Did you hear the one about how you, too, can pay off $220,000 in debt in three years? Ba dum tss. Let me fast track this to the catch. It involves a whole bunch of hard work piled on top of the generous gift of a home combined with the gift of somewhere else to live while said home is rented out. The interwebs were ablaze with criticism and calls for an apology. And here’s the truth: there’s no point in apologizing for privilege.
Acknowledge, Don’t Apologize
Let’s be clear. I’ll be the first person to admit when I’ve experienced privilege, and it’s vital that others follow suit. In fact, I’m simply continuing the conversation had by other bloggers like Our Next Life and Cait Flanders. There’s no point in perpetuating the delusion that we are all coming from identical upbringings or experiencing the same wins and losses day in and day out. Our experiences influence us, and there’s no way to undo them.
If you’ve experienced privilege, accept it. Make sure you acknowledge it. And not just once like a perfunctory scratch-out on a to-do list. Don’t make it the twentieth bullet in your list of 20 Ways to Climb Out of Debt in 47 Seconds. And for the love of all things good, don’t make a tone-deaf joke on Twitter about needing pencils when we all know you could very well afford to buy all the pencils in the land and the factory that makes them.
Instead, own your privilege whenever it is relevant. Write a blog post about how you were the pariah of the bar scene because you lived at home until you were 27. Remind people that practicing poverty when the mood strikes is akin to telling someone that you’d like to play dress-up with a socioeconomic class. But don’t apologize for having experienced privilege. There’s no point.
I’m all for accountability. And strong writing. I largely suspect that the real person who
botched created the hugely successful aforementioned $220k article is the writer, not the interviewee. We’ve made it very clear that instant, soaring success in 75-character headlines matter. That’s what drives clicks. That doesn’t excuse a lack of disclosure, but it might help explain how articles like this happen in the first place. So ask for accountability. Insist on it. But don’t ask for someone to apologize for their past.
Who Wants Forced Apologies?
Beyond the fact that we can’t undo the past, I don’t believe in forcing someone to apologize. I can’t think of a single time compelling someone to talk from a script has done anything other than ring hollow. In fact, I’m not even sure what demanding an apology would solve given how laced with contradiction people can be.
Take, for instance, the bootstrapping principle. I don’t believe in a universal ability to push yourself up into thin air unaided and against all odds. I really don’t. And many writers have made it clear that neither do they. But when the same people who put bootstrapping on blast turn around and dismiss outright anyone else who has had any sort of privilege, I’m not sure what path that leaves or what kind of conversations we can even have. If bootstrapping isn’t a universal source of strength then privilege isn’t an inherent wellspring of weakness. And even if it were, would an apology change any of that?
Changing the Conversation
It’s foolish to turn privilege into a pressure point. Before you argue that this is simply one privileged person defending another, hear me out. When was the last time you smashed your elbow on the edge of the table for fun? For work? To accomplish anything? Probably never. We avoid pressure points as much as possible. It’s human nature. So if we want conversations around privilege to take place, putting someone in a position where all they feel they can do is defend against something isn’t going to accomplish anything except to usher in more avoidance.
Every time someone feels compelled to apologize for their privilege, it sets the tone that privilege is something that should be carefully wrapped in layers of guilt and stuffed in the back of a closet until it comes tumbling out as an afterthought in a bottom paragraph of a Business Insider article.
Don’t hide it. Don’t say you’re sorry. Figure out how to embrace that part–along with every other part–of who you are. And then when you’re done, work to find ways to understand and advocate for people who don’t have that particular privilege. It’s at that crossroads that something truly productive can happen.
So Tell Me…How do you foster conversations about privilege? Care to share any links?