*The Allyship Workshop Series was created in house at Stand Up Speak Up by a small team of writers and researchers with the consultation of several sensitivity readers. We present this information as an invitation to learn along with us and do not claim to be experts on the topic of allyship and advocacy. If you have any questions or concerns about anything you see in this workshop, please let us know. We hope this workshop will evolve as we continue to listen and become better allies.*
Most of us understand and don’t deny that there is systematic inequality throughout the world. Throughout time, different groups have used their influence and power to put themselves at the top and built countries, governments and institutions around ideals meant to keep them there. As societies evolve, generations are raised to either ignore or embrace these imposed hierarchies as the “norm.”
While most of us are able to recognize the concept of privilege as a concept, without realizing it, we can fail to understand and embody our own privileges and how they can impact us and those around us. A common misconception is that privilege as finite – either you have it or you don’t. It is actually a spectrum where each person’s situation is unique and everyone will receive privilege in some areas and likely lack it in others.
A good way to better understand the concept of privilege is to visualize it. Compare it to running a race, where some factors allow us a free step forward while others are held back. This video by Buzzfeed shows a great exercise examining privilege in a visual way:
Did you notice the change in mood from the beginning of this exercise to the end for the participants? Truly acknowledging and owning our privileges is not easily done. You may have feelings of guilt, anger, and defensiveness rise to the surface as you’re going through this process.
Let’s look closer at some of the reasons that we commonly overlook our privileges:
Privilege is, by definition, something you are blind to as you go through life
In our section about active listening, we talk about the danger of expressing your disbelief and shock when listening to someone else’s perspective or story. But the truth is that it is difficult to believe something that you have never seen or experienced. Our brains want to revert back to what they know when they are presented with new information. This means you might be fighting against your own thoughts and those things you have believed to be true for your entire life. It can be easier to simply not believe that privilege exists, rather than acknowledge that you were blind to it and likely even contributed to the oppression of others.
It feels like it erases personal struggles
There has always been a large link between the concept of privilege and struggle or trauma. This is because the lack of privilege often does lead to active discrimination, prejudice and even violence. With this, comes one word in the definition of privilege that can be triggering:
Privilege is an unearned advantage given to one set of people and not to another.
It is natural that when you read a word like unearned, you think of all of the work you have put in to get the things you have in life and achieve your position. As mentioned in our section on intersectionality, having a high level of privilege in one sector does not eliminate hardships you might face somewhere else. It simply means that one part of your identity could be an advantage you have limited control over.
We all want to take complete ownership of our position and pride in our accomplishments and this can cause resistance at the concept that some successes might have been out of our control, just as some failures have likely been. If you are feeling this way, try to remember that privilege might have given you an advantage, but that can only take you so far. Your actions, choices and hard work are always going to be part of the equation of your success.
It’s important to remember that examining privilege means looking at the systems that close doors for people based on factors they cannot control and those that deny people rights that should be given to all equally. It is not a finite measure of difficulty someone has had in their life.
It feels like taking the blame for things outside of your control
When dealing with privilege, we are speaking of systemic beliefs and practices that have been in place for (at least) hundreds of years. It is the accumulation of dozens of generations uniformly elevating some lives and the rights of some over others.
If you’ve ever been in a discussion where the actions of people of the past have been cited as contributing to your own privilege, you can easily have the reaction of, “Well, that was them and not me. I would never do that and I shouldn’t be blamed or punished for their wrongdoings.” On the surface, this isn’t completely false. Just the act of reading this page and learning more about privilege, social justice, and allyship shows that you care about equality far more than many did in the past.
What is important to keep in mind is that a proper path forward, one where we can truly heal old woods and create a system with equality, can only be achieved by fully acknowledging and accepting what occurred in the past. This requires both atonement and action, and since those who committed these acts are no longer here, it does require that our generations do the work to help marginalized groups to heal.
This is by no means an easy task. It does mean accepting responsibility for attitudes and actions that came long before us, as well and consistently condoning and fighting against similar attitudes that still exist today. While no one can change the past, you can prove you are on the side of change right now.
It demands a shift in how you view your place in the world
In The Undefeated’s article “Why do so many people deny the existence of white privilege?” by Brando Simeo Starkey, the author references Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land and says:
“[Arlie Russell] interviews working-class and middle-class white people in Louisiana and learns they’re disenchanted with their government and no longer recognize their country. They feel as if black folk, other minorities, immigrants, and refugees have cut ahead of them in line, meaning the government caters to others before them. The line-cutting angers them, although they never question why they should occupy the first position. That implicit assumption — I should be tended to before all others — encapsulates how they view white privilege as natural and invisible.”
We are conditioned to believe the systems in which we live fundamentally work and should continue functioning as they do now. But, for centuries, these systems have prioritized certain people above others. Examining our own privilege means pulling back the layers of what we believe we “deserve”. We also need to look at who the gatekeepers to different opportunities really are. This forces us to widen our scope to not only see how we have earned our position based on our own work and expertise, but also see all of the people who worked just as hard (and sometimes harder) who were not even let through the door to apply.
We need to ask ourselves where we were given a head start or advantage over others in life because of the identities we hold. Doing this work is difficult. Once you realize your position within any constructed hierarchy, you can choose to use your position to advocate for those who have been denied the same opportunities.
Using your privilege can be one of the greatest tools that you have in being an ally. Here is a short story of how someone stepping up and using their voice can affect change:
Acknowledging your own privilege is one of the most important but one of the most difficult things that an ally needs to do. It means examining your own life and position in a completely different way than you likely have before. It then means deciding how actively you are willing to speak up and and fight for those who currently lack privilege in our current system and how much you’re willing to fight for dismantling systemic bias and discrimination with our society on all levels.
Next, we are going to continue looking at the barriers to allyship and why it has taken so long to make these systemic changes.