How to Talk about Privilege with Your Family

Published: Jun 02, 2020
How to Talk about Privilege with Your Family

Privilege can be hard to define, understand and talk about, but we owe it to our families to talk through how our privileges have benefited us, and to answer God’s call into thoughtful, humble reflections about the best and worst of our family origins.

Privilege can be hard to define, understand and talk about, but we owe it to our families to talk through how our privileges have benefited us, and to answer God’s call into thoughtful, humble reflections about the best and worst of our family origins.

The first time I had a conversation about privilege with my children, I felt like I was stumbling around in the dark. As I later wrote about in my book, the inability of my toddler-aged sons to fall asleep had caused me to tell them that sleep itself is a privilege – because at the time, I had just hit the two-and-a-half-year mark of not being able to fully sleep through the night due to excruciating back pain and its subsequent insomnia.

Although I later took steps to dig into understanding privilege for myself, that night the scene looked something like this:

“What’s privilege, Mama?” My older son asked, his sounding more like a w, I more like a y.

“Well, buddy, that’s a good question. It’s kind of like a right,” I finally said, but I knew my definition didn’t do the word justice.

At the time, equating privilege with a right was the best I could do in the moment. It wasn’t the time – literally – for me to delve into an analysis of the subject, after all, their tired bodies really did need to fall asleep that night. But our interaction served as a reminder to me that I needed to do my homework and prepare to have a conversation with them.

Perhaps it’s the same for you as well – after all, having the choice not to even talk about privilege (let alone do something about it) is the very epitome of privilege itself. Where then do we start? I’ve got a few ideas.

1. Just Do It

A lot of the work that I do now involves partnering with people of color to engage in the kinds of conversations that matter. Because the bulk of my work centers around helping audiences engage around issues of justice, race and privilege, this also means ushering forth an invitation from the stage to stop waiting for that perfect moment, but to enter into the conversation now.

If, like me, the word “privilege” pops out of your mouth, and your child asks what privilege actually means, well, don’t put off the conversation but enter in, right now.

Feel stuck in the moment and need a place to start? Pull your cell phone out of your pocket and let Webster’s Dictionary help you out: “A right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor.” Additionally, if your children are older, grab a piece of paper and a handful of markers out of the craft corner and become human thesauruses together – see how many words you can find that are like the word “privilege,” in order to help usher a child (and his or her parent) into greater understanding of the subject by like words alone.

Always, though, take it a step further and talk to your child. Ask questions relevant to their age and to the world they inhabit: Can you think of a time in a book or a movie when someone had an advantage over someone else? How have you seen power in play at school or at church, when the rules benefit some but don’t benefit all? Think hard: what privileges do you have, in your skin, in your gender, in our family?

Too often, we can think children aren’t ready or might be too sensitive for tough conversations, but as I’ve been reminded time after time, our children already know. They already know and, whether positively or negatively, have already experienced the effects of privilege – now, whether or not they’re actually able to call it privilege is another question.

When we think about it this way, the onus is then on us as parents and caregivers to catch up to where they already are and what they already know.

2. Dig into Your Own Story

Here’s the deal: if we’re asking our children to enter into conversations of privilege, then we’ve got to wrestle with our own stories first.

For me, understanding the privilege I hold as a white woman, simply because of the skin I was born in, in the country I live in, has been a complete and total game-changer. But for a lot of folks, this is where the conversation both ends and stops: after all, privilege can feel hurtful, negative and full of blame. For some of us, hearing the word feels like we did something wrong, for the sole reason of being born; for others of us, we don’t understand why others claim we have privilege, when a privilege of wealth was never something we experienced personally.

Privilege Is Not Actually about You

But this is also where I extend and usher forth the most gracious of invitations and ask audiences to consider the fact that privilege is not actually about them. Author and speaker, Luvvie Ajayi, writes the following in I’m Judging You:

Our privileges are the things not within our own control that push us forward and move us ahead from that starting line. Acknowledging them does not mean you are admitting to doing something to purposefully contribute to someone else’s oppression or marginalization. Nay, friends.

It means you recognize that some part of your identity puts you in a better position than others. It means something about you assists your progress in the race of life. It also means that whatever majority group you belong to has likely contributed to the oppression of another. Knowing our privilege does not make us villains, but it should make us more conscious about the parts we play in systems that are greater than us./p>

God Can Use Privilege to Make Us More Thoughtful and Humble

As Ajayi goes on to write, understanding our privilege – including the myriad parts of our identity – not only makes us more thoughtful, but it humbles us as well. And is this necessarily a bad thing?

So, just as we learn about our family histories, we dig into the stories of our people, embracing about our ethnic and cultural heritage. After all, none of us are none, from a nothing people or a nowhere place. But, in leaning into both the positives and negatives of our histories, we’re ultimately shown more of who we are, which might very well include learning more about the advantages we never knew were ours in the first place.

Through all of us, as Panamanian writer Mariana Plata writes, an attitude of openness, humility and self-awareness must be ours, especially if that’s ultimately how we want our children to respond to privilege as well.

3. Listen, Learn and Listen Some More

I don’t think I’ve ever uttered another phrase as much as the one above, because the truth is this: no matter who we are, if we want to understand privilege and be able to talk to our children about the subject, then we have to commit ourselves to listening and learning, over and over again.

This is not to say that we should be silent and never talk about privilege once we start learning about it, but it is to say that for too long, many of us have not taken seriously the imperative to learn new ways of thinking, being and doing. And privilege is no exception.

So, become a learner with and alongside your child by listening and learning from the voices you haven’t paid much attention to before.

A Starting Point

Let’s say, for instance, that you want to learn more about immigration issues in the United States. Consider picking up a copy of Between Us and Abuela by Mitali Perkins to read with your child, then talk about what happens between the families on the two sides of the border wall. Ask a question about your own grandma, perhaps something like, “How is getting to see (our) Grandma whenever we want a privilege that the brother and sister in the story don’t have?” All of a sudden you’ve made real a situation happening in your own backyard, to actual classmates of your children.

Also, if the key is to do this together, then continue to be a learner as well. Educate yourself on the latest with the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy. Join Welcome., “a digital community of women committed to creating a culture of Christ-like welcome in a divided land.” Pick up a copy of The God Who Sees by Karen Gonzalez. Pool together funds to give to an organization like RAICES, who defends the rights of immigrants and refugees. Through it all, hold tight to an attitude of listening, learning and listening some more.

After all, sometimes you’re going to feel uncomfortable – and that’s okay. Sometimes you may feel in over your head – and that’s okay. And sometimes you’re going to feel angry and sad, overwhelmed and blamed – and all of this is okay too.

But you’re doing this – you’re really doing this, with and alongside your child, diving into the conversations that matter, as they happen in real time. And friends, this matters! For we can no longer ignore privilege itself or conversations of privilege with our sons and daughters, but we can take the bull by the horn and start wrestling around in the ring – even if we get it wrong, even if we have to start all over again.

And if we’re going to tear down the walls of injustice, well, then we’ve got to start somewhere. And starting in our homes is one of the best places to start.