard work and determination, PLUS, ownership of certain advantages granted us through no work or effort of our own.

Let it all sink in. Again, not because you’re supposed to now drown in guilt and just give it all up. But at the same time, if/when you do find yourself feeling bad, feeling sorry, that’s all part of it. Those feelings are normal. It can be disorienting to confront how you might be less responsible for your “success” in life than you’ve always assumed.

Sit with the stories of the marginalized, the discriminated against, the non-privileged. Let their stories impact you. Let them undo you. Let them change you.

I think the value in this stage cannot be understated, for there is a cost to be paid for moving too quickly past the stage.

For instance, because this stage is meant to be uncomfortable (just sit? in the tension of awareness? and do... nothing?!) we are tempted to numb the pain through action. And any time we do something from a place of trying to numb the pain, we run the risk of doing more harm because when you numb one emotion you numb them all. Which might mean that we actually become less empathetic, less understanding, and end up losing all the juice we gained from Stage 2.

When this happens, you might hear the phrase “centering your pain/experience.” Although I have some complicated feelings around this phrase (we’ll save that for another day), I realize it’s a real thing that happens. And it’s a real thing that I have done.

And it usually happens when a person doesn’t sit long enough in the tension and discomfort required to truly let Stages 1 and 2 sink in. When a privileged person, armed with a dose of awareness, charges forward with a desire to do good, but they’re not yet fully equipped because they’ve bypassed the necessary wisdom gained via the sitting in Stage 3, the work they aim to do can become more about them and their experience (hence the idea of “centering”) and then I’m not sure we’ve actually gained any ground on the justice front. In fact, it’s possible we’ve gone backwards.

So before we privileged folk go charging off to change the world, what I’ve learned from people who do this work is that we first must spend time sitting with and letting the reality of Stages 1 and 2 sink in.

(Part of why I’m doing this series now is because it’s June, which is Pride month, and I’ve launched my new UnClobber Online Courses. The truth is, when I reflect on how I created the early seeds of UnClobber back in 2012, I can see how I rushed right past Stage 3. By the time I wrote the book in 2016, I still don’t believe I sat enough with what I’d learned, nor did I listen enough to the stories of LGBTQ people. I wish I knew then what I know now, which is the importance of this third stage. I’m honored and humbled that UnClobber has been effective as it has, AND, I can see how it suffers from being created without me having sat in Stage 3 long enough).

Stage 4: ACT

Finally, as I understand it, now we do our best to take the privileges we have and we use them for betterment and flourishing of others.

That might mean leveraging our access, harnessing our resources, and taking advantage of the fact that we have less penalties holding us back, and we frickin’ work for a more just and equitable world.

What this looks like, and how it comes together, and in what sorts of ways is going to look different in every context. And—again, speaking directly to us privileged folk—I’m learning just how important it is to understand and honor that more often than not this work in Stage 4 is already underway by marginalized, less-privileged people. When that’s the case, we would do well to partner with, or support the work of, or in any other way avoid stepping in and exerting ourselves in the front and center. (When that happens—and it will, trust me, it’s really common—we are invited to return back to Stages 2 and 3 to see what we missed and avoid doing it again).

Next week I’ll share some thoughts about this fourth stage and how complex and nuanced it is.

This work ain’t easy. And everyone has different ideas about the best/right way to do it. And if we let that discourage us, we’ll never make it to where we need to go.


Okay, what about you?

What do you think about these four Stages?

Do they resonate with you or your experience?

Have you seen how you might’ve gone through a similar journey? Or are you on that journey now?

Let me know in the comments!

And if this article/series has been helpful for you, consider sharing it with your people.

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