I remember the first time I learned the word “privilege.” I was, predictably, in an undergraduate feminist theory course. We were reading Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacki
ng the Invisible Knapsack,” an essay that outlines some conditions that white people take for granted as part of their existence on which white privilege is based such as: “I can go shopping alone most of the time” and “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” It was the first time that I was confronted with the fact that I did take these conditions for granted and moved to a place of empathy for those who could not count on these everyday realities.
As I continued to study feminism academically, I saw how similar structures of privilege played out across other identity factors like gender, sexuality, ability, body size, and age. I began to see how I carried more privilege in my whiteness and less in my queerness and body size. Questioning how privilege factors into everyday decisions like where to shop and who to spend time with became a normal part of my life—a process that I wanted to share with others.
I started writing, speaking, and teaching about body positive fitness and shame-free fitness marketing in 2016. This kind of teaching was different from interacting with undergraduate students who had read McIntosh’s essay (because I assigned it to them) or had other ways of understanding marginalized identities academically. I realized that I’d been prioritizing an intellectual way of knowing, a version of the privilege I have as being a part of an academic institution.
I’ve been using the spotlight metaphor as a way to help people recognize the complexities of their own privilege and take actionable steps to highlight the presence of marginalized people in their communities. It goes like this:
Imagine you’re on stage with a spotlight on you. How bright it shines and how wide the beam depends on how much the world wants to see you. For the most part, your light is brightest depending on how white, thin, young, and straight you are! You can stand next to someone who can’t be seen very well and share your light. It doesn’t cost anything because your light always shines on you—no one’s going to take it away. So, what can you do to help give someone else a voice or a presence with your light?
Some examples of “sharing the spotlight” include using your influence to invite women of color to speak at a women’s empowerment event, asking for armless chairs in your doctor’s office, or putting your pronouns in your email signature. Your personal and professional capacity to make changes varies in lots of ways, but it can help a lot to consider how you can make space for people who might not otherwise be able to advocate for themselves. Sharing the spotlight is a great way to practice being the change you want to see in your world!
Dr. Kate Browne helps changemakers find, create, and share stories that matter. Kate holds a PhD in autobiographical rhetoric (or, how people write and speak about themselves) and her writing about body image and popular culture has appeared in Runner's World, Refinery29, FabUPlus, and Girls Gone Strong. Kate is also the lead speaker coach for TEDxNormal, a communication workshop facilitator and a singer. Follow Kate on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @drkatebrowne