This Article First Appeared in Happify
It was only this year that I learned that, despite President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, many owners of enslaved people continued to hold them captive until June 19, 1865. Or Juneteenth. That got me thinking about privilege—whether unearned or unrequested, but present nonetheless—and why people can hang onto it despite the trail of misery and trauma it leaves behind. Whether it’s in families, workplaces, or communities. And here’s what I realized.
First, privilege often leaves us blind to it—many of us aren’t even aware we have it. But its unseen hand can tip the scales in our favour, through means that we call luck, an accident of birth, a happy coincidence, or refer to as, “just the way it is.”
Think about it in your own life. Maybe you were born into a relatively well-to-do family, or you attended an institution, be it a school or a club, that gave you access to people in positions of power and influence. Maybe you were born a certain colour or a certain sex, or in a certain culture, or at a certain number within your sibling order. Perhaps you were born without disability or always had health insurance and regular medical care. Or your childhood was one that gave you enough—enough food, enough shelter, enough love. But these are not universal experiences—not everyone has had these advantages. Recognizing and acknowledging this is the first step toward empathy, and realizing that not everyone’s experience is the same.
Secondly, we should understand that with unearned privilege comes a responsibility. We’ve been granted a bigger share of voice, and thus have a duty to use it to amplify the voices of those who have a smaller share. But living up to this responsibility requires first letting go, and then letting in. Because as long as our worlds are filled with our own (often greedy) desires, we’ll have little time or space to fulfill anyone else’s legitimate needs. Eventually, suppressed souls will erupt. And if their eruption isn’t met with the willingness to listen and help, the damage can take years, sometimes centuries, to repair.
We’ve been seeing this pattern ever since we came together in hierarchies. All the movements throughout history have been the result of the rage of a suppressed human spirit that said, “No more.” But when people are unwilling to make space so that others may share in something to which they have just as much right, or when people keep telling you what you’re experiencing isn’t so, or that you need to calm down, the frustration only builds up.
You’ve likely seen it in yourself, too, whenever you’ve gotten angry about not being heard or being made to feel invisible, or when you’ve had to twist yourself like a pretzel in order to conform in some way. At some stage, it becomes too much. And leaves us with only two choices: Either a moment of awakening or the death of a soul.
This is where we seem to be in our collective journey. We’ve ignored the signs of the environmental damage we’re causing daily. We’ve been deaf to the cries of disadvantaged communities. And we’re facing the same choice. If we face it in fear, by hanging onto what we have, we shirk our responsibility to a world that needs all of us to face the challenges ahead. We also abandon ourselves, because it’s in lifting others that we find the fulfillment we seek.
But if we start noticing our privilege, and accepting our responsibility to level the playing field, we plant the seeds for the world we want our children and grandchildren to live in.
So, take some time today to see whether you’re being responsible with your privilege. Maybe you’ll find the reasons behind the resentment or lack of motivation on your team, or the rebelliousness of your once-perfect child. Maybe you’ll find them in the struggle of a certain community, the eyes of a child who begs, or the fear and loneliness of parents you’re too busy to call.
Then ask yourself:
What am I trying to hang onto or control?
What thoughts or behaviors do I need to let go of?
What’s being suppressed as a result?
How will I set it free?
Almost always, the work begins within. It begins by stepping away from the voice that’s pushing, judging, or doubting and listening to the soft voice of the life that longs to live inside us. Only when we truly listen can we embrace those around us with open arms, and take responsibility to help them live—truly live—their one precious life.