I remember well when I was first confronted with my privilege.
I had just started college, and some activists called me out on the ways in which my class and race privilege were showing up in the classroom as well as in activist spaces.
Of course I was indignant. “I’m not privileged! I work hard for everything I have!”
And while I did indeed work hard, that assertion is obviously laughable.
There are all sorts of aspects of my identity that afford me privilege: my race, my gender, my religious upbringing, my intergenerational wealth, my ability, and on and on.
But that didn’t make it any easier for me to hear, and as I realized they were right, I fell into a bit of depression, carrying tremendous guilt and struggling to understand how this could be true.
I felt as if I was a bad person simply for being who I am, and I was trapped in shame.
“I’m a racist, classist, sexist, ableist homophobe who is ruining everything everywhere.” Yeah, it’s a little dramatic, but it’s honestly reflective of how I felt.
In the midst of my wrestling with this guilt and inertia, I noticed a quote on the dorm room wall of a girl I was totes crushing on:
I didn’t think much of it the first time I saw it. Or the second time. But since I was hanging around in her room a lot, the quote kept showing up for me, and after a while, it really hit me.
I had to find a way to move out of guilt if I wanted to make a difference.
In time I came to realize that if privilege guilt prevents me from acting against oppression, then it is simply another tool of oppression, and sitting in guilt means further colluding with the system that is making me feel shame.
In turn, we have to find a way to move through or past guilt and toward action against oppression.
And though the process of overcoming privilege guilt must inevitably be intensely personal, there are approaches to ending feelings of guilt that all people of privilege can take.
Approaches to Moving Through or Past Privilege Guilt
If you’re struggling with shame about your identity and your privilege, that guilt is rooted somewhere, and understanding those roots is important.
Is your guilt coming from your active collusion in oppression? Is it rooted in past action? Is it rooted in feelings of powerlessness about the big-picture problems of oppression?
Without a strong understanding of where our guilt comes from, it is impossible to overcome guilt and accountably act for social justice.
After all, if our guilt is rooted in past oppressive actions, knowing so allows us to forgive ourselves and, perhaps, apologize to others for our hurtful behavior so that we can move forward.
If our guilt stems from our own collusion with oppression, lacking such awareness will only lead to “White knighting,” a term I use as a catchall for acting for or on behalf of those we wish to help. Having knowledge of our own collusion, then, allows us to begin to take steps toward solidarity.
2. Understand and Accept Your Role in Oppression
In my own experience, I’ve found that privilege guilt seems strongest in those who say things like “I’ve never personally owned a slave, and I just feel sick about racism that exists today! But why should I be held responsible for things that happened in the past if I care about making the world better?”
In the end, all this attitude allows is for the person speaking to ignore the ways in which their privilege actually makes them responsible for injustice and oppression.
And as such, it is no solution for privilege guilt.
On the other hand, understanding the fundamental ways in which I, as a person of privilege, collude with oppression every day, empowers me to act.
After all, if I am aware of the ways in which I contribute to oppression in my daily life, I can seek the knowledge and understanding I need to act for change in ways that might actually have an impact.
Simultaneously, the lack of understanding of our own collusion in oppression leads to action that lacks accountability. For example, if that #FitchtheHomeless dude had considered the ways that his little “campaign” would actually further the oppression of people experiencing homelessness, he might have reconsidered his choice of action.
Much of the time, when people are asking you to “check your privilege,” they are not telling you that you should feel guilt about your identity.
They are simply asking you to consider the ways that your words or actions are furthering oppression so that you can act differently.
3. Recognize that Knowledge of Privilege is not Enough
For a lot of people of privilege, the initial realization of their position in society is huge, even devastating. For me, it was shocking (sadly), and it led to a lot of self-doubt and guilt.
And then a professor and mentor woke me up. He said:
“The fact that you’ve inherited privilege and an oppressive system is not your fault. You should not feel guilty about that. But if you understand your privilege and that you participate in oppression and do nothing, then you have plenty to feel guilt about.”
Action, specifically action that is grounded in accountability and community, is vital to moving through and past privilege guilt. So long as we only acknowledge our privilege, we can get stuck in a cycle of inertia and self-doubt.
Actively working for justice as part of a movement, one where we listen and learn to make certain our action is needed and wanted, is not only healing, but it is vital to ensuring that we transcend guilt.
As we move toward action, though, we need to understand the distinction between acting for or acting on behalf of as opposed to acting with and in solidarity across difference.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear people of privilege say that they plan to “use their privilege to help [insert oppressed group].”
While privilege can sometimes be leveraged as part of action, to see our privilege as something we can use to help only recreates and reinforces the very systems of oppression we claim to oppose.
To recreate the system of identity privilege, even as we seek to “help,” ensures that our action remains marginal and irrelevant at best or oppressive and marginalizing at worst.
Instead, we need to think of ways that we can step back or create space. Mia McKenzie talks about this some in her piece 4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege.
And we must take those ideas and expand upon them, finding ways that work within our daily lives and our communities that allow us to move beyond knowledge of privilege and into concerted action against oppression.
4. Participate In and/or Create Community Acting for Justice
A sure-fire way to ensure one remains stuck in a place of shame about privilege is to wallow alone or simply spend time with those who do not much care to talk about privilege and oppression. Sure, distractions work for a while, but the guilt inevitably comes creeping back in.
And action, when done alone, is unlikely to be either accountable or effective. Thus, we must act in community, joining the chorus of voices working to overturn systems of oppression.
In some cases, that means finding ways to participate in those communities that already exist.
When spaces are open to those striving to be allies (keep in mind that not all spaces will or should welcome people of privilege), show up.
Listen, offer to help in ways that take the lead from the marginalized and oppressed, and use your skills to help the cause. In doing so, though, be aware of the space you occupy and the amount of energy you demand of others.
Other times, you may have to foster and create community, yourself.
Start discussions with people who share your privileges, and call them into the work you are doing. Find ways to support and to be supported by people who share your identity, in part because you can better understand each other’s experience and in part so that you don’t need to draw energy from those to whom you are working to be an ally.
Regardless, participating in community is vital for holding oneself accountable and for learning and growing.
But within that community, it is also important to understand the difference between being an ally and friendship. Sometimes friends can be allies, and allies can be friends. Other times someone may need an ally but have no interest in your friendship. Recognizing that those two words, ally and friend, are not synonyms is important for acting effectively in solidarity.
5. Stay in Touch with Why You Feel Guilty
As you move through and past privilege guilt, it’s important to never let it fade too far from your memory and experience. After all, you felt guilty for a reason.
Keeping the reasons for your guilty feelings close can help make you less likely to collude with oppression moving forward, but it can also help you understand why you choose to act against oppression.
Staying in touch with our guilt is important for making sure that our action isn’t paternalistic, that we’re not acting just to relieve our feelings of shame.
Instead, when we know why we were feeling privilege guilt, we can better ensure that our action is one of true solidarity, one reflective of the words of Aboriginal Elder Lila Watson:
“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
By knowing, understanding, and holding onto the why of our guilt, we are better able to remember that we have a responsibility to act.
After all, “guilt is a luxury we can no longer afford.” And we are all responsible for moving past it and toward a world of justice.
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Jamie Utt is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. He is the Founder and Director of Education at CivilSchools, a comprehensive bullying prevention program, a diversity and inclusion consultant, and sexual violence prevention educator based in Minneapolis, MN. He lives with his loving partner and his funtastic dog. He blogs weekly at Change from Within. Learn more about his work at his website here and follow him on Twitter @utt_jamie. Read his articles here and book him for speaking engagements here.