Four Ways to Use (Steward?) Your Privilege

So you've figured out you have some privilege. Great, what are you gonna do about it?

Last week I suggested four stages that people move through during the process of coming to grips with their privilege and then figuring out what to do with it. In short, the stages are:

Stage 1: Learn

Understand what privileges you have, how you got them, and why.

Stage 2: Listen

Hear the stories of those who don’t have your privileges, so that you can understand their experiences better.

Stage 3: Sit

Sit in the discomfort of all you’ve learned. Let it really settle in. Don’t move too quickly from, “Oh I get it now...” to, “Let’s go change the world!”

Stage 4: Act

Finally, in theory, you might be equipped to be a part of the solution to some of the problem areas that contribute to such an imbalanced society in which certain identities are more privileged than others.

But while I feel fairly good about what the work of Stages 1-3 look like, I confess that this fourth stage feels the least straight forward.

It’s possible (maybe even common?) for people’s well-intentioned efforts in this fourth stage to not only be pretty ineffective, but sometimes even counter productive. Not unlike the stereotype in heterosexual relationships where the guy always wants to rush in and “fix” the problem for the gal. Like all stereotypes, it’s obviously not always true all the time... and, it clearly became a stereotype because there exists predictable patterns that have played out in similar ways many, many times. And when this particular stereotype plays out, usually the gal in the situation does not feel “helped” by the guy trying to fix it, which then adds more layers of frustration and suffering.

Perhaps with that in mind, maybe we can think through four possible ways in which we privileged people might engage with this fourth stage: Lead, Collaborate, Follow, or Get out the Way.

Option 1: LEAD

Sometimes, after learning and listening and sitting with the ways in which our privileges slant the world in our favor, we might be called upon to lead the charge for change.

Perhaps we are in positions of great authority and influence and power, and there might be some very heavy levers that only we have the access to move. Now, what it looks like to move those levers, and which levers to move when, all that will be tied to the context of the situation, but I’m convinced that sometimes the best (only?) way that the significant changes that need to made can be made is by those with the most power using their power to make it so.

You can imagine how there might be tremendous movement at a grassroots level, generated by loads of people who (in context) don’t have the same access or power, but sometimes nothing will ever really, truly change unless those at the top do what needs to be done as well.

I’m reminded of how Angelina Jolie, after creating the Tomb Raider movie in Cambodia, had her eyes open to the humanitarian crises there and in nearby countries. She has since spent years of her life, millions of her dollars, and countless amounts of her energy toward relief efforts. I’ve always admired how she’s leveraged all of her resources and power to try and use her privileges so well. (I’m sure she’s made mistakes here, and learned ways in which she could do better, but I’m also convinced her work efforts have done way more net positive).

So yes, sometimes I think the right move in Stage 4 is to act with a posture of leading and leveraging every asset at your disposal.

However, as a counter to this I invite you to read this article, Beyond White Privilege, by theology and ethics professor, Drew G. I. Hart. In it, he pushes back against the idea of “stewarding privilege” because, as he says, 

“We live in a society that has been oppressively controlled and dominated by white people for about 400 years. To put it bluntly and succinctly, a society dominated by white control can’t be fixed by white people taking control of the situation.”

He believes that if the answer to our racial problems is that white people (even well-intentioned, anti-racists white people) must keep running things, calling the shots, and be the saviors, then we’ve missed the mark.

And I think he’s right. I think this cannot be the only approach (which is why I outline three more below).

Where he and I *might* disagree is that I think it might still be good/necessary sometimes (very few times, perhaps?) to utilize this first posture of Leading.

But I might be wrong.
Maybe it’s never a good option, after all?

Option 2: COLLABORATE

So then, if the invitation isn’t to use your privilege in a leading capacity, then what else might you do? Because let’s be honest, a lot of the messes we are in are a direct result of the wrong kinds of leadership.

Personally, I’ve had to confront my own leadership instincts multiple times over the past several years, and realize that even if my heart is in the right place I am still trained in, and used to, certain kinds of leadership maneuvers and actions. Therefore, even my attempts to lead well might still be trying to pick a lock with a wet lasagna noodle.

So I think sometimes people with great privilege and access and power need to use that power to bring in other voices and perspectives for the purpose of collaboration. There might be contexts in which you stepping down or stepping aside is not a realistic (or wise) option, but how might you diversify the decision making so that more (and specifically, non-privileged) voices are in the room?

Recently I learned about Color of Change, an organization that helps people respond effectively to injustice. They have a branch called Color of Change: Hollywood who’s mission is, “We consult on film and TV projects, partner with changemakers inside the industry, work to raise standards around hiring and diversity, and elevate Black stories.” It’s freaking amazing to see the work they’ve done to collaborate with those in the most powerful seats in order to make meaningful differences in areas like how many people of color are in the writer’s room, or on screen, or in decision making roles.

Option 3: FOLLOW

And then other times, I think the right move is neither to lead out in the action taking nor even collaborate, but to entirely divest yourself of leadership and responsibility and say, “I’m here to serve. How can I help.”

This goes back to my above statement about how sometimes even just having privileged people at all in the mix can be either ineffective or counter productive. We often take up so much of the oxygen in a given space that even in collaborate contexts we can overpower the situation. So sometimes the best thing a privileged person can do with their privilege is to simply step aside and wait for further instructions.

I’m reminded of that scene in Frozen 2 when Kristoff comes blazing in on a horse and scoops up Anna as she’s escaping the rock giants and immediately asks her, “What do you need?” Kristoff wasn’t interested in saving the day, nor even collaborating with Anna to figure out the best move. He just recognized, you’re the expert here, I trust you, tell me what you need and I will follow.

Option 4: GET OUT THE WAY

And then finally, sometimes the best/right move is simply to sit down, shut up, and get out the way. Sometimes even when we try and just show up for the sake of following, we are still just making things harder.

This posture does a lot to honor and acknowledge what I wrote last week, which is that often times once us privileged folk have done the work of learning and listening and sitting, we show up to spaces of action only to (finally) realize that people on the margins have been doing this hard work the whole damn time! So just, you know, get out the way and let them get it done.

I’m reminded of a social media campaign last year called  #ShareTheMicNow. It involved 50 high profile, highly influential women (such as, Julia Roberts, Kourtney Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow) handing over their Instagram account to 50 black female activists, celebrities, and entrepreneurs. The goal was, "to magnify Black women and the important work that they're doing in order to catalyze the change that will only come when we truly hear each other's voices." It was an awesome day filled with incredible black women, as well as a great example of this get-out-the-way maneuver with one’s privilege.

BUT WHICH ONE, AND WHEN?

So those are four different postures that I’ve witnessed and experienced in this work. It’s not likely an exhaustive list, but I think it does a decent job of covering the spectrum of ways that privileged people might engage in the fourth stage of Action.

And here’s the thing, it’s not always obvious which of the above postures is the best/right one for any given context.

Sometimes your instincts might tell you to lead, when really you should follow. Other times you might be tempted to collaborate when the best move would be get out of the way. Then again, you might think you should just sit down and shut up, but meanwhile there are those desperate for you to use your power to do some serious change-making.

Plus, to make it more murky, there will always be those who feel you should be doing another one of the four above actions instead of the one you are doing.

There is no monolith of opinion when it comes to how one ought use their privilege. Some people might be of the opinion that the only thing privileged people should do is to always get out of the way, and while I disagree with that sentiment, I certainly respect it.

So I guess what I’m saying, dear reader, is that if/when you attempt to engage in social justice type work, and you go through the four stages of figuring out how you are privileged and what that means and how that all plays out, and then you’re ready to jump in to do stuff, just be prepared for the likely scenario in which you’ll be criticized for “not doing it right.”

That’s just part of it.

Because for some people, that is true. From their perspective, you are not doing it right.

Meanwhile for others, they might think you are.

Somehow, all of that belongs. And it’s clunky, and murky, and at times super discouraging.

But the last thing we need to do is just throw our hands up and quit because it gets too hard. If we can’t learn to take some push back and criticism in these areas, then yeah, maybe we should just go home and permanently get out of the way. (BTW, I’m speakign to myself, here. I do not do well with being criticized. I’m aware of this shortcoming, and actively practicing holding other people’s opinions of me with grace and care).

There will also be times when people see your external actions and have no context for your internal world, and will make judgments about you. And that can suck. But it’s part of it, too.

For example, so much of Stage 3 (the sitting with the discomfort) is an internal experience. And there’s no definitive timeline for how long one must sit. So you might have done a lot of work there, and really done some good listening and learning and sitting, and then once you start acting you immediately get told, “You just need to sit with the discomfort of this before you start trying to do anything.” And in your mind you’re like, “but I have... for a long time...” yet there’s no way for them to know that.

My point is, it’s just inherently messy stuff, and we’ve gotta have some thick skin to do this work. We’ve got to be wiling to make mistakes, be called out, be falsely accused of not doing work that maybe we’ve already done, be wiling to go back and actually do more work because maybe they’re right after all, and then be okay with the diverse opinions on how we should go about working for change.

My sense is that it takes a combination of all four of the above postures to make deep, lasting change.

We need people at the top to make big, bold changes.

We need people at the top and in the middle to broaden the diversity of voices in making substantive decisions.

We need people stepping out of leadership altogether and opting to trust that others can lead not only just as well, but even better.

And we need people with privilege to get out of the way of those who are doing amazing work, because often times our very presence just mucks things up.

Does it sound hard?
Yup.

But good gravy, I hope we who have privilege are willing to put in the hard work because this stuff matters too much to bail just because it’s hard.

I close with the words of Jesus,

“Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” -Luke 12:48

May it be so.

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What do You Think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. What am I missing? What am I not getting right? Are there ways of using one’s privilege that I didn’t cover? Do you think people should ever “use” their privilege, or just they just always get out of the way?

What resources have you read/watched that have been helpful in this regard?

Let’s keep learning this stuff together!

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