Admitting privilege is uncomfortable. It’s an aspect of my life I’d like to distance myself from, depending on my situation. See… I’m the girl that likes to fit in. I like to connect with others about experiences, and don’t want to be perceived as being “better than” or “less than”. Sometimes I want to be different, but only if it sets me apart in a socially acceptable way.
The truth is, I’m a privileged White woman and I often feel guilt and shame about that. I worry that others think this life I’ve worked hard for was “given” to me and that I don’t experience struggles. I tend to highlight the difficulties in my life with others if I think they’ve had a less privileged life than me, or gloss over my challenges based on the fear they’ll think less of me if I think they’ve had a more privileged life than me.
If I want to “be brave enough to start a conversation that matters” (shout out to Margaret Wheatley here), I need to be talking with people from different backgrounds, and that can be intimidating. But by remembering a few things, these conversations can be more approachable and effective.
Be Authentic & Honest
This is something I struggle with, not because I’m dishonest, but because I want to “fit in”. My husband and I were fortunate to live in Hong Kong with his job and we had some amazing perks… the best being where we lived. This “flat” was, by far, the nicest place I have EVER lived. But I began to notice the way I talked about our home varied, based on who I was talking to.
If someone came over that talked about how nice our place was, I’d say things like, “We can ONLY live here because the company pays for it.” But if someone came over that lived in a nicer place than us and commented on our home, I would simply say, “Thank you”.
The truth was that the company did pay for our accommodations and while I’d always be honest about that, I learned that “thank you” was a sufficient answer in both situations. While I believe in communicating truthfully about my life, I’ve learned it’s also important to accept the privilege and “good” things in my life as an authentic part of who I am, without the need to explain or justify them.
Don’t Make Assumptions
For me, this can be the trickiest of the three. When I have a conversation with someone, whether I like it or not, I make assumptions based on things I see, hear, and feel. I’m learning to be honest about that, as uncomfortable as that may be.
What I’m working hard on now is to NOT do that. People that follow me on social media know that my son and I just got back from a five week trip to Asia. I posted tons of pictures of beautiful landscapes, exciting adventures, and lanterns - lots of lanterns. I know people make assumptions about me and my travels and that can be difficult. Now, I understand that this is a privileged problem in and of itself, but I use it here to illustrate a point.
Others may assume that my toddler and I effortlessly hop on a plane and travel with no tantrums, that we stay in exotic places with no challenges, and that we’ve “arrived” at this life without hard work. But I know that’s not the case.
If we’re to take part in brave discussions, we need to make a conscious decision to leave our assumptions of others and their situations behind.
Which brings me to number three, perhaps the most important of them all.
Be Empathetic, Compassionate, and Listen with Acceptance
Like privilege, one of the other things I’ve struggled with is being American (thanks loud, obnoxious, non-globally-minded stereotypes, and a couple of presidents). And what I’ve JUST begun to understand is that it doesn’t get much more privileged than that.
The U.S., despite having its core values challenged today, is still one of the most privileged places in the world. My husband and I were on a bicycle tour in Vietnam recently with people from all over, and we were discussing what has become of American politics. I said to a woman from Scandinavia, “I wish the U.S. would take a few lessons from your governments as you guys seemed to have figured it all out.”
Less than an hour later, my husband expressed how hard it is for him to hear me talk about the U.S. like it is a despicable place. You see, my husband and his family came to the U.S. from Cuba. The U.S. to him represents the land of opportunity and a place where he and his family were able to live free of persecution.
While I wanted to both crawl in a hole of shame and debate the legitimacy of my statement, I knew I needed to listen to him with empathy and compassion, and accept his feelings as his experience; one that I cannot even imagine.
Although I’ll continue to speak up against things that are threatening the ideals and values of this country, I need to be better at listening with empathy and compassion, especially about situations which I know nothing about.
So, all in all, what does this mean for me?
It means I need to acknowledge my privilege. But I know that’s only a part of me, and not all of me. I’m also a loving and compassionate person whose passion in life is to teach kids to be kind and do good. I’m learning I can acknowledge my privilege, be humble, and USE it to make the world a better place. It doesn’t make me a better person to deny it or to pretend it doesn’t exist. It only serves to make me inauthentic when I’ve finally learned that all I want to be is… me.
Photos by Sydney Payne Photo