on privilege vs. guilt

A couple months ago, an old high school friend posted a status message asking anyone who thought white privilege was real to unfriend him. I didn't. Instead I commented something like this, "I definitely do, though I'm not going to argue with you. I think it's possible to remain friends even if we disagree, but if you don't, feel free to do whatever you think is best."

He unfriended me.

I'm not sure why discussions of privilege are so upsetting. Consider a few examples...

Zoe can't walk because of cerebral palsy. Patu can. Patu possesses a privilege Zoe doesn't have. We could call that ability privilege.

A couple of our children possess the privilege of having grown up in the same family their entire lives, being raised by both biological parents and being loved and provided for every day of their lives. The rest of our children don't have that privilege. We could call that family privilege.

When I moved into my apartment in college, I assumed at first that the top shelves in the kitchen were broken because my roommates hadn't used them. Then I realized I, at 5 foot 7, had the privilege of being able to reach all the shelves while Kristina, 5'3"ish, and Lisa, just shy of 5 feet tall, didn't. We could call that height privilege.

In college, some friends took lighter course loads while they worked part- or full-time jobs to pay for tuition. My parents provided that for me. We could call that an example of socioeconomic privilege.

Do you notice what's absent from each of those examples?


I don't expect Patu to feel guilty because Zoe can't walk while she can. I don't expect Jocelyn and Robbie to feel guilty for their family privilege. When I realized my height privilege in the apartment, I chose to use the top shelves for my stuff and leave the lower ones for my roomies to show honor to them, but I didn't feel guilty over it. As I had more time for service projects, study sessions, and ahem parties in college, I felt thankful for my privileges rather than guilty because of them.

More often than not, when I see white friends arguing against white privilege, they bring guilt into the argument. But recognizing privilege is meant to spur us into action not guilt. If your reaction to privilege is, "What am I supposed to feel about this? Are you saying I should feel guilty?" then you're missing the point. Instead we should ask, "What good can I do with this privilege?"

That's what Jocelyn did recently. When we went shopping for makeup for their dance recital, she was upset that the first store carried lots of shades of foundation that matched her skin but only one per brand for her black sisters. "Mommy," she asked, "don't they know that black people come in lots of shades too?" She noticed her own privilege and didn't feel guilty. Instead, she asked if she could write a letter to someone, and this week we delivered her letter to the store manager asking for them to expand their makeup offerings, just like when she and Patience wrote to Mattel about their concerns for Barbie's lack of diversity.

Bear with me, please, for one last example. When I swam in high school, I became good friends with my teammate Haley. When our coach gave instructions, he regularly failed to look in Haley's direction even though he knew she was Deaf and relied on lip reading to understand. Knowing my privilege, I'd turn to Haley and repeat the number of laps, time intervals, and kind of stroke to use. I didn't feel guilty, but I used my privilege to even the playing (er, swimming?) field, though it would have been better if the coach had been considerate enough to allow her to see his lips in the first place.

Please, let's stop arguing before we even stop to listen. Please, let's honestly evaluate what each one of us brings to the table. Please, let's strive to do good to others above all else.


Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.
— Proverbs 3:27

What would it look like today for you and me to set aside our defensive responses about guilt and instead consider how we can use our privileges - whether they be based in race or gender or religion or ability or economics or height or family resources or something else - to show honor to someone else?