Conversations about Privilege and Guilt


The first time someone directly told me to check my privilege on something I was new to learning about, I balked. I turned argumentative, and relied on academic arguments (specifically linguistics) to support my defensiveness. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. They, because they loved me enough to do so, continued talking. They directed me toward ways to educate myself. They encouraged me to sit with the feelings I felt (guilt, anger) and to feel those things and then come back to the conversation because the point was not to make me feel guilt or anger but to get me to recognize that I had both said something shitty and that I also represented a long line of folks who have acted shittily. They encouraged me to find ways to use my privilege in a constructive way.

“Guilt isn’t constructive,” I remember this friend telling me. “What good is that doing anyone?”

I left the conversation tense and frustrated and feeling like I was right.

And, because I loved that person and because I don’t easily let go of guilt, and because I want to be a better person, and a lot of other reasons, I sat with the feelings. And then I read a book my friend recommended. And then I started to recognize the ways I was wrong. And then I felt guilt about that and had to sit with those feelings. And then, I had to start the process of really educating myself. That process hasn’t stopped, though there are most definitely ways I have screwed up since then, and there are most definitely a lot of ways I still need to grow.

I’ve been trying to sort out how I came to the point where I could let go of my anger and hear the stories and experiences of people who are facing systemic inequalities which do not align with the ones I experience. Because I have this idea that if I can just figure out the formula (and I want so badly for there to be a formula to this awakening), I can help people I care about act with greater humanity — help them see that liberty is collective, not individual.

Because I’m sick of people reacting to a gentle calling in (or a blatant calling out) with saying they want to feel safe when what they mean is they want to feel comfortable. I’m sick of the anger, usually (but not always, of course) shouted by the white men in my life when they hear someone say “I would like you to use this gender pronoun with me,” or “Of course I wouldn’t walk toward you on a sidewalk at night, if I didn’t know you,” or “My sexuality is complicated.” One friend even said to me, “I”m tired of people trying to make me feel guilty for being a white man.” This is one example. I could add in, or substitute, cis or hetero or middle class, or any number of other things we’ve pretty much all heard. That day, the conversation spun into a tirade against people who point out that racism exists and sexism exists and rape exists and so on, ending with the conclusion that people are “too sensitive.”

When I tried to point out, as gently as possible because white fragility and male fragility, that other people live in fear and oppression so much of the time, my friend brought up not feeling safe. His voice was raised, his movements explosive, his face flushed.

I wanted to laugh because this is a classic move to draw attention away from folks experiencing oppression and block any discussion about privilege, but in truth, I was a little afraid to laugh.

It took a lot for me to write that last sentence without editing what I wanted to say. Without modifying it, or downplaying it. It took a lot to reach that point of honesty. I carry with me a lot of privilege and in that moment, I was not worried for my life. I was a little worried for my safety, even though I wanted to believe that this was someone I trusted. I worked, instead, to diffuse the conversation. I acted self-protectively because I was afraid of what might happen if he continued to escalate.

Talking about the ways we’ve fucked up — collectively or individually — should make those of us with privilege (and we all have some forms of privilege) uncomfortable. Talking about the ways we’ve continued to allow oppression to exist (often while claiming that “everything’s equal now,” at least by those with the most privilege) should make us feel uncomfortable. Saying shitty things that we know are shitty should make us uncomfortable. Talking when not combined with any threatening language or actions isn’t unsafe. If someone asks me to be respectful of their (or someone else’s) experience by using appropriate language or listening to their experience or moving back because it’s not my fight that may make me uncomfortable, but it doesn’t make me any less safe.

I’m still trying to figure out the ways to have these conversations with people — to let them know that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable or guilty or confused by all the changes that are happening as we work to have more people treated with greater humanity. To let the know that we all fuck up and it’s okay and that we can use those as opportunities for growth. And to let people know, also, that it’s not productive to be paralyzed by these feelings or to become defensive or to engage in a self-narrative of “well, I didn’t personally do X, so why does everyone expect Y out of me?” because these things do nothing to change the culture, to work toward our collective liberation.

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