Monday, September 22, 2008

Becoming An Ally

Hi, my name is Jack. I'm not crazy about introductions, so let me jump right in.

I've noticed that Renee has been met with a lot of resistance when posting about privilege. I want join the discussion by offering my perspective as a straight, white, middle-class male.

I had an easy childhood, and I assumed that this experience was shared by most people. As I grew, I extended this assumption to other experiences--having an easy time in school, being comfortable with my body and personality, having positive role models in popular culture, being able to speak up for myself whenever I wanted, always having enough food on the table, feeling safe at home, and so forth.

Eventually I became aware of oppression, and decided that I wanted to work to support women, people of color, and other folks who cannot count on society to have their back, but I had no idea how to do this. Like many commenters on this blog, I felt that I had not personally done anything wrong--that I was not a part of the problem--so I didn't know how to be part of the solution. Who could blame me? I had no idea what it was like to be a woman or a person of color, so how could I know that I was reenacting their oppression every day?

To understand my role in the fight against oppression, I had to understand my privilege; to do this, I had to understand what life was like without it. This isn't something I set about to do, because I didn't know I needed to do it. I was lucky to have close female friends who trusted me enough to be comfortable calling out my sexism, knowing that I wanted to grow and change. This is a remarkably difficult thing for women to do--because it is so easy for women's objections to be delegitimized as petty complaints--and I am infinitely grateful to these women for trusting me to hear them out.

And I did hear them out, but it took time. They said, hey, you dominate conversations, and don't give women space to speak. I said it's not my fault women aren't more assertive in conversations! They pointed out other things, and I kept saying it wasn't my fault. Then they said you're right, it's not your fault, but that's not an excuse to do nothing when you can help. And that got through. Female voices are dismissed even when they speak rightly, and my voice has been valued even when I have spoken wrongly. I deserve no praise for my ability to be assertive in a conversation, and there is no judgment on women for struggling to find their voice. We are not responsible for how society has conditioned us, but once we are aware of it we have a responsibility to work toward equality. That means I need to be aware of whether or not I am speaking at the expense of a woman.

And it means I need to be aware of a thousand other things, because society gives me preferential treatment in a thousand areas. The choice of whether or not to be a part of the problem hinges on whether or not I recognize my privilege, because unrecognized privilege will only repeat the patterns of oppression. I am not ashamed of my privilege because I am not responsible for it. We do not need guilt. We need humility. We need to work every day to understand how we have been affected by growing up in a society that values money, masculinity and lack of melanin--and for folks with privilege that means understanding how we have been trained to be oppressors without even realizing it.

So I must recognize that my life is made easier by unearned advantages. But it can't stop with recognition, I have to understand that my privilege is a direct result of others' oppression, and I have to commit to dismantling a system that does not treat all people equally. Giving it up is not an option, because privilege is conferred externally by society. So where do I fit in? My job is to use my privilege to further the goals of the anti-oppression movement, where those goals are determined not by me, but by the very folks who are enduring the oppression. That is what it means to be an ally. That is how I can be a part of the solution. Here are some examples:

  1. An ally supports women and people of color in leadership positions.
  2. An ally backs up oppressed voices when they are dismissed, but does not speak for them.
  3. An ally listens in order to treat people the way they want to be treated. 
  4. An ally respects cultural symbols.
  5. An ally is conscious of his or her own prejudices and works to dismantle them.
  6. An ally gently challenges racism, sexism and classism in daily conversations.
  7. An ally is humble about accomplishments that were made easier by privilege.
  8. An ally has conversations where everyone feels comfortable participating.
  9. An ally avoids cutting down other privileged folks for the appeasement of their own guilt.
  10. An ally does not want any praise for being an ally--it's not about us.


Thank you, Renee, for letting me share my thoughts here, and thank you, readers, for lending me your ears, or eyes as the case may be. If you found this post interesting, feel free to check out  my blog. I look forward to your comments.


nia said...

It's a very good list. I am a black woman, but I intend to use these same ten points as I try to mitigate the damages caused daily by my own Western, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, age privilege.
Honestly, I don't know what it is about this issue or the word 'privilege' in general that makes some people fly off the handle and get so defensive.

sparkle said...

@ nia: i think that because many people do in fact work to get to a certain point in life they reject the very notion that privilege has played a part in their successes. they get on the defensive most likely because they feel that their efforts to improve themselves have been negated by one little word, but have not examined the idea that they are almost always privileged compared to someone else. many of us do not accept the fact that if "even if" we are black and female that as long as we are feminine-presenting, we have hetero privilege or that if we are black and male and masculine-presenting that we possess hetero privilege. there are layers and twists and turns to privilege, and i think that examining it as it applies to ourselves specifically is really too much for some ppl to handle. turning the microscope on yourself can be hard.

Danny said...

Honestly, I don't know what it is about this issue or the word 'privilege' in general that makes some people fly off the handle and get so defensive.

I think the reason it happens is because of the question, "Who defines what is and is not privilege?" Is the "privilege" in question an unfair and unearned advantage or is it an attempt by the accuser to keep the microscope that sparkle speaks of off of themselves?

Renee said...

Lets just be honest, people don't want to admit that they are benefitting from the maringalization of others. The minute the following come up:
White Privilege
Male Privilege
Hetero Privilege
Class Privilege
Western Privilege
Cis Privilege
People loose their ever loving minds because they don't want to admit that their bodies exist with these things. Yes you may work hard in life to achieve certain things but much of the end result would not be possible without a degree of privilege plain and simple. Just look back through the posts where I attack white privilege, what do I get but commentary that I am hateful to whites and almost everywhere you look whiteness as good and hegemonic manifests itself. This is purposeful obtuse denial to uphold said privilege.

HR Wench said...

Fantastic post - gave me something to think about & write about. Thanks!

The Link Back Project said...

AMEN! Great Post! Bravo! Huzzah!

vicwelle said...

Excellent post. Thank you, and thank you Renee for hosting the guest post.