Solutions Privilege: How privilege shapes the expectations of solutions, and why it’s bad for our work addressing systemic injustice

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[Image description: A cute black-and-white baby goat. They are mostly black, with a large vertical white stripe down their face. This kid looks surprised, with wide-open big brown eyes and a slight smile. No, this image has nothing to do with this post. I watched Game of Thrones and then thought “You know what, let’s put a baby goat up on this blog post.” So I did. Image from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, quick disclaimers. Game of Thrones is back, and it runs on Sunday nights, when I’m usually doing my writing, so the next several blog posts will likely decrease in quality and coherence. The last few days also found my kids with food poisoning. I will spare you the gross details that involved multiple changes of bedsheets and 4am showers. Suffice to say, I’ve been behind on judging the #NonprofitHaiku contest and will post the winners sometime this week.

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A while ago I was giving a short talk to a group of donors (all with for-profit backgrounds) about the challenges we nonprofits faced, including the inane and harmful focus on “overhead,” the unrealistic and insulting expectations for nonprofits to be self-sustaining, the 5%-payout mentality that allows money to be hoarded away while society burns, and the pervasive inequity of the lack funding going to marginalized-communities-led organizations. Overall, a pretty standard speech, complete with metaphors involving baking.

Afterwards, a couple, I’m going to call them Bob and Sue, came up to me. “We really enjoyed your speech,” said Sue, “but I didn’t really hear any solutions.” “Yes,” added Bob, “I would love to hear what you think would solve these issues you brought up.” I took a nice long sip of my Albariño, a wine that I learned had a characteristic bitterness.

This sort of interactions has happened repeatedly. One time as I was leading a conversation on race, a gentleman who did not really seem to buy what I was selling said, “OK, fine, so I have white privilege. What are the solutions? What do I need to do?” Another time, a funder stopped me after my keynote about funding dynamics and said, “Great speech, though I wish that you wouldn’t just complain but offered more solutions.”

This is always weirdly confusing. I think I do propose plenty of solutions: Focus on outcomes, not “overhead;” stop asking the inane sustainability question; increase annual payout; make significant multi-year investments in organizations led by and serving marginalized communities; get trained in race and implicit biases; list salary ranges in job postings; fix the tax code; stop wearing infinity scarves, they look ridiculous; etc.

So what the heck is going on? After observing these interactions for a few years, I noticed a pattern. The people who complain about the lack of solutions tend to have a certain degree of privilege: White, men, college-educated, higher income, able-bodied, in positions of power, etc. And the more privilege folks have, the more likely they are to whine about the lack of solutions proposed. I am going to call this phenomenon “Solutions Privilege,” the privilege of expecting easy and instant solutions that would align with one’s worldview and not challenge one’s privilege. It manifests in the following ways, and because I benefit from male and other privileges, I’m also prone to it, so I’m going to use “we”:

1: The expectation of solutions, even to problems we are complicit in perpetuating. Men expect women to solve the problems of sexism and misogyny. White folks expect people of color to solve the problem of systemic racism. Able-bodied folks expect people with disability to address ableism and lack of accessibility. Rich people expect poor folks to deal with wealth disparity. A sign of privilege is the refusal to acknowledge how one contributes to problems, coupled with the expectation that the people who are most affected by those problems handle it, with their own resources, instead of “whining” about it.

[Image description: A screen caption of a tweet by user @Tarah. “Dude to me: what will fix the gender pay gap. Me: Pay women employees the same as men. Dude: but how do we solve in the short term. Me: pay all your women employees the same NOW. Dude: but how. Me: literally change their pay. Dude: maybe we could teach women to negotiate better. Me: knife emoji.” End tweet. The tweet has 141 comments, 1,388 retweets, and 6,614 likes]

2. The inability to register solutions that we do not agree with: The expectation for solutions, however, is paired with the inability to understand or even mentally register solutions that are proposed if they do not conform with our values. This tweet from Twitter user @Tarah demonstrates this perfectly. Including the knife emoji. This is pervasive. People from marginalized communities have BEEN proposing solutions. For ages. People with privilege and power just do not seem to perceive solutions they (we) don’t agree with. It’s exhausting, having conversations like this over and over: “How do we address the growing wealth disparity?” “Let’s fix our regressive tax laws so rich people can pay their fair share of taxes.” “[Blank stare]” “Sigh.” “You know, instead of criticizing and sighing all the time, you should propose solutions.”

3. Selective logic that only allows for reasoning that is aligned with our existing viewpoints and values: Privilege allows our logic skills to be selectively deployed to come to conclusions that are most likely to reaffirm our viewpoints and least likely to jeopardize our privilege. I experience it all the time. “Vu says that funding nonprofits with only one-year grants forces them to into a state of survival where they can’t really focus on advancing the work and this is really harmful, especially to organizations led by people of color and other marginalized communities. But what is the solution then? I don’t get it. His face is getting more and more red as he speaks; I think he might be tipsy from the Albariño.”  

4. A sense of superiority combined with the infantilizing of people of marginalized identities: The inability to register the solutions proposed by folks of marginalized backgrounds is likely tied to a sense of superiority that’s rooted in privilege, a sense that only the rich, male, white, elite-college-educated, etc., actually can propose solutions that would succeed. This is combined with a belief that the people most affected by injustice are not bright enough to come up with solutions that would work—I mean, if they are bright and could propose solutions that work, why are they still poor and marginalized, huh?  

5. The inability to see the irony of complaining about people complaining without offering solutions, while also not offering solutions: This is a bonus pointer that I am throwing out there, but it is ironic how many privileged folks bring up the fact that people complain without offering “solutions,” while also not offering solutions to this problem. It’s meta. Next time someone says something like “I wish people would stop complaining so much about funding/taxes/racism/toxic-masculinity/etc., and offer more solutions,” just tell them “I wish people would stop complaining about people complaining without offering solutions without offering solutions.” I’m sure it’ll fly over their heads, just like the solutions that had probably been proposed but didn’t register.

We need to get serious about Solutions Privilege because not only is it annoying, it’s preventing us from making progress on a host of societal issues. In general, I see that when people with privilege are criticized and put into a defensive state, calling for “solutions” is a great move to make because it automatically implies that the person who points out problematic issues is simply a whiner, and whiners don’t have valid arguments, and thus it restores psychological and emotional safety and makes privileged folks feel less threatened.

The hyper-focus on “solutions” is also a way to avoid acknowledging systemic injustice. It happens often when we talk about uncomfortable things like racism and white privilege, or sexism and male privilege, or colonization and wealth. Going directly to solutions makes us feel productive while allowing us to avoid feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness that often accompany these conversations. But these impulsive solutions are often ineffective because they are not grounded deeply in courageous acknowledgement of the root causes of problems.

Solutions Privilege helps maintain the status quo and keeps systemic injustice in place. In order to address injustice, those who benefit most from it have to be able to see it, understand our roles in perpetuating it, accept that it’s our responsibility to address it, spend enough time to really grasp it, examine our conscious and unconscious biases that might prevent us from registering certain solutions to it, accept that solutions to entrenched problems are complex, and trust that the people most affected by injustice would have the most effective solutions and support them to implement these solutions.

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