Owning Our Privilege and Moving Forward on Our JEDI Journeys

Owning Our Privilege and Moving Forward on Our JEDI Journeys

Dec 1, 2023

By: Trent Norman & Rebecca Brown Adelman

Updated in 2023

As part of the shared work of building a more just and inclusive world, we encourage people to think and speak about their privileged identities with a measured sense of humility. “Well, as the white guy, I have a lot of privilege and … “

We believe the root of this concept — owning one’s own privilege — is a necessary way to move forward when working as individuals toward justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, also known as JEDI. Acknowledging the pieces of unearned privilege that we inhabit based on our identities, especially those that may negatively affect our colleagues and business partners, is a critical part of the JEDI pathway. This personal reflection can provide us with a greater understanding of the places where we can use our privilege effectively. While it’s a messy process and an ongoing journey, it is necessary.

Acknowledging Shame and Guilt

This method of approaching personal privilege can elicit challenging feelings. Guilt, shame, and blame may hamper our progress on JEDI work to create more productive teams and workplaces.

Some of us may avoid examining and owning our privilege because we feel ashamed of the unearned benefits privilege affords us. Avoiding does not make it better. We cannot understand another’s experience around identity until we truly understand our own. The act of “owning our privilege” serves as an acknowledgment of the impact of privilege and oppression on the lives of those around us, and it can be a display of humility in the face of that oppression. 

Owning our privilege allows us to consider the next steps in our own JEDI journey: What happens if we reframe the concept from “owning our privilege” to “working from our privileged identities”? Once we acknowledge our privilege, we can work from our privileged identities in support of oppressed identities. Exposing our learning edges — places where we are consciously aware of and actively addressing our own personal JEDI journey — leaves room for others to join in the process from their own perspectives. We believe this process can be enlightening, expansive, and empowering. 

Stepping into the Messiness  

Instead of waiting for someone to teach us about privilege, we must step into the messiness. 

Doing the work of unraveling privilege in the JEDI context is really understanding what you represent through your identities in the broader world. Before anyone really knows you, these identities are what they know “of” you. Doing the work means acknowledging those pieces of you and using those so that others in your group(s) might gain better access to their own identities as part of a collective JEDI journey.

The orientation to privilege changes when we shift from “owning our privilege” to asking ourselves “How do I show up with this part of my privileged self for the common good?” Certainly, humility is an important part of showing up from our places where we have unearned privilege, and, hopefully, doing so won’t limit our ability to be present. 

Human beings don’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, the concept of privilege is rooted in the idea that we are each part of a broader ecosystem and that much of ourselves is defined by how we show up in relationship to other humans. If we consider privilege as a group dynamic and work on privilege as a group project, we have the opportunity to gain far more insights into the concepts than if we go it alone. When we work together on our privileges, there is a sense of community or ensemble or team — and that is where we build meaning in relationships. That is how we truly foster justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. That is how we use our privilege to build the common good.

Ready to explore privilege with us? In the following, we talk from our places of privileged identities and share some of our impact when other people participate in that work from marginalized identities. To explore this more closely, Rebecca speaks from her female and white identities and Trent speaks from his male and Black identities in the reflections below.

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What Might Doing the Work Actually Look Like?

Trent: In a facilitation, I remember Rebecca saying: “But as white people, we can handle it. We can handle the emotions of people of color, not take it personally, and stay in the work.” What I admire about this moment is that Rebecca “owned” her privilege to shape the conversation and challenged other white people to stay engaged — not from a place of shaming but from a place of “joining” together.

Rebecca: Early on in our working relationship, I remember Trent and I leaving a meeting. Trent turned to me and said, “I noticed you were the only woman in there and just wanted to make sure there was space for you to express what you wanted to say.” I remember being taken aback because I hadn’t had a lot of interactions with men who spoke openly about male privilege in that way. It is hard to imagine a time when I haven’t trusted Trent, but that was certainly a defining moment when I knew that I could.

Trent: And imagine in that scenario, as a part of my own work, I had said that IN the meeting rather than afterward? Owning our privilege goes beyond thinking about and even saying things to people in marginalized places, but saying those things in spaces that allow for others to learn, grow, and do better.

Rebecca: You are never done. You never “arrive.” The consciousness that we both had about our privilege and marginalized statuses is indicative of being constantly aware of privilege. I remember another time when we were in a meeting with another white person, and they only referred to me in the conversation. I adjusted my seat in such a way that she had to look at both of us. After Trent and I left the meeting, we talked about our awareness of what was happening in the meeting. We both had the same experience. This person was not looking at, not giving attention to, and not equally including Trent in the discussion.

Trent: I was aware of how this person was responding to me. I was also very aware of the move Rebecca made to include me! In our discussion afterward, we were both able to name what we noticed. From my place as a Black man, that was an empowering moment because I felt seen and understood. Not only that, I knew Rebecca had my back.

Rebecca: I didn’t speak to the situation in the moment. I am curious what would have happened if I had. So, there is the subtle response, and there is speaking out or up. There is a sense of having each other’s backs. And it isn’t always pretty. It’s a process, and the consciousness of privilege is the practice. 

Shame, blame, and critique are powerful tools, and those tools should be used sparingly. Getting feedback on your privilege can be enlightening and motivating. Working from privilege does not have to be about silence or shame. 

Rebecca: I’m also thinking about how “owning our privileges” shows up for us depending on what our privileged identities are. I think about how I used to apologize for being white, which I feel is a very white woman-identified thing to do. I’m not sure if white male-identified people do the same when they say “as the white guy in the room.”

The impact of that apology is that it gets me caught up in being good. The apologies are out there, and I’m waiting to be forgiven, which makes it all about me. And that puts the burden on others of marginalized identities to focus on my needs rather than theirs.

If I accept my whiteness and all it represents, if I can truly claim my own journey to understanding what my privilege means, then I get to act authentically. I get to act as me in the world, which then, hopefully, helps others be more authentically themselves, too.

Trent: Sometimes when I hear white people “own their privilege” (and by this, I mean their privileged identities), I am left wondering, “Yes, but what have you done?”

If I own my privilege from a place of wanting to be seen by marginalized groups, I make myself invisible to the others in my privileged group. My focus is on appearing to be good, and I may not put real focus on doing good.

I was in a group training session where I was a participant. The conversation turned to sexism, and I experienced the other men in the room speaking about the evils of sexism and how hard it is to witness the acts we’ve learned about. (All true!) Something was missing. I spoke about how I’d internalized some of the horrible things that sexism causes, and I then talked about my struggles in working on those for myself and helping create space for other men to join the dismantling of those pieces I’ve learned. 

After I said this, I experienced a change in the conversation. The men in the room began talking about what they’ve learned about sexism and how that impacted their lives. After that, we began to talk differently. Men were engaging around how their behavior is changing in creating a common good from our place of privilege. It shifted away from naming what we’ve learned about sexism to putting what we have learned about sexism into action.

This creates a subtle shift: a movement away from performing for praise around privilege and toward authentically being there for one another. Truly owning your privilege is about how you show up with and for others.

Exploring Our Privilege and Advancing Our JEDI Journey

We can say we are “owning our privilege,” but what does that really look like in action? For us, it means using those privileged identities to connect with others, share what we’ve learned, and, hopefully, provide a pathway for others to join us in the struggle.

No matter where you are on your JEDI journey, we’d like to leave you with a few thoughts to ponder:

  • What have you learned about your privilege and how did you learn it?
  • What stories do you have about what you’ve learned?
  • How do you invite others with a similar privilege to join you in “the work”?
  • If I was watching you from a distance, what would I see you doing when you are owning your privilege?
  • How are you connecting with those who do not have your privilege as you do your work?

About Trent Norman (he/him, responsive to they/them): Trent is an Integrated Work Executive Consultant whose experience as a Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional spans almost three decades of work, including the creation of a nationally recognized, award-winning, theatre for social change program; creation, delivery, and design of equity programming for education, law enforcement, government, and private entities; training of trainers to design and deliver equity programs; and several publications. Learn more about Trent. 

About Rebecca Brown Adelman (she/her): Rebecca is a founding partner at Affinity Arts Consulting based in New York. She is an actor, improviser, educator, facilitator, writer, director and social justice advocate. Learn more about Rebecca. 

About Integrated Work: Trent, Rebecca and others on the Integrated Work team partner with leaders at all levels to help them nurture diversity and practice inclusivity in their organizations. Explore how Integrated Work can support your organization in clarifying a vision for success, designing and delivering a JEDI-specific Organizational Assessment, or through targeted workshops, training, and coaching.