2019: A Guide for White Guys
A white guy recently told me, “This is the hardest time it’s ever been to be white and male.”
My reaction to it was, quite understandably, completely invalidating. It’s often invalidating to me when I hear things like this. My immediate impulse is a sarcastic, “Oh geez, you’re so oppressed!” I validate this impulse in myself — seeing someone with more power than you tell you how hard their life is kind of sucks. Still, I do know that invalidating someone else’s experience does not usually help them to grow, so I’ve chosen to take the time to write an earnest guide for white guys on navigating this feeling:
Right now, it probably feels like you can’t do anything right. I know how this feels. I know how it feels to be well-intentioned and have anger thrown at you for not understanding what everyone else wants from you. It seems like other people don’t even know what they want from you. The messages are mixed, and what good is a mixed message when you’re trying to understand how to be a better person and make the world a better place?
Let’s take a deep breath together, and begin.
First, some generalizations about people that I’m pretty sure I can make: people have needs. People need to have their needs met. The ability to meet needs comes from having the power to take options to meet them, and having the awareness of what options exist to meet them.
People all have unique experiences, and shared experiences. Each person’s identity — how they view themselves and how others view them — comes from both their unique qualities and qualities they share with others.
People have unique needs, and needs they share with others.
We can all agree with this, yes?
Mixed messages come from differing unique and collective experiences. People want themselves and others to act in ways that meet their needs. Everyone has their own needs, and many people’s needs are shared with others. Every person shares the need to have our needs met.
These days, we say the word “privilege” a lot, especially in reference to white men. Factor in wealthy and cisgender and straight and American, and you get a privilege trump card (pun intended). Privilege is what comes from having more power to meet your needs, and a corresponding lack of awareness about the experiences of others who do not have that same power.
Being told to “check your privilege” feels tremendously invalidating. If I say in an argument, “check your white male privilege,” how do you feel? Likely, you don’t feel that good. Feeling invalidated is painful. You likely feel attacked, like your experience is somehow not okay or acceptable, like your ideas are not being heard, and like you are not being seen. To put it simply — that feeling sucks.
The idea of “checking your privilege” is really about asking you to see yourself, which is not always a comfortable experience. I know this first-hand. It’s about seeing the sides of yourself and the ways you have been conditioned to act that you may not be fully aware of. It’s about declaring that there are experiences, needs, and options to meet needs that you may not be aware of. It’s about seeing others’ experiences that you may not be able to relate to. Telling someone to “check their privilege” is intended to be an exercise in increasing awareness, and therefore, increasing everyone’s ability to meet their needs, individually and together.
Feeling invalidated is painful. Having your contributions glossed over, your ideas ignored, and especially your experiences denied or counted as less valid because of the way you present them and who other people think you are based on your race or gender — it’s a painful experience. I cannot speak for people of color, but I can speak for myself as a woman when I say — I know how this feels.
We all intend to meet our needs, and usually we don’t intend to do harm to one another. I also know there is a difference between intention and impact. Having good intentions does not mean you will invariably have a positive impact. This is true for us all. In my view, having a positive intention does not erase a negative impact, and having a negative impact does not erase a positive intention. Having been told to check my own privilege many times, the positive intention of the message does not negate the negative feelings it causes in me. The negative feelings I feel in response do not negate the positive intention of the message.
The question you are left with is: how are you going to respond?
Privilege is about power and awareness. “Checking privilege” is about becoming aware of your power, power you may not ever have asked for, and how having that power has made you less aware of others’ experiences.
If you want to increase your ability to meet your needs, this requires both power and awareness. Increasing your awareness increases your ability too.
Guilt and shame feel like poisons inside us. Feeling poisoned is an important survival tool to help us avoid that which is harmful to us, but the poison is not the message of “check your privilege,” but acting in ways that are harmful and invalidating to others.
I don’t believe in fault or duty, but I won’t explain that here as it would take too long to work through. I do believe in responsibility — in ability to respond. When you have more power, you have a greater ability to respond. When you have more awareness, you have a different kind, but also greater, ability to respond.
To create a strong and healthy balance out of social relationships requires those in positions of greater power and less awareness — privilege — cultivating more awareness. This includes self-awareness, and awareness of others. This also requires those in positions of lesser power and greater awareness — lack of privilege — cultivating more power. This includes power of self-determination, and power to influence others.
Just as you feel your experience has been invalidated by being told to check your privilege, so many others have felt their experiences invalidated due to all kinds of oppressions and stigmas, for centuries. This does not negate your feelings of pain right now.
What it can do is give you a space of commonality and shared interest with others — to step forward and realize, “I can relate to that. I can feel myself in that experience. I can empathize. Others’ needs and feelings make sense to me. I validate them, because I validate my own. Perhaps there are ways we can all work together to stop this invalidation from happening, to anyone.”
From this space of collective experience, we can begin to find ways to meet all of our needs, together — in shared but unique power and awareness, in shared but unique experience.