Don't you dare call me privileged

06/23/2015 03:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

"White privilege" is a term guaranteed to set off a white male like me.

I grew up poor with a single mom. I moved to one side of the country and back; as the new kid, I was a frequent target of bullies. I had an abusive relationship with a stepfather. From early high school, the income from my after-school jobs covered our family's monthly shortfall.

I waited tables all through college, my bank account hovering just above zero. No one showed me the ropes, and I mostly figured out on my own what it meant to be a man.

Don't tell me I had it easy.

On the other hand...

Although my mom struggled to make ends meet, my broader family was financially comfortable. Attending college was so embedded in my childhood context that I don't ever recall considering that I wouldn't go. And while I was poorer than some of my college friends who received a monthly check from their parents, my scrappy work ethic was supplemented by no less than five different sources of extended family financial support.

I had a lot of help climbing over some of the hurdles in my path.

So was I "privileged"? Hell, no (okay, maybe a little).

Calling me privileged implies I didn't earn what I've created. That it was easy for me. That's not my experience. I got where I am with blood, sweat and tears. Telling me otherwise (especially with a charged word like 'privilege') just makes me defensive. I don't want to appear elitist, arrogant, selfish, or like an exploiter. Combine it with "white privilege" and I'm a quasi-bigot.

Except that's not what women and people of color are talking about.

We are talking past each other

The real issue is one of obstacles. Moving up the socioeconomic ladder in America involves leaping over certain hurdles: poverty, the color of your skin, the education level of your parents, if they are immigrants, where you live, how good the public school system is, if anyone in your context has gone to college before, whether your parents read to you at night, are you male or female. The list goes on and on. The more obstacles you face, the more challenging upward mobility becomes.

The breakdown in our public dialogue begins with our inchoate perception of these obstacles: We see the ones we confronted; we simply aren't aware of those we didn't.

Instead of the "special rights and benefits" of privilege, let's talk about the "absence of obstacles." As a white male from an educated, single parent, mostly middle class family, I had more obstacles than a rich kid raised by two parents and sent to private schools. On the other hand, I'm not black, a woman, or from an inner city with a broken school system. In this sense, I benefited not from privilege, but from an absence of several very challenging obstacles.

I don't want to feel guilty (because I had it easy) or prideful (because I had it harder than you). I'm not interested in yelling matches about who is right, who is wrong, and whether white privilege is reverse racism. All that is a diversion.

I am grateful for the obstacles I was spared without thinking I'm superior to those who weren't. I am curious about and respectful of the obstacles others faced without needing to deny their difficulty because it makes me feel less worthy.

The great cost of our addiction to labeling and being right over each other is that it distracts us from moving towards what (I believe) we most want: a society where people from every rung of the ladder can receive the support, and learn the gumption, to overcome the obstacles on their path.

Be the starting point of dialogue, not diversion:

  • Notice how you get defensive. When we feel criticized, accused or devalued, we lash out, typically in ways that cause others to feel mistreated. Defending your position creates no progress.
  • Actively seek out what you don't know you don't know. It's not your fault you didn't encounter certain obstacles. Be grateful. But also be curious about the challenges that people not like you had to overcome.
  • Embrace your own obstacles. When I look back at my life, my most meaningful accomplishments were my most difficult obstacles. I can feel jealous that others had fewer, or I can embrace the growth that my next obstacle is offering me.
  • Expand your empathy. Suffering and difficulty aren't a competition (neither is success, by the way). Acknowledging what others have gone through can inspire our own courage and commitment to growth.
  • Focus your energy on obstacle busting. For both yourself and others, acknowledge the vulnerability we feel when we face a daunting challenge. Create a context where people feel safe and inspired to go for broke.

Beyond our own social mobility, one of the greatest "privileges" (and responsibilities) of having fewer obstacles is empowering people who have many. Let's get to it.

Shayne is President and Culture Change Partner at Learning as Leadership. He is the author of a new memoir, When the Running Began, exploring how the pains of his past became infused with the coping strategies of his ego, and what it took to grow beyond it.

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