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A Response to Charlottesville: Understanding Privilege, Perspective-taking and Power

I came across Brené Brown’s livestream on Facebook in the aftermath of the horrible events in Charlottesville. I found her perspective both challenging and refreshing.

August 21, 2017

I am a big fan of Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, whose research and bestselling books focus on courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy have changed my life. Her 30-minute video is well-worth listening to and I have also summarized her key points below.


...morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible. - Rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel

Charlottesville is just one instance of hate, polarization, and violence that has and continues to be replicated across the globe, made ever more visible as a result of online news and social media. Brené argues that these are instances of social injustice that we all need to keep talking about and working to solve, even if we are not directly affected by them.

Interestingly, in addition to taking action, Brené says that we also need to take ownership for our collective history, or the shared story that brought us to where we are today. She argues that our collective story in the United States is a story of white supremacy; that the truth about where we come from and what we’ve done is to dehumanize African Americans in this country. “We had to. You cannot buy, trade, sell or beat people if you keep them in the realm of human. We are not hard-wired for it.  You had to rip the humanity out of people and see them as less than human.”

She argues that Americans have not owned this story. She acknowledges that ownership of this story can feel painful but the consequences of not taking responsibility for this story is worse. “We need to own the story to write a different ending.”

Brené offers up 3 Ps that can help with owning this collective history – understanding Privilege, Perspective-taking and Power.

Acknowledge Your Privilege, or Your Unearned Rights.

I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group. - American activist, Peggy McIntosh

Privilege is a tough topic to start with and Brené acknowledges this. Most people would dismiss the idea that they are privileged and argue that they have worked hard to get where they are in life. Brené does not dismiss the hard work. But she argues that when it comes to race, some groups have unearned rights.

Brené cites examples of her unearned racial privilege – she can drive around without getting pulled over, easily go into a toy store and find a doll for her daughter that shares her skin color, and more.

And to further illustrate the concept of privilege, Brené provides examples of other unearned rights her students at the University of Houston offer up as part of a privilege exercise she runs: a straight student saying that they can go to the movies and hold hands with their partner and not fear getting hit in the head with a baseball bat, an African American student recognizing that she can wear a symbol of her religious faith, a simple cross necklace, and not fear being called a murderer or a terrorist.

To start acknowledging our collective history, we need to understand our privilege “because if we don’t acknowledge our privilege, we don’t acknowledge the pain of others.”

Next, Perspective-Taking on a Path to Empathy.

If we are able to recognize our privilege, the next step is perspective-taking.

Perspective-taking is a critical skill on the path to empathy. These skills are: non-judgement, perspective-taking, recognizing emotion and communicating emotion back.

Perspective-taking is key because everyone sees the world through their own unique lens. If you’ve taken some of our marketing courses, you will have heard us talk about this as a world view. These lenses are influenced by many things (our age, our personal experiences, our history, etc.) and our privilege.

“The whiter, more Judeo-Christian, middle-class, educated we are, the more likely that we were told that how we see the world is actually the world. And how other people see the world is another unreal version of the world.”

Brené argues that we can’t put these lenses down, it’s how we see the world. So to perspective-take we need to start by believing people’s stories and experiences as they tell them to us. Don’t run these experiences through our lenses. Believe that the world they see through their lens is real to them.

The minute we say “that’s a terrible story but that’s not how I see it” we lose a path to empathy. Brené notes that it is okay to have a different opinion, but at the same time we cannot dismiss someone else’s experience as being untrue to them.

The Last P: Power. Power Isn't Finite. It Can Be Shared.

Finally, Brené encourages us to see power differently.

She defines power as the ability to affect change and warns that “powerlessness is the most dangerous state that we can ever experience. It leads to violence, isolation, shame, self-harm.”

A big part of why many groups are struggling stems from a fear that their power is finite. But she argues that that is not true power, instead it is “power-over” and “what we’re witnessing across the world today is power-over’s last stand” because many are “afraid to move from a world of power-over to a world of power-with and power-to."

However, Brené says that there is no evidence that power-over is effective. “Because when we lead, act or parent in a position of power-over, we by definition disempower people who have great ideas, stories, energy to bring to the table.”

Our work in the United States is to call out those who seek to hold on to “power-over”, to acknowledge our collective history of white supremacy, and start the work around privilege, perspective-taking and transitioning to a new definition of power.

Finally, This is Hard.

I will be the first to admit that all of this sounds great. But when I dig deeper into what it actually means to confront my privilege, what it will take for me to perspective-take with people I vehemently disagree with, and what it will feel like to more regularly talk about these issues despite how uncomfortable they make others (and myself) feel, this is really hard.

Here’s where Brené throws in her final piece of advice – we will not be able to do this perfectly, but we must try. “To opt out of this conversation because you can’t do it perfectly, is the definition of privilege.”

So for those of us, who like myself are privileged, this is a call to have braver conversations and to listen and to also stop being so hurtful and shaming when people are trying.

Photo Credit CC 2.0Anthony Crider


Jo-Ann Tan

Jo-Ann Tan is the Director and Lead Architect of Acumen Academy, The World's School for Social Change.

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