I think coming to realize your privilege is a lot like the five stages of grief:
When you first learn of having privilege, or that privilege exists, there is a very, very strong shame response. You fall into the “not all ____ are like that” mentality. One denies their privilege for various reasons. They like to think of themselves as a good person, so they cannot be hurting people indirectly. Or that they have been mistreated by the oppressed group, so obviously they can’t have privilege. Or they’ve had a hard life, or any of those in combination.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that you cannot control having privilege. It is given to you for merely being a man, having white skin, being wealthy, etc. It’s hard because you cannot see it yourself until it’s pointed out to you.
People pointing out that you are indirectly harming them sucks. Especially if you think yourself as kind, or try your best to be a good person. It sucks. You want to protect this image you have of yourself and others by saying that you are not like that! Not everyone is like that! You are protecting your feelings and your feelings alone by doing this. If you can sit there and tell yourself “I am not like that” you will feel better. You are not hurting anyone, right?
By making it about you. About your feelings, you are taking privilege out of context. Privilege doesn’t hurt you. It hurts the people who are oppressed by you. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away anymore than ignoring a bully makes them stop.
People often get stuck in denial. They keep butting up against the same wall of protecting their feelings and self image.
If they can make it over the first hurdle and tackle anger, it usually gets presented in two ways.
Internalizing the anger. Being angry at yourself, is self destructive. It does no good to get angry at yourself and beat up on yourself. Turn the anger outward towards the system that causes the oppression to happen. Get angry about the fact that you are given these privileges and did nothing for them.
The second way is getting angry at the oppressed group. How dare they point out something that you have no control over. Like it’s a flaw. They are just as bad as xyz for pointing out these awful things you have no control over. Right?
Wrong. Those that get angry at the oppressed group for pointing out privilege are doing absolutely no one a favor. Not themselves, and definitely not the group they oppress. The anger forms in “reverses”. Because they believe that oppression goes both ways. They tango with denial and anger and get stuck in believing that they have it just as bad. How dare someone point out that they have more in one area when they have so little in another?
Bargaining is what I see as asking to be educated. Still dancing in denial, one will ask the oppressed group for education. “If you would just educate me I would do better”. It can combo with anger and become demands. You tell yourself that your research is worthless unless someone can back it up. You can’t rely on your own two feet to wade through the muck and blood of privilege.
However, it is not the oppressed’s duty to educate you. You need to sit and listen at this stage instead of demand to know. Sit down. Listen. Don’t get caught up in the phrases, “If only…”
"If only I was educated about this sooner…."
"If only my parents raised me better…"
"If only I knew…"
There’s no use in this. Grieve the loss of control. Move on.
Depression is visited a lot. It makes someone sad to be privileged. To hurt so many people just by existing. This again makes it about the feelings of the privileged and not the oppressed. While all feelings are valid, one needs to take a deep look at why they’re sad.
Is it because they’re hurting people?
Is it because they again, have a loss of control over an aspect of their lives?
Feelings are valid. AND they should be looked at closely to see why you’re feeling them. Being depressed over having privilege does nothing to dismantle the system that gives it to you. And it’s hard to pull yourself out of depression. Seeking help for this is fine.
Just don’t push your sadness onto the people you oppress. They live their oppression, they don’t need to hear how sad it makes you that they are considered less.
When you reach acceptance, you know you have privilege. You are aware of it. You accept it as something you have to live with. And change. You work towards educating others on their privilege so the burden does not fall onto the oppressed. You realize that it doesn’t “go both ways” because that’s not how oppression works. You sit, and listen, and know when people talk about oppression it isn’t about you.
And when you are called out, when you catch yourself, you work to change your behavior. You sit down and think critically about your actions. “Am I like that?”
And if you are, you change. And if you aren’t, you don’t look for cookies from the people who you oppress. You move on, and work on other ways to not be “like that”. The gut reaction of shame will come back and you will have to acknowledge it, realize that you have no control over it, and work to change it for others.
And like the steps of grief, you don’t have to go through these in order. Sometimes, people get angry first. Or they accept first and feel the denial later. Or bargain, get angry, accept and fall into depression.
It’s a lifelong journey learning about privilege vs oppression and recognizing where you sit on either side. And it’s painful. And it sucks. And it will get better. Not easier. But better, as you learn more.