Sacrificing privilege to advance social change

(Image courtesy of

(Image courtesy of

There are many scenarios in which positive social change can occur in society, including our workplaces. With virtually any of these possibilities, chances of success will be increased when supporters of change are willing to sacrifice some of their privilege in order to advance a cause.

By privilege I refer to some advantage, by virtue of wealth, demographic status, social standing or popularity, organizational rank, legal right, and/or inherited trait. And when I say sacrificing privilege, I mean being counted in a way that could jeopardize some of that advantage. It may mean speaking up in a meeting, intervening as a bystander, endorsing an unpopular yet principled position, or otherwise doing or saying something that potentially puts one at odds with supporters, sponsors, or the in-crowd.

For what it’s worth, I do not recommend sacrificing one’s privileges willy nilly, as if to prove some level of courage or principle to the world. It’s not about that.

Rather, it’s about taking smart risks in support of something bigger than ourselves, of possibly “giving up” some advantage for a greater good.

I’m hesitant to give illustrations because I don’t want the examples to define the map on this one. But I know that some readers here, hopefully many of you, get what I mean.

Especially in times when fear and scarcity drive people to seek security, it may be something of a twist when those who have a lot of advantages are the most cautious about taking risks for reasons of principle. (It’s the opposite of the line made famous by Janis Joplin — “Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose” — in “Me and Bobby McGee“!) In any event, if only the have-nots (however we define them) are willing to stick out their necks, then the path to more humane workplaces, institutions, and organizations will be all the more difficult.

5 responses

  1. If your “privilege” includes working for an employer who is willing to jeopardize the health and safety of its employees (and in the case of healthcare, the health and safety of patients who rely on those workers), it’s not something of value I would choose to keep. I chose to stand up, and was (predictably) shot down. I lost my trust and faith in “the system”, but kept my integrity. That decision has cost me a lot, but according to my values, I didn’t really have a choice. If we don’t pressure our institutions to behave ethically and socially responsibly, we are lost. I did my part, and hope that the next one can make the difference I hoped to.

    There’s no shame in doing what you can to create change. The value of the exercise does not depend on the outcome.

    • Kachina, no, I wouldn’t (and didn’t) define privilege in that manner.

      In fact, the potential sacrifice of privilege to which I refer would’ve meant others in powerful positions joining with you to oppose mistreatment at work. Those who stood silent helped to create the casualties, so to speak.

      Of course, it’s important to pick our battles. But too many stay in the rear all the time, every time.

  2. As I have been told and I do believe, you need to be the change you want to see. Unfortunately, I think this can also trap someone in a hostile workplace by trying to model the right behavior to the wrong people.

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