Cultural Awareness: What Allies Do With Privilege

Often the most ardent spokespeople for valuing diversity and creating equity in our systems also possess a determination that is rooted in wanting to help “those disenfranchised people”, or “that marginalized group.” The assumption is that “those ____ people” (fill in the blank: Black, Asian, Gay, differently-abled, etc.) need “our” help.

With all of the best intentions, this perspective—and often the associated “advocacy”—is not the real work of allies, even though it may make us feel like we are.

Think about the last time you were in a meeting and witnessed a person’s contributions being overlooked by those in power at the table. Or listened on as colleagues belittled a colleague who is different from you and them. Or saw a social media post from one of your “friends” that was clearly meant to put down members of another group or with different life experiences.

Then you, because the comments or behaviors are inconsistent with your values, go directly to the person or group that was the target of the offense, and quietly express your support for them.

Though this may be important for your conscience, it is not what allies do.

Allies speak up.
Allies are people who are deeply invested in ending oppression in all forms, not on behalf of another group but side by side with them. They know that members or target groups are not waiting for the approval of the non-target groups to be seen, heard, and recognized.

Allies are comfortable with their own cultural awareness and identities, including the areas of privilege. They know that privilege is unearned and gives them unfair access to certain groups, perspectives, and resources.

Rather than their privilege being a badge of shame, it is an opportunity for creating inroads, educating, and building bridges.

Allies also know that the work of ending oppression cannot be left solely to the oppressed. White people cannot expect brown and black people alone to end racism. Men cannot expect women to end sexism. People who are part of the LGBTQ communities cannot end homophobia. Children alone cannot end child abuse.

Understanding the dynamics of power, and that power is present in every human interaction, allows allies to fully engage their privilege without shame.

Most people have areas of privilege.
Straight people have privilege in a world that is filled with homophobia. White people have privilege in a world filled with racism and racist acts. Well-off people have privilege in a world that is deeply divided by socioeconomic status. Able-bodied people have privilege in a world that judges and is difficult to navigate while differently-abled. Adults have privilege in a world that minimizes the voices and contributions of young people.

Christians have privilege in the U.S., a country that celebrates major Christian holidays and integrates religious dogma even into systems and structures that purport to be secular, and where people who are of different faiths are often ostracized. Managers and people with formal leadership roles have privilege in your organizations where the vast majority of employees do not have formal power.  The list goes on and on.

Do not let reflections on your areas of privilege devolve into feeling guilt.
Guilt is a terrible drain on energy, and our world needs all the energetic and committed allies it can get. A more useful way to think about your privilege might be gleaned from how I approach this topic with my son (he’s 9).

What I say to him is:
Privilege is something to use to help people. Having privilege is like a superpower, like Spider Man. And with great power comes great responsibility. That’s our work, to be responsible with our privilege.

Reflect on your own cultural awareness and areas of privilege and ask yourself if you are exercising your superpower responsibly and if not what steps need to be taken to start doing something.

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