Privilege is Power. Here’s How to Use It for Good

“If I’m the most powerful person in the room, my job should be to make sure I’m speaking up for somebody who’s less powerful than me.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Why having privilege doesn’t mean being lazy
  • How to act if you are the most powerful person in the room
  • What the role of feminism should be in our lives

Luvvie Ajayi is a veteran blogger at Awesomely Luvvie, a public speaker, and the author of the New York Times bestselling I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. She recently sat down with world-leading business thinker Whitney Johnson, author of Build an A-Team and host of the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, to discuss humor, privilege, and fame, and how to use all three for positive disruption and advocacy in today’s cultural climate.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Luvvie and Whitney’s full conversation on the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, click here.

Whitney: Do you remember how old you were when you discovered that people thought you were funny?

Luvvie: Probably high school.

Whitney: What happened?

Luvvie: My friends and I are a bunch of goofballs—we used to just crack each other up, all day every day. So I’ve known I was funny since at least high school, but I didn’t set out to write funny. I just wrote in the way that I spoke, so when other people found my writing funny, I was, “Okay, that makes sense.”

I realized that being funny was a way to make friends, and also realized that no matter if you’re making fun of me or not, [if] I’m quicker than you, you’re probably less likely to make fun of me.

Whitney: Fascinating. It was something you did naturally; and when you moved to Chicago, you got yourself into a fish-out-of-water situation and honed it further. Then, you just found that it was [your] superpower, and you’ve just been building on it ever since.

I’m going to completely change gears for a second and tell you about an experience that I had over the last couple months. When I was a teenager, I sang this Stevie Wonder lyric from Songs in the Key of Life, and it was about this family who wanted to buy a house to which the seller said, “You might have the cash but you can’t cash in your face.”

Luvvie: Ouch!

Whitney: Yeah. I sang along to this song blithely as a teenager, and then, over the last couple of months I read your book and then I listened to The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which is about the Great Black Migration in the United States from the south to the north. I had something that just hit me right in the gut—my white privilege.

I think that everybody reading our conversation experiences some type of privilege. As you’ve been thinking and writing and observing, I would love if you could give me and give everyone [reading] some advice for ways that we can get outside of our privilege and move beyond it.

“I walk in a room with way more power than I was giving myself credit for.”

Luvvie: Why do we hear “privileged” and feel like it means that [privileged] people haven’t worked for anything they’ve gotten?

I want to get people to switch to the idea that privilege is more of the things that we were born with. In college, I was a counseling center paraprofessional for two and a half years, and our first semester of training was all about us getting to know who we are and the space that we take up in the world. One of the things we did was a privilege exercise [that was] really heart-changing. Everyone stands in a straight line across a room and statements are read off and people either step forward or step back. [For example,] statements would be like “Step forward if both your parents have college degrees. Step back if people can’t pronounce your name. Step back if you’ve ever worried about where your next meal is coming from. Step forward if you feel like you can walk safely at night by yourself.”

After 20 or 30 statements are read, you stop and look around the room to see where you are in relation to other people. You see who’s behind you, who’s in front of you, who’s next to you. You see if you’re surprised by any of it. Did you expect to be further up? Did you expect to be further back? When I did this, I was thinking because I’m a black woman, I was going to end up in the back of the pack after this exercise was done. When the exercise was done, I was in the middle.

I’d never been poor, I’m Christian, I am straight, I am able-bodied, I am educated, cisgender. All of that pushed me forward—further than I thought it would. It clicked in my head that I walk in a room with way more power than I was giving myself credit for.

We tend to think privilege means you’re lazy, [that] you haven’t done anything. No—privilege means you have a starting line that you didn’t even walk to, to get there. You got there because of something you had nothing to do with.

Once you know it, that’s a good way to start. But it’s also so important to use the privilege that you walk with to pull people closer to you, people who are further behind. So, if I’m the most powerful person in the room, my job should be to make sure I’m speaking up for somebody who’s less powerful than me.

“If I’m the most powerful person in the room, my job should be to make sure I’m speaking up for somebody who’s less powerful than me.”

Whitney: So every time you walk in a room, people tend to do this mental calculus of how they stack up, of how much power they have. Say to yourself, “Ok, I’ve done this calculus; now I know there are people here that I can help, that I can pull up.”

Luvvie: And you know, some privileges are more powerful than others. Class privilege and racial privilege are huge and they trump a lot of other things. The reason why white privilege gets a lot of attention is because that is the biggest piece of privilege that gets people forward. Knowing that really puts you in a space of being like, “Alright, so how can I use that?”

Whitney: One of the things that I talk about is this idea of personal disruption, and one of the first tenets is the notion of playing where no one else is playing, or playing where no one has thought of playing. When you started writing, you were doing that. And now you have people like Susan McPherson and Nisha Chittal saying, “How did you get to be the coolest person on the planet?”

In your book you talk about fame. You say, “They say money and fame make us more of who you already are. I am judging us for being fame-obsessed. Our pathological narcissism and dehydration for prominence leads us to do some shady and desperate things. Fame is expensive and many of us cannot afford it.” What are your thoughts on that?

Luvvie: I feel like we are living in a world that is super obsessed with being known, as opposed to [people] just doing the best work they can. I’ve never been driven or motivated by fame. I think, especially now that we live in this ‘likes’ culture—people are not being themselves because they’re trying to play the roles they think they should play.

“We are living in a world that is super obsessed with being known, as opposed to [people] just doing the best work they can.”

Whitney: How do you keep your feet on the ground? Do you have people around you who just remember you as Luvvie from when you were ten years old? Is it based on your faith? Is it just that you’re aware of it and [that awareness] quashes or diminishes its power? Is it a combination of all three?

Luvvie: It’s a combination of all three. Most importantly is my faith, in that I’m a Christian—a lifelong Christian. I know that a lot of what’s happening is because I work really hard and am talented, but I’ve [also] been elevated to levels that some of my peers haven’t been because of a higher power ensuring that I happen to meet the right people, be in the right rooms. That keeps me humble because I don’t take full credit for my success.

Whitney: You talk about your definition of feminism: “a woman becomes a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or she stays at home and raises her children. She keeps the name she’s always had or changes her name to her husband’s, hyphenates it, creates a new name for her family, refuses to cook because she hates it or cooks every single day. Has some big-headed children, doesn’t have any kids, is an accountant, is Martha Stewart, Oprah, Jennifer the Random, wears short shorts, wears a cloak, wears heels, wears flats, whatever it is you’re doing right now, you are a feminist if that is what you want to be doing.” So Luvvie, are you a feminist?

Luvvie: I am. When it’s boiled down to its very simplest definition, it means somebody who believes that women can live life in the way that they see fit. So it means if she thinks staying at home to raise her kids is what she wants to do, that makes her a feminist. If she wants to be a CEO—cool.

“[A feminist is] somebody who believes that women can live life in the way that they see fit.”

Whitney: If you could choose a place to speak that would be really important to you, where would it be and what would you talk about?

Luvvie: I would love to talk at the United Nations about the importance of speaking truth to power. That body is charged with basically keeping the world standing upright, and oftentimes they basically watch things happen that shouldn’t be happening that they have the authority to possibly stop.

Whitney: I’m going to read you one last quote and then ask you one final question. On page 238 of your book, you say, “If you have a microphone plugged into an amplifier, it is wrong for you not to sing. If you have been placed in a sphere of influence, I believe it is wrong for you not to use it to better the world. If you do not feel like it is your duty to leave this place better than you found it, then you are taking everything around you for granted. Don’t squander your social currency; don’t squander your wealth. And if people stop supporting your work because you dared to do something, then good riddance.” So how will you disrupt yourself in the next 12 months?

Luvvie: I just recently disrupted myself by buying a house. It disrupted my previous comfort. I’ve had freakouts about it because I’ve committed to this thing in such a big way, and for somebody who is change-averse, it’s huge. Huge.

Whitney: It’s so funny how it’s different for everybody. Because for a lot of people they think, “Wait, wait. You mean speaking at the White House, speaking in front of the United Nations wouldn’t be disrupting yourself?”

Luvvie: No. Buying a house feels more disruptive than speaking at the White House or the UN.

Whitney: Will you write more books?

Luvvie: Yes, I will. I have one I need to figure out. [Last year,] I took the month of July off to get the creative bandwidth [I needed] to just function in general. I’d been going, going, going for such a long time that I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to take a month off to kind of recharge my batteries across everything.”

Whitney: So you took the month off. You figured out how to recharge, and then you’ll focus on your next book, your television show, and I’m going to dare you, Luvvie, to find a way to speak at the United Nations in the next two years.

Luvvie: Alright. I’ll take that dare on.