The Shame of Black Privilege

by Jefferson Ellison. August 17, 2020.

I have to admit that the idea of shame being attached to privilege sounds like some bullshit. Being embarrassed that you're in a better position than others because you don't want the attention, or because you "just want to fit in" is a valid emotion, but it ignores such greater societal norms and privileges that it becomes moot. By definition, shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. There is nothing foolish or wrong about having privilege. While in certain circles, having access, money and/or power may be humiliating or stressful (depending on the rules of the environment), the ability to remove yourself out of the negative environment and place yourself in safer spaces, negates any humiliation or distress because your privileges make those things an active choice. Except for when it comes to being Black.

The Black experience in America is littered with contradictions, false choices, and conflation. It is also rooted in White supremacy. Because of this, there is no privilege that can remove Black people from the situation that is causing distress, creating a cycle of constant shame. That "shame" manifests in the presence of anecdotal privileges that go against the standard Black narrative and universal truths around the Black experience. White Supremacy takes those specific facts and uses them to negate systemic truths in a way that is blatant and dishonest, and can be gaslighting. Black people who find themselves with privilege tend to know this and find themselves in a painful intersection of their truth and the greater truth. The shame can also merge with fear, which then often controls how Black people maneuver their privilege within a White-led society.

This is most blatant when looking at Black institutions and Black culture. The internet is filled with conspiracies around Black wealth and Black agency. Social organizations like "The Divine Nine" are seen as cults and Business associations like The Boule, The Links or Jack and Jil (for the kids) are framed as evil chapters of The Illuminati. Some may argue that the conspiracies come from simple ignorance and fear of the unknown - even if that were the case, it'd still be racist so let's not go there. More importantly, all of the organizations listed above are Black responses to White society. No one ever thinks that Tri Delta or Chi Omega is a cult. Everyone loves when the Junior Assembly of The Mythical Realm of Rhododendron presents their children to society. But when Black people do the exact thing, the exact same way it's treated as a cultural uprising. It's almost as if the elevation of Black culture and successful Black assimilation flies directly in the face of American values... but I digress.

In my experience, the shame around Black privilege manifests itself similarly to impostor syndrome. Here you are, standing in your truth. But, it feels wrong because the society in which you exist does not foster and hold space for your truth. My entire life I've grappled with the notion that I was a rarity. And that while it wasn't a problem, it wasn't something to be proud of. My parents will tell you it was out of an attempt to raise humble children, but I'd argue that it was out of their adherence to respectability. Why is their success and hard work a problem unless it spits in the face of what the world expects of them. We are not "old money", they worked for what they had and never stole anything. If the Rich Kids of Instagram get to live their best life why can't we? Because it scares and angers White people. We should respect the status quo. Be content, don't thrive. But because no one ever talked about or contextualized my experience - to me or to anyone else - there was no blueprint for my own narrative. White people think I'm a unicorn and it has the possibility to create a divide amongst Black people, similar to colorism.

Leaning into the colorism analogy, the privileged Black people (the lighter skin tones) can develop a sense of superiority rooted in their proximity to Whiteness (wealth) and the more marginalized (the darker skin tone) can feel inferior for things that are out of their control either biologically or through systemic oppression.

My family is rare but we're not special. We are coincidental by-products of a broken system. A different flap of the butterfly's wings and there is no telling who I would be. But because the world doesn't hold space for me and those like me, I have grown up conflicted, ashamed, and hidden. My friends will tell you that it doesn't show up in my social life and that's true. But it has definitely shown up in my career. I have been leading JAWBREAKING for 4 years now and I have appeared on our Instagram maybe 5 times. The majority of people in my life don't even know what I do. Why? Because I am ashamed. Ashamed that I found a way to grow and prosper in a system that doesn't want me to.

Not because I don't think I deserve it, but because the more space I take up, the less room there is for those who need it most. That is how privilege works. It's kind of the point. And while I continue to hold space and aim to use my platform to uplift those whose shoulders I stand on and whose spotlight I steal, I refuse to be silenced by my oppressor. If I do that, then they win. And then what was the point of my ancestors fighting, dying and generation-by-generation climbing up the only ladder presented to them for growth.

So consider this a warning, in the future... you'll see my face more. You'll hear my voice more and you - like the rest of the world - will have to accept the fact that Blackness and success go hand-in-hand, and that the only shame around Black privilege is that more of it doesn't exist.