The reality that having your privilege isn’t bad but what you do with it may be
I have to start by saying this…PRIVILEGE ISN’T BAD!!! So many people, and if I’m being honest, so many white people, hate the phrase “White Privilege”. They get defensive. Instantly dismiss it as non-existent or just an excuse other people make to explain why they haven’t accomplished something. They seem to truly take it personally…but why? Who ever said having privilege was a bad thing?
Before we go further, let me illustrate what privilege is. Say I invite you to my best friend’s family reunion. My best friend and I look very similar and are therefore assumed to be connected. You and I walk in and I instantly speak to everyone even though I only know a couple of people. I am ushered straight to where the food is and handed a plate. I quickly call next at the spades table because I know that’s how it works and within an hour you can’t tell me from the actual family who belongs there. You on the other hand, get caught at the door because no one knows you and you don’t look like them. You don’t know where to go and you end up sitting next to the crazy uncle who tells the same story 15 times and came to the reunion drunk (every family has that family member). Everyone stares at you because you don’t look like you belong. In that case I had privilege! I was instantly accepted and welcomed, I knew how to navigate the space, I was assumed to be good and assumed to belong and those positive assumptions got me preferential treatment.
Do you see how one person was given the benefit of doubt and the other was treated like an outsider even though technically neither belonged? Can you imagine how that felt? More importantly, can you imagine how disappointed you would be in me and my decision to “take my privilege and run”. It wasn’t wrong that I was instantly embraced. It was wrong for me to not use my social capital to get you the same treatment. A simple, “Hey everyone, this is my friend Sally. She’s good people” would have changed your entire experience. Me saying, “Oh, Sally was going to be my spades partner, but we’ll put you down to play the winner” would have gotten you involved in the action (important note, if you don’t know how to PLAY spades please politely decline that offer…it could end very badly).
Now, think of that same story about the workplace or a store or an encounter with the police or any number of situations. That is the day-to-day experience of so many Black women. We are assumed not to belong and those around us who have the privilege of acceptance often don’t extend that to us. Having privilege isn’t bad…hoarding your privilege is bad and denying its existence is even worse.
As people living and working in the “United” States of America (yes, I put the word united in quotes…I’m sure you can guess why), we have to acknowledge that certain groups, white people in general and white men more specifically, have a LONG list of privileges. They are afforded the privilege of having their mistakes treated as isolated moments as opposed to destiny. They get to be humans first and problems second. They can speak with passion and be called a leader. They are typically assumed to belong in high rent districts and fancy restaurants. People don’t question their qualifications. They can miss work to be with the kids and it’s viewed as a positive thing. All in all, it’s a pretty sweet gig if you can get it. Don’t get me wrong, no one’s life is perfect, and no one has privilege in every situation but thanks to the founding fathers, history of this country, and long-term effects of jack’d up thinking…more times than not, they have privilege – especially at work. I know some of you didn’t like that paragraph but let’s get comfortable being uncomfortable sometimes, shall we?
So what are folks doing with all that privilege and when will we all move past thinking it’s bad to have it and focus more on what we can do with it. Let’s all work to acknowledge the realities of those around us and work to change them in a positive way. When it comes to the workplace it can often mean the difference between success and failure for the organization and the individuals involved. It’s the difference between keeping your diverse staff or having a revolving door on Black talent. Simply put, acknowledge your privilege and use it for good. Most folks aren’t mad at you personally for having it, we’re mad because you use it for the wrong things.
Author and Our Truths founder, Christy Pruitt-Haynes combined her 20 years of leadership in organizations including The Memphis Grizzlies, MTV Networks and Infiniti with an education in Human Resources and Organizational Development to create Christy Pruitt-Haynes Consulting and change the professional landscape for women and people of color while helping organizations achieve excellence. This TEDx talk giving executive, wife, mother, aunt, daughter, sister and friend loves travel, laughing uncontrollably and losing herself in great music.
Theme song: I was here by Beyoncé
Proudest moments: The births of my daughter Christiana, niece Nia and learning to do a handstand in the swimming pool.