I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t tell you why the universal knee-jerk reaction of any kind of criticism, valid or otherwise, is to get defensive. We may not like to admit it, but I think most of us have probably given in to the instinct to be defensive in the face of constructive criticism at one time or another; I know I have. It’s not a good habit to be in.
Despite knowing it’s a fairly natural reaction, I also cannot deny how frustrating that defensiveness can be when you’re the one giving the criticism, especially when it comes to equity and privilege.
Everyone from a marginalised group knows it; you flag an issue that creates an unnecessary barrier, or perpetuates a harmful stereotype, or is just plain unequal, and the person facing the criticism gets defensive. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, misogyny, misandry, or general xenophobia; it’s a near-universal response. Pointing out privilege gets met with denial, or patronising explanations about why it’s not actually unjust because their uncle’s friend’s grandma’s cousin twice removed told them otherwise. The reaction is understandable but unhelpful, and sometimes it’s just easier to keep quiet and struggle on then put up a fight.
A lot of people seem to equate having privilege as being deemed a bad human being, when in reality being privileged isn’t really anyone’s fault (unless you’re Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, screw those guys). We’re brought up in a society built on unconscious biases and with systems rigged to favour certain types of people; we have to consciously make an effort to dismantle the prejudices that surround us. It’s hard.
Being a bisexual, non-binary, disabled person, it’s easy to forget that I still have some privilege; I’m white. For all the difficulties I face, of which there are plenty, I still do all of it with white privilege, and sometimes I need to be reminded of that. It’s not nice to hear, and I definitely haven’t reacted well to such criticisms in the past, but over the past few years I’ve made a conscious effort to educate myself on matters of racial equity and act accordingly. I still get it wrong sometimes, but I hope that my efforts have resulted in some improvement.
And this is the point where I start to sound like a LinkedIn Learning video; how should you react when someone offers genuine, constructive criticism on the subject of privilege and inequality?
The biggest mistake you can make is to immediately react. It’s important to pause, take a deep breath (asthma not-withstanding), and to move past the instinct to start your next sentence with the word “but”. Once you’ve moved past that instinct, you can start to evaluate what you have been told. Most of the time, making an effort not to be a knobhead will go a long way, and certainly not being instantly defensive will show that you’re at least willing to hear the other person out, a big improvement to the reaction most marginalised people get when raising issues of prejudice.
The act of accepting valid criticism will go a long way to helping the world become a better, more just place, and not just through any changes you make in response to such criticism. It’s one less fight marginalised people have to fight, which means we have more energy for the other battles we face. It will encourage us to speak up.
In short, not viewing privilege being pointed out as a personal attack will help change the world for the better.