How to Spend Your Privilege

Photo: Ben Margot/AP/REX/Shutterstock

My mother had strict rules. In high school, my curfews were earlier than all of my classmates’. Sleepovers were rare. Road trips were a nonstarter. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized she wasn’t punishing me; she was protecting me. She knew the world isn’t safe for black girls.

Alicia Greyson knows this all too well. On July 22, her daughters, 18 year-old Nia and 26 year-old Letifah, boarded the BART train like they had many times before. What should have been a routine trip turned tragic — the sisters were viciously attacked by John Cowell, a 27-year-old white man, as they waited to transfer trains at the MacArthur station in Oakland. Letifah survived, but Nia later died from her injuries. After Nia’s death, the outcry among black Americans was swift. Oakland community members held vigils and protests. Her family demanded that her story be told and her name be said. Black Twitter rallied to ensure that our victims aren’t put on trial, calling out a local media outlet for using a picture that made Nia look like the perpetrator, not the innocent 18-year-old she was.

If you’re white, chances are that you came across Nia’s story when Anne Hathaway posted an Instagram caption urging white people to focus on her death. “White people — including me, including you — must take into the marrow of our privileged bones the truth that all black people fear for their lives daily in America and have done so for generations,” she wrote. “We must ask our (white)selves — how ‘decent’ are we really? Not in our intent, but in our actions? In our lack of action?”

This is how culture often swings: something trends among black people, and the mainstream notices — the #InMyFeelings challenge, cornrows, and the word lit, are but a few examples. But this time, a white actress with 12.2 million followers took notice of our trauma and suffering and decided to use her privilege to say something.

As I’ve said before, white privilege isn’t a curse word but rather a term that describes an unfair game. White privilege is a status afforded by a system designed by white people, with white people in mind. Like it or not, we are all born into that system. Race is not the only privilege one can have, but it is the most powerful. So if you’re white, how can you help remedy that situation? Do as Anne did and begin to spend your privilege. You didn’t earn it, so give it away.

I’m sure Anne Hathaway’s followers did not expect to see her posting about Nia Wilson. Perhaps she made some of her fans uncomfortable, or even lost followers. Spending one’s privilege can carry consequences, but nothing important comes without risk and it’s worth taking one in the name of justice. In the course of living their regular lives, Anne Hathaway lost some followers. Nia and Letifah lost a lot more. For black women, our risks are not the same. Our loss is not the same.

Hathaway was not the only woman to use her platform to call attention to Nia’s murder. Black feminist Rachel Cargle also urged white women to stand up for her, but to a different result. “I’m waiting for your fave white feminists to post about #NiaWilson,” she wrote. Some white feminists responded by pledging to act. But others, most notably an Instagram page under the name @25Park, became defensive. @25Park went on the attack: boasting about how much she had done for black people on her feed, and asking prominent black voices to come to back her up. If you’re looking for a clear example of how not to spend your privilege, that’s it. When a black woman asks for solidarity, don’t react with defensiveness. Don’t think about your own self-interest. All of us must be willing to be pushed by the people most affected by the issue we seek to help solve. I am not an ally for the LGBTQ community if I am above correction by actual LGBTQ people. The same goes for us all, my sisters.

So, how can you spend your privilege, and invest it in something good? Using social media to spread awareness about underrepresented issues is a fine start. But as soon as you think you’ve spent enough privilege, that’s a sign that it’s time to spend some more. Parkland students have spent their privilege by challenging the media on the imbalanced coverage gun violence victims of color receive. Terry Crews, himself a survivor of sexual harassment, has used the attention he has received as a man with a platform to stand with women survivors as well. Continue to speak Nia Wilson’s name long after the news cycle has died down. Challenge the media when they put black victims on trial and excuse white murderers as “lone wolves.” Ask yourself — and your police chief — why black communities are simultaneously over- and under-policed? Read the work of black women as we discuss our tragedy and our triumphs, so that you can better understand and stand with your sisters. As you learn, share what you know with other people of privilege, unburdening those of us already oppressed from doing that work. As you do this, apply a similar series of actions to issues of injustice where you live, work, play, and worship.

The most important step is this: Train yourself toward solidarity and not charity. You are no one’s savior. You are a mutual partner in the pursuit of freedom. Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist and artist, once said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I want to be free. I want you to be free. And you aren’t free until I am. Spend your privilege, and just when you think you’ve spent enough, spend some more.

How to Spend Your Privilege