I want to talk about privilege denying for a minute. Most often, when I think of “privilege denying” I think of the Privilege Denying Dude of meme-infamy (infameme?):
Privilege denying: Denying your privilege and attributing your successes to hard work. Ignoring the systemic advantages that contributed to your individual lot in life. Privilege denying is a fairly negative accusation—it’s arrogant, ignorant behavior. And it’s generally painfully true.
I’m proposing that it’s not the whole story, though.
Another side is the privilege denying that I often find myself mired in: Denying my privilege because I don’t believe I deserve anything good. I deny my privileges and downplay my advantages because I intrinsically feel like a bad person, that I don’t deserve any positive thing in my life, that I haven’t worked hard enough, and so on. So to acknowledge my privilege, to acknowledge all the positives in my life, is to face the challenge of worthiness.
And on one hand, that’s what privilege is: Advantages I was born into, advantages I did nothing to earn. I’m white. I come from an educated family that has always valued learning. While my parents raised us in a fairly frugal household, my brother and I never wanted for anything growing up. We never worried about food or shelter. In fact, we had wonderful experiences at summer camp and other opportunities to grow and learn and explore.
True, being some of the only Jews in my town was painful— I still struggle to transcend my identity as a religious and spiritual outsider. And being gay (or queer or bisexual or whathaveyou- not straight)—this has also presented challenges. Yet, I have a wonderful accepting family and friends. Being gay and being Jewish these days, in the United States, are not as harmful identities as they once were. I’m also able bodied and able minded.
What do I struggle with, though? Low self-esteem. An underlying feeling of unworthiness, that something is inherently wrong with me. Rigidity and obsessiveness. Anxiety. Sensitivities. Trauma and grief. A propensity for depression and mania. Sometimes, an overwhelming lack of regard for myself as a human being. An inability to articulate my wants and needs.
It’s a lot– but is it a systemic disadvantage? I’m going to argue no.
So, I deny my privileges. I struggle with gratitude. To be grateful means to acknowledge all the good things in my life; to be grateful means recognizing that it is truly my struggles that are my setbacks, and nothing further. When gratitude is hard, I deny the good things that exist. It’s an interesting recognition, and not a truth I am particularly proud of.
Gratitude does not equal deserving, but I often think they do. So if I think I am undeserving, I often act ungrateful.
If I pretend I come from nothing, then it matches how I feel about myself, how I view myself. Because the alternative is daunting: How could I feel so messed up about myself when I have so many good things going for me? That question is hard, so I ignore it often. I didn’t come from nothing. I came from love. And that’s hard, too! If I came from love, why do I struggle so much to love myself? And not just love—I came from love, support, education, economic security, racial privilege. So why do I struggle? It’s a very hard question to ask.
I do know, though, denying my privilege isn’t helpful. I am grateful to my privileges because they have allowed me to be where I am now. They have permitted me to walk away from jobs, get hired, have a place to live, have a safety net to fall back on should I ever need it. My privilege gives me access to great healthcare, food, and choices. I have options. I have access. I have privilege.
And I struggle a lot—I won’t deny that, either. I was born into tremendous systemic privilege and I struggle individually. It’s all okay. I’m just trying to be more honest and open about it.