The Power of Privilege

The Power of Privilege

I teach at the school of social work as a part time gig. The classes I teach all focus on community-based practice and organizing. I help students recognize their privilege and understand the responsibility that comes along with it. I emphasize that as a profession, social work has an obligation to leverage our privilege against oppressive tendencies or institutions with the hope that it will interrupt inequitable cycles. However, no matter how trained or well versed you are in theory, the road to making things work in practice is littered with hard habits and blind spots.  

One day in class last spring, we were discussing strategies for challenging leadership and/or authority. What were the best ways you could effectively challenge the status quo and advocate for the people you work with? How do you challenge a social security officer denying benefits for a client or implement an advocacy campaign in your agency to amplify the voices of the unheard?

The strategies ranged from passive resistance to outright confrontation. The confrontation strategy is as straight forward as it sounds, and the purpose for explicitly teaching it was to simply give permission to students that in their social work role, being direct, strong, and even bristly, could be an appropriate strategy when advocating for a client or community. Several men in the class shared stories about their use of this strategy in their workplace or internship; standing and arguing for what was right.

Then one of the women in the class raised her hand and said “I don’t think this strategy works at all for women.” As soon as she uttered those ten words, all of the woman in the class started nodding their heads in agreement. She went on to say, “There’s no way women can use this as a general strategy. It depends on the situation, but generally, if women act confrontational or ‘strong’, we’re labeled ‘too hard to work with’ or ‘bitchy’ and written off. They might as well call us ‘hysterical.’” That comment gave way to several other women in the class reiterating her sentiment and telling similar stories of their experiences when using the confrontational approach. 

That’s when it hit me. My male privilege blinded me to the oppressive nature of the very strategy I was teaching.

I never gave it a second thought as I read it in the textbook and prepared my lesson. Being a man allowed me the privilege of assuming that all of these strategies work for all people because they’ve worked for me. It’s a miracle I was challenged at all given that privilege and power usually come as a package deal. As the professor, my institutional power granted me the authority to decide who graduates and who doesn’t.

And this is how privilege often plays out; people with privilege and power, usually unwillingly and with good intention, end up creating situations where their comfort and authority comes at the expense of others with less privilege.    I share this story to demonstrate how easy it is to lose sight of our privilege and then walk blindly through the world as we adversely affect those we care about; my students in this case.

As parents to children of color, for the sake of your family relationships, it’s important to check your privilege regularly.

For nearly a decade, I’ve worked with adoptees of all ages and life stages. One resounding theme that’s emerged when talking about their adoptive families is how their parents don’t/didn’t understand what it’s like to be an adopted person of color, and therefore minimize/d the challenges involved.

I realize this doesn’t apply to every parent reading this piece, but the vast majority of our adoptive parents are white, heterosexual, middle to upper class, U.S. citizens that choose to adopt a child of color. There’s a lot of privilege wrapped into that demographic. Some of that privilege, like socioeconomic class and citizenship can be transferred to your child; other privileges like race and sexual orientation are non-transferable.

If parents consistently deny the presence of privileges that their children don’t share, it can potentially drive an emotional wedge between you.

The denial of white privilege, specifically, can be toxic to an intimate relationship with a person of color, including your children. By failing to recognize the differences between experiences of people of color and people who are white, you’ll fail to support your child at an emotional level that’s necessary for deep trust.

My brief anecdote about male privilege in the classroom had its remedy. I apologized to the students for my blindness, thanked them for having the courage to call me out, struck that portion of the lesson from the curriculum for future classes, and made sure to think about how my privileges affect what I teach. This doesn’t mean I’m forever ridden of my male privilege and will never oppress again, but it does take me one step closer to understanding how my privilege hurts people and how I should respond when called to task.

If you’re reading this article, odds are, at some point in your life you’ve exerted your privilege in an oppressive manner without realizing it. It happens. But all is not lost. Wounds can be mended and healing can begin with an acknowledgement of the offense, an apology, and then leveraging the privilege you possess to help break future cycles of oppression. Self examination is difficult and it’s even more difficult when you realize your actions may have hurt someone you care about. But recognizing and acknowledging your privilege in any relationship is a critical first step to deeper trust and intimacy.

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