For protection from privileged tears

On Power & Privilege Denial, and “Hurt Feelings” in Social Justice Work

For protection from privileged tears

It’s true that there is no hierarchy of oppression, and that each of us holds power and privilege in different ways, but what if you don’t want it?

There’s an activity that I have used as a lid opener towards talking about privilege and oppression that involves giving a small group of participants a blank sheet of paper. The paper represents power, and it is up to the group to decide what to do with it.

There’s really no wrong way to do it, and the process that group members go through in making their decision is just as important as the end goal itself.

A variety of things can happen. Some folks may distribute the power equally, while others may decide against it for some reason. The environment can become very competitive, or collaborative depending on who is involved, what they bring, and how they show up.

One instance that causes me to stop and think every time I witness it, is when the paper, or the power is rejected. Whether someone refuses to touch it, or drops it to the ground, whenever it happens it causes me to think about attempts to consciously reject power.

Shutting up and listening to the voices and experiences of people whose marginalization is the foundation of our success can be an example of an attempt to consciously reject the flow of power, but what about when the rejection of power shows up as the denial of power?

Denial of Power & Privilege

We want to view ourselves positively, and wish others would view us positively as well. Denying the power and privilege we hold can be a way of protecting ourselves from internalizing the reality and gravity of our active and passive participation in oppressive systems, allowing us to maintain a cherished, although false sense of self.

Limited examples of how it can start:

“I don’t have a discriminating bone in my body. I treat everyone the same.”

“Slavery happened a long time ago. I as a white person today have nothing to do with that. I worked hard to get to where I am.”

“I’m not that guy from the alley, not all men…

“Those Christians do not represent me. You’ve had some bad experiences but…”

Think about how we’re able to recognize some of the most extreme forms of bigotry and oppression, but less able, and at times even less willing to notice and acknowledge it in its more subtle forms.

Hey, I’m nothing like those people.”

While it might help us to feel better about ourselves in the moment, the act of attempting to drop the paper; to drop the power doesn’t change the reality of our group membership(s) and the privileged position(s) they provide us, and it can even make things worse, particularly if we say we’d like to work with others toward more socially just communities and are actively engaged in helping relationships.


Denial can also transition into a distraction that, in acting it out actually reinforces our privilege by putting the blame on targeted folks for their legitimate mistrust, or confrontation.

Raining White Tears

Limited Examples:

“I’m feeling attacked, and I’m not going to feel guilty for being white. Reverse racism is the real problem here.”

“I’m offended. I was on your side, but your anger changed that.”

“I haven’t had it easy either. I feel like my Christian faith is under attack.”

“Men can’t say anything these days.”

Instead of actively focusing on how we participate in oppression, responding defensively can be an attempt at manipulating marginalized people into making us feel better about ourselves and taking care of our feelings first before we’re able to listen; ultimately derailing any critical dialogue that would have taken place. It’s quite an effective silencing tactic.

On “Hurt Feelings”

Oppression is not designed to work in reverse. There is no reverse-racism, there is no “hetero”-phobia, there is no reverse-sexism, etc.

Feeling “attacked” or “hurt” in the moment from our place of privilege, whatever that may be, fails to compare to the everyday lived experiences of the people who are on the receiving end of the oppression we benefit from.

Whose feelings really matter in those moments, in this work?

I recommend:

For Would-Be Allies On The Road To Equity: To Move Beyond Misrepresentation, We Must First Acknowledge The Facts

We Are Not Beholden to Our “Allies”

Having Trouble Connecting With Oppressed Groups? Maybe It’s Not Them, Maybe It’s You


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW



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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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9 Responses

  1. jodi says:

    That activity is really interesting. Are you giving one piece of paper to each person or one to each group? I guess if it were real life, everyone would get a different size sheet of paper. It would be interesting to do this activity at the beginning of a social justice course and then again at the end to see what changes.

    • Hi jodi,

      I’m sure there are other ways to do it, but I give one piece of paper to the group (small groups of like 3 or 4), and they collectively decide what to do with it. I agree it would be interesting to do it in the beginning, and again at the end of a social justice course to see what changes have developed within the students.

  2. Hi Relando, Thank you for this eloquent, direct and important post. I’m a children’s book writer involved in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and I’ve just started a series of articles on my blog titled Time to Listen Tuesday. I’d like to feature/link to your article next week on March 8. Ellen Oh just wrote a post “Dear White Writers” that prompted a lot of privileged tears, and the whole debacle inspired me to create this series. I’m very grateful that the web led me to your blog.

    • And I am glad that you found my blog, read this post and chose to share your comment. Feel free to feature/link to my post at your blog on March 8th.

      Thank you for mentioning Ellen Oh’s article as well. I am a supporter of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and her words resonate strongly with me.

      Thank you, L.M.

  3. Jennifer B. Lyle says:

    Thank you for introducing this activity and offering this thoughtful piece. You make strong points when you detail the denial reactions you often encounter when facilitating this activity. I would like to offer another perhaps subtler but destabilizing reaction that I often encounter in my work.
    That is the privileged “savior” that “gives” power without acknowledging thier power and privilege to do so. The giving over of power while all the while gently guiding the process or completely sitting back and observing but stepping in to help when challenges arise, is belittling and does not acknowledge all of our abilities to step into our power on our own accord and to trouble through problems without “saving” or “giving”. Common reactions are: “I let the other people in the group decide” or “I already know how to do this, I wanted them to try it. I can help when they get stuck” or “Yes, I’m part of the group but I didn’t think it was my place to participate”
    Folks often see this as equalizing but it’s not. Like in your examples, people are still sidestepping an opportunity to reflect how power and privilege play out and thier part in that.

    • Absolutely! Thank you for sharing your perspective. While that approach might seem like equalizing to some, your comments highlight how it can be used to sidestep and deny the reality of owned privilege and of owned responsibility in perpetuating or interrupting oppression.

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