“Giving Up” Privilege and the Nature of Change

In my antiracism and anti-oppression work I often hear people—dominant and subordinated folks alike—talk about the need for whites, men, heterosexuals, the wealthy and others similarly privileged groups to just “give up” their privilege.

I just have to say, though…

One cannot give up privilege, gender or racial or any other form. I cannot give up male privilege any more than I can give up being subordinated as a Latino in a racialized society.

The idea of “giving up” privilege is fundamentally flawed. Privilege is not an object than one possesses; it is not a thing that is earned or purchased; it is not something that can be given up or given away. Privilege is a condition of social power, a status that is granted by oppressive society. And as such, privilege can be used either to perpetuate oppression or to change it. But it cannot be “given up.”

The notion of “giving up” privilege is also flawed in how it conceives the process of change. Change, or human growth, is developmental: a psychosocial process. The notion of “giving up white privilege” speaks to the process of racial identity development. Yet social and racial identity development is not a linear process, moving from one stage to the next through which one drops or leaves behind all characteristics of the previous stages. Racial and social identity development involves an expansion of perspectives, the shifting of attitudes, and adopting new behaviors that are more appropriate and functional to that new perspective, meanwhile carrying all that came before in all previous stages.

But because one always carries the stuff—ideas, beliefs, values, feelings, attitudes, behaviors—of previous stages, it is quite easy to be triggered and “regress,” operating out of old patterns one may have thought to have outgrown. This is why, from our positions of privilege relative to others, we must always remain vigilant. [BTW: This principle also applies to internalized inferiority, the psychological counterpart to internalized superiority of privileged social identity groups.]

To be clear, though, one cannot give up privilege. Not only because its coding cannot be deleted or erased from our body-minds, but because the coding of oppression is also embedded and operates in the minds of others at various stages of in their own social identity and social behavior. Furthermore, racism, like sexism and class oppression, is fully operational and as alive as ever in our institutions and in the dominant collective consciousness we call culture. Privilege is a function of power, beyond personal identity, critical consciousness or even anti-oppression values or  intention.

Now, as individuals, or better yet, as organized groups of privileged folks, people can use their privilege responsibly, accountably, for the benefit of the oppressed and, ultimately, toward the development of all people and for the transformation of collective consciousness and culture.

However, the idea of “giving up privilege” is a false proposition: it is a mental set-up for failure. It does not actually further anti-racist anti-oppression work, but rather creates further obstacles in the form of personal and interpersonal frustration, a sense of impossibility, of futility. It is useless.

So, how about, instead, we give up the notion of “giving up” privilege. How about we use it. Responsibly. For the liberation of all beings. For the transformation of human culture.

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