Can Mindfulness Reboot Privilege? Contemplating Earned and Unearned Advantage

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By Chris Altizer and Gloria Johnson-Cusack, Guest Contributors

In a time of increasing polarization and even legislation targeting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work, programs designed to increase diversity, inclusion, and equity are being castigated as divisive, exclusive, and unequal. 

How did we get here? How do we move ahead?

In the standard curricula, few things are as hot as the concept of privilege. Those with it are at best uncomfortable if not in denial while those without it are exhausted or incensed by it. As soon as you go there, many people, whether they have a little or a lot, fight, fly, freeze, or appease. 

Ah, enter mindfulness!

Some of the brightest mindfulness minds have turned their attention to the challenges of talking or even thinking about equity. Rhonda V. Magee, Rick Hanson, and Diana Winston have particularly inspired us in our own work. As Mindful Leader readers know, applying contemplative practices to difficult subjects is key to being with them long and well enough to intentionally deal with them.  However, the notion of privilege continues to defy efforts to be and deal with. What to do about this vexing issue?

Not Privilege – Earned and Unearned Advantage. 

A different approach is to reframe ‘privilege’ as earned and unearned advantage. Applying contemplative practices to engage each person as their own better teacher allows that we and others have earned some advantages through hard work, grace, or applied talent. In doing so, we can make space for the reality that the differences inherent in who we are and where we’re from – unearned advantages - do influence opportunities for earned advantage. These differences are many including skin color, gender, sexual identity, physical ability, origin, etc. as well as valued traits of personality and even body and hair type! Growing up with clean water and safe neighborhoods count, as well. 

Unfortunately, what’s been missing in DEI programming, and most places, are safe-yet-brave approaches to recognizing and working with this elephant in the room. If you believe that people are their own better teachers, and we do, practices of reflection and self-inquiry supported by grounding practices are needed. Mindfulness practitioners know that inquiry often succeeds where direction fails. Through self-inquiry, we can begin to recognize unearned advantage – having a little or a lot.

Recognize Unearned Advantage

Whether you have few or many unearned advantages, increasing awareness and the ability to be with that reality are keys to reducing the emotional charge of recognizing them. While workplace mindfulness has become both panacea and punching bag (similar to DEI), the practices can help people accept what’s real rather than deny it and it provides the basis for intentional action to change what needs changing. 

In our research and new book, Growing the Elephant – increasing earned advantage for all, we explore this elephant in the room through a series of contemplative practices, well-modeled by Rhonda Magee in her extraordinary book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice (2019). We also learned from David Treleaven in Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness (2018) the value of providing support for the inevitable discomfort and even trauma along the way. Practicing self-care in difficult moments, especially if you guide others in this work, is a must.

Because it’s hard, sometimes you must stop before you can go when recognizing unearned advantage. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s celebrated MBSR STOP practice is a particularly useful skill to include in any difficult situation, including recognizing unearned advantages. Imagine how differently tense discussions of equity might go if participants STOP and take a breath? 

Work with Unearned Advantage – Intention and Compassion

Like any elephant in the room, once you see unearned advantages, you must deal with them or leave the room. One shortcoming in typical programming is around how people with privilege are encouraged to deal with it, “Just be aware.” While awareness is required (more later), it is insufficient to work with unearned advantage. Working with unearned advantage requires two practices not often experienced in DEI programs – intentions and compassion.

We believe that introducing intention-setting enables people to grapple with unearned advantage – whatever amount you have. Intentions are powerful because they focus on what we hope to achieve without losing sight of why we want to achieve it. Viktor Frankl fans will recognize the power of choosing one’s own attitude in the face of adversity - the moment where intention is most valuable. Whether engaging in a discussion of historical, systemic oppression or deciding who to sit with at lunch today, intention-setting is key.

Another practice, well-known to Mindful Leader readers, is compassion. We define it as a practice of combining your genuine empathy for someone’s (or your own) plight with a (set and met) intention to act to improve the situation. Like experts Kristin Neff and Sharon Salzberg, we invite people to begin with themselves. The irony that people with unearned advantages need compassion is not lost on us – but that doesn’t make it untrue. Working with unearned advantage is a roller-coaster of emotions, rationalizations, and realizations that test any resolve you may have to grow earned advantage. Introducing some form of compassion practice is, we believe, necessary to begin growing opportunities for earned advantage. 

Grow Opportunities for Earned Advantage – RAIN

When you reduce the share taken by unearned advantage, you’ve already increased earned advantage opportunities. You can grow earned advantage in other ways, including uncovering your own natural awareness as Diana Winston describes in her book, The Little Book of Being (2019). Through natural awareness, we can recognize that every human has biases and that we can act above them. Growing earned advantage requires RAIN – recognize, accept, and investigate with natural awareness and nurture ourselves and others along the way. Each of us can, with practice, increase our awareness of our self, of others, and of our impact on others. 

We share more practices in our book but, not even for a second, imagine this to be a cure-all or an easy walk. While you can’t meditate your way to an equitable world, with reflection you can become more aware of your potential to improve it. Effectively incorporating workplace mindfulness can help, but it’s time to apply them to the elephant in the room. We believe that DEI experiences that meet people where they are in their own lived experiences, in the present moment, with less judgment - and incorporate skill-building to do so – will help.

A servant leader and changemaker, Gloria Johnson-Cusack, MPAprovides consulting services to leadership teams and boards of public and private foundations committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in education, financial security, and health. She teaches frequently at the graduate School of Professional Studies, Columbia University in New York and serves as Board Chair of the Firelight Foundation supporting communities in Africa. Chris Altizer, MBA, MA, is a retired and recovering HR executive now consulting and teaching HR and Inclusion at Florida International University. Chris is MBSR-qualified through UC San Diego and his research in personality and mindfulness has been covered in Forbes and appeared in Consulting Psychology Journal. He’s co-authored three books, Mindfully Mobile, Way of the Road Warrior, and Growing the Elephant – increasing earned advantage for all.


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