Thursday, 7 September 2017

Privilege and Being An Ally

Over the last few weeks, there's been a lot of discussions in various forums about diversity and the challenges that people still face due to skin colour, their gender, their sexuality and all kinds of other factors.  People have shared some heart-rending stories and while there's been a lot of support, there's also been a lot of people getting offended at the implication that they (and the culture at large) has a bias.

Recently, I failed to catch an opportunity to be a proper ally.  A friend of mine made a comment dismissing the experience of another friend of mine and I didn't hear it in the moment.  As a result, the second friend felt very uncomfortable and decided not to participate in a future event.  I feel incredibly guilty that it happened while I was there and that I didn't say anything, leaving the second friend feeling isolated and exposed.

So I want to take the opportunity here to share a couple of thoughts on privilege and how to be a good ally.  

First off, let's look at a common misconception, that privilege is the result of having things given to you rather than earning them.  The idea that someone hasn't earned his or her achievements strikes close to home for most, which tends to make them defensive.  But the truth of the situation is that we all have advantages that we haven't "earned" except by being born in the right time and place.  For example, if I'd have been born a hundred years ago, as a woman, I wouldn't have had the vote, the right to earn my own money or own property, or have a voice in whether or not to keep my children (that was all the husband's choice).

Privilege doesn't mean that someone hasn't worked hard for what he or she has accomplished.  But it means that the path has been easier than it might have been due to the efforts of previous generations.  The suffragettes of the past fought hard so that I could have the vote and be considered an equal partner in my marriage.  Other revolutionaries fought hard so that my family's income and social class didn't determine my life path.  Those are some of the privileges  I earned by the luck of birth.  Others come from meeting society's expectations, again in ways I had no control over, such as being cis, hetero and middle-class.

Second misconception: that privilege only comes into play when dealing with bigots.  This is a harder one for people to grasp.  But we're all subject to unconscious biases.  The good news is that if we are aware of them, we can overcome them.  But first of all, we have to acknowledge that even with the best of intentions, we are going to be subconsciously perpetuating the status quo.

That leads into the next half of the topic, how to be a better ally.  The first step is acknowledging that those who have a position of privilege can not understand how daily life is for those who don't.  That's why it's important to listen to those who are affected and not dismiss what they have to say, even if it's surprising or now how we think the world works (or ought to work).  

The next step is preparing to be an active ally.  Each person has to decide how comfortable they are with confrontation.  Are you comfortable speaking up?  Physically stepping in?  Decide that in advance and then be prepared to take the actions you've decided you're comfortable with.  I'm a talker and a debater, especially in friend groups, so I'm usually happy to talk someone's ear off.  I try to research different points of view and then share what I've found.  But even a simple statement like "I don't think that's true" can be helpful in making sure that people don't feel stranded and alone.

There was a great metaphor being passed around.  Opportunity is like a shopping mall.  There are many different stores and there's no guarantee that your store will succeed, so people have to work hard.  But some communities have roads to get to the mall and some don't.  Those of us who have access to the mall owe it to the others to help them to get access too, because others in the past helped us to get access.  Once the road is laid, then everyone benefits from the increased traffic.

I hope this post has made people think and raised the level of awareness.  Because I believe that we can make this world into the kind of world it ought to be.

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