I want to get very practical with this post, because I think privileged people tend to feel like they have no way to contribute positively to an unequal world except by feeling guilty and shameful for being privileged. This shame only results in self-pity and stuck-ness, and is counterproductive to the work of justice.
But by getting practical, by talking about what we privileged people can DO, we’re wading into tricky territory. We are conditioned for firstness, for the pursuit of success, power and upward mobility. That means that even when we’re practicing being last, we’re in danger of doing it in order to be first.
Here are some examples... once we become aware of our privilege, we might find ourselves jockeying for the position of “most socially conscious person” in our friend group. We want people to notice the things we’re giving up. We publicly shame people who aren’t as “woke” as we are. We begin to see ourselves as martyrs and saviors. Social media activism is a huge trap here – it’s great to share articles about privilege and signal-boost the concerns of marginalized groups, but it’s also easy for us to do so primarily to cultivate a particular public image, as a way to seek out “cookies.”
So if we really want to practice being last, we have to be extremely vigilant so that we don’t unconsciously sabotage our own efforts. This means doing things quietly and slowly and failing often.
With that in mind, hare a few ways to be last...
- Give away money. Consider doing it anonymously. Figure out how much you need to live on, and give the rest away. Give it to organizations that promote justice for marginalized people. Give so that more diverse parents and communities can give their kids the privileges you had when you were younger. Support the education, health, and housing of marginalized groups.
- Leave your turf. Step out of your comfort zone. Experience what it’s like to be out of place, to feel like you don’t belong. Put yourself in a minority position. Spend a few months attending a church that caters to a different ethnic group. Eat your lunch in a park in a lower-income neighbourhood. Participate in a Pride parade. Don’t Instagram or publicize your experiments, just let yourself learn to empathize.
- Do the hard work of learning about injustice. Use Google. Read biographies. Watch documentaries. Research the history of how power imbalances have developed. You can also ask questions to members of marginalized groups, but don’t expect them to be your primary educators, especially since talking about their experiences of marginalization may be painful for them, and they are often unfairly expected to speak on behalf of their whole group.
- Name your privilege out loud and keep it on the tip of your brain. Don’t be afraid to say things like, “As a white middle-class person, I’m treated better than my low-income Caribbean neighbours.” Count the ways your privilege has benefited you. Regularly imagine how daily work, school, or social encounters would change if you had a different skin color, if you were transgender, or if you had a disability. Talk back to the TV when you notice the media stereotyping a group of people or failing to represent them at all.
- Show up, but stay at the back. Make a priority of showing up at protests, rallies, and town hall meetings that relate to seeking justice for less-privileged people in your community. Express your support with your presence, but don’t seek out the spotlight. If the media or other privileged people draw attention to your presence, constantly point back to the marginalized people who are leading the charge.
- Volunteer to do lots of behind-the-scenes, un-sexy, necessary things, especially when hanging out in groups of predominantly marginalized people (in other words, when you’re present as an ally). Set up chairs. Make snacks. Offer rides. Suggest your home for a meeting space. Do the dishes. Refill the water jugs. Stay late to clean up. (At our annual New Direction camping trip that involves sawdust toilets, one of our straight allies literally hauls our shit for us – if that isn’t allyship I don’t know what is!)
- Practice listening without offering your own opinion. Ask good questions to everyone you meet, but especially to people who are less privileged than you. Ask about their experiences and opinions on things that relate to them. Try to listen actively and curiously, and when they’re finished, instead of sharing your own story or thoughts, just say, “Thank you.” Wait and see if they invite you to share your opinion, too, and if not, don’t offer it.
- Pass the microphone. If you’re invited to speak or present at an event, and you represent the same demographics as everyone else who’s speaking, recommend someone from a marginalized group instead (or alongside) of you. You’ll want to start assembling a short list of people to recommend. Same goes for times when you’re asked to sit on a board, committee, or leadership team that lacks members of marginalized groups. Actively promote people who are as skilled or more skilled than you but might not receive the same invitations or opportunities you do.
- See criticism as an opportunity to learn rather instead of defending yourself. When someone complains in your presence about a majority group you represent (straight people, white people, men, etc.), or points out how you’re still operating out of your privilege, or calls you out on ways you’ve harmed them... choose not to respond defensively, even if it was never your intent to hurt anyone. Own the harm, apologize, and do what you can to repair the damage. (For more on this, read this incredible article.) As Christena Cleveland points out, it’s a sign of trust when someone is willing to express their honest anger toward you, and depending on your response, it might be the gateway to a stronger relationship.
- Surrender the moral high ground and refuse to tone-police. As you hang out with people who have been oppressed, you’ll notice they don’t always agree with one another, and they might not react to injustices in the way you think they should. They might be angry. They might yell. They might be disruptive. Resist your inclination to calm them down or explain how to behave themselves so as to be better heard by privileged people. Absorb the tension and discomfort as they express their valid emotions, and let them be the ones to define the terms of the conversation.
- Give away your inheritance as an act of restitution for ancestral injustices. This one was suggested by Rene August in a workshop she led at the Wild Goose Festival. Privileged people often argue that it’s not directly their fault that their predecessors stole First Nations land, or kept slaves, or oppressed LGBTQ+ people. But privileged people rarely argue when offered intergenerational gifts like inheritances. What if instead of using this unearned, undeserved money/property for ourselves, we redistributed all (or part) of it to an organization that works to right the wrongs our ancestors committed? I love this idea.
- Help other privileged people learn how to be last. You could be the most effective teacher for others like you. They might not be willing to listen to marginalized people, but they might listen to you. This means you must resist the temptation to cut people from your Facebook friend list when they make ignorant, hurtful comments toward minority groups. Instead, face the awkwardness of engaging them in conversation about what they’ve said. In my experience, “calling in” (patiently talking to them one-on-one) is much more effective than “calling out” (publicly shaming them). You may need to publicly address comments made on social media, but try to do so without bullying or delighting in how much more socially aware you are than them. Remember what it was like to be ignorant about your privilege, and talk about what you’re still in the process of learning on your own journey.
- Expect to always be un-learning oppression. Just because you’re working on being last doesn’t mean you aren’t still benefiting from an oppressive system, and it doesn’t mean you won’t fail repeatedly. As privileged people, it takes a lifetime to root out racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and all kinds of oppression from our everyday lives. Part of being last is learning to accept our regular failures, and doing so without succumbing to shame, without forgetting that we are still works of beauty, made in God’s image.
These practices might not sound like much fun, especially when we don’t get to show them off or take credit for doing them. As I discussed in the last post, this is the path of the cross, the way of vulnerability, failure and powerlessness... it’s not really supposed to be fun. But it’s also the path to freedom, and it’s worth it. Like Jesus, we do it for the joy set before us, and we may find that some of that joy spills into the present – the joy of finding freedom from empty games of power and privilege. More on this later!
If you have some other suggestions of good ways to learn to be last, please leave them in the comments!