An Unearned Feeling of Guilt: About My Privilege
An idea will come to me, it always does.
It’s now 7:35 p.m. on Wednesday, November 6, 2019. My prompt choice is due tonight, but my Gmail draft is empty. I have three choices: write about how privilege and power play a role in my life, write about a misstep I have taken with my privilege, or write about a time that I became aware of privilege that I have.
A flood of new texts on the Rising Voices Fellowship group chat arrive on my phone, containing well thought-out observations, the topics that these extremely intelligent and aware young women are going to write about, or responses to my lame plea for help turning my vague ideas for prompt responses into a well thought-out concept.
Ping! A message from one of the fellows: “Have you ever used your privilege to amplify those less privileged than you?” (No, I didn’t reword that, these girls just happen to make this group chat the most articulate and sophisticated one I’ve ever been in).
I have nothing to say in response.
Shoot, am I a bad person? Why have I never thought about this before? I mean, I have, but how do I even do that? How do these girls do that? They’re always so politically driven and mindful and aware and I didn’t even realize that my mom just put tea in my room. Thanks, mom.
I thought the prompts for my Rising Voices Fellowship blog post seemed easy enough to answer when I first saw them. Obviously, I’m privileged. I mean, I have two married parents who love me and a sister who loves me as well. I go to a nice private school in the San Fernando Valley, I have a car even though I don’t have my license (not for lack of trying), I have a roof over my head, I have enough food; the list goes on and on. But the prompt did not ask me to list my privilege.
Ping! “Hannah, you could honestly talk about not knowing what to say…like it just shows that it’s really easy to overlook privilege.”
It’s true, and it’s ironic; I could write about how I’m unaware of privilege, in response to a prompt about being aware of my privilege, which in turn was handed to me due to my lack of an idea from overlooking my privilege.
I’m aware that I’ve gotten the longer end of the stick in certain things just by being born into my family, my socioeconomic status, my race, and more. It’s unfair. But how do I actually deal with that? The realization still always seems to come with an unearned feeling of guilt. I can't help but think: Why not me? That doesn’t happen to me, why am I any better?
I know that not acknowledging my privilege because I feel guilty is harmful to those with less privilege than me. Those without my advantages will notice my privilege, whether I’m aware of it or not. And they will notice when I don’t speak up against harmful comments or if I get defensive when told I have an advantage. And they shouldn’t have to do that because it’s not their job to educate me; it’s mine. In fact, anybody is lucky to have other people holding them accountable if they aren’t doing it for themselves.
I know that there might not be many ways to know about one's privilege without being educated about it, because privilege is not intuitive. It isn’t reasonable. Nobody is inherently better than anybody else because of identity. Systemic injustice in our society has made it so that groups of people by virtue of their identities and finances encounter struggles that other groups don’t have to face. And if I’m taking the time to think about it, does that make me more aware?
It's now December 15, the night before my finals week starts and the evening before my final blog post draft is due, and I’m still not completely sure what to do with my privilege. Though I have not solved systemic inequality since November 6, I have taken a step toward awareness.
Before I started writing this post, if I noticed myself thinking about the obligations of my privilege, I would stop. I was procrastinating helping those around me because I felt like there was so much to do that I didn’t know where to start. I'd think: Maybe I’ll help when I’m older, other people are helping now.
I still don’t know exactly what to do. But I will no longer do nothing. I have awakened myself to my obligation as a human being to “tune-in” instead of “opt-out.” I’m not only open to conversation; I am looking for it. It’s a good thing I know so many amazing young women that know how to use their privilege for good, who have taken on their responsibilities as human beings to do what they can for those with less than them.
So yes, I’m still not completely sure of what to do with my privilege. But I can read more articles, start conversations, and find ways to use my advantages to help. I realize that to be compassionate, I should not only be compassionate to others and their struggles; I should also have compassion for myself. This is not a way to coddle myself or make myself a victim because I have privilege, because let’s be clear: I am not the victim. But if I pause to understand that it wasn't my choice I was born into something other people weren’t, then I can channel that unfair advantage for those with less privilege than me whenever an occasion arises.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Landau, Hannah. "An Unearned Feeling of Guilt: About My Privilege." 27 January 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 22, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/unearned-feeling-guilt-about-my-privilege>.