This is a common gripe but it’s come up in conversation a few times with allies this week, so here we go. Reaching out to an underprivileged community as an ally means a person recognises a few things. It means they see that the underprivileged group is getting a raw deal. It means they believe that it’s wrong. It means that they want to do what they can to give the underprivileged group a fair shot. It also means they recognise their relative privilege.
We all belong to a complex combination of groups that have varying amounts of privilege that come with it. Looking at myself, I’m an educated white woman. I’m working class but come from an academic/middle class background. I’m transgender, cis- passing, bisexual, homoromantic, and in a lesbian relationship. Each of these things mean I have advantages and disadvantages that are beyond my control. The amount of disadvantage changes from setting to setting; a full analysis of my personal privilege is beyond the scope of this column. But for the sake of argument, let’s do a back-of-the-napkin breakdown.
"TRANSGENDER, BISEXUAL, WOMAN, LESBIAN RELATIONSHIP: ALL DISADVANTAGING QUALITIES."
Transgender, bisexual, woman, lesbian relationship: all disadvantaging qualities. In these ways, I’m quite underprivileged and my life is more difficult because of them. None of these factors are things I can control, not even the lesbian relationship part. I met a woman by chance, fell in love by chance, and I’m sticking with her because she’s who I love. I didn’t go out there and try to find a person that would advantage me (some do). But whatever the cause, these things are not so good for me and make life measurably more difficult. I deserve more consideration from government and society because of these things.
My advantages? White, educated, cis- passing. These things make my life easier. A person who wasn’t those things in my exact given circumstances would have a much harder time and it isn’t because they did anything to somehow make their lives more difficult. I deserve less consideration because of these traits; I did nothing for them and I have more because of them.
Allies love to acknowledge their privilege, but sometimes like to say how they don’t apologise for that and occasionally will make remarks about how they don’t deserve less for their privilege because they did nothing to hurt anyone. It’s an ‘allyish’ thing to do. It essentially says, “I know I’m privileged, but I deserve it.”
Privilege is nobody’s fault and also everybody’s fault. Nobody does anything to get privilege; it’s created by everyone around them. There is a web of assumption surrounding us all that everyone at every level of society uses to decide how we will be treated. All of humanity is complicit, yet none of humanity is individually responsible for privilege. It’s a systemic phenomenon that we all participate in because it’s what we know and culturally how we’re brought up. Often, people aren’t making active decisions and most folks don’t really want it to be like that, but it’s built into the culture and difficult to separate out. The only practical solution anyone has found to combat this is to create systems that give those who are underprivileged more to work with than those who are privileged.
This is not a punishment, but some folks see it that way. And for an ally to see it that way is “‘allyish” behaviour. The most ‘allyish’ allies will extend their hand with their privilege held close. But here’s the thing: there is only so much consideration to go around. Giving certain groups more automatically means other groups get less. That’s not how I want it to be, that’s just life. And if getting less consideration for the sake of an equitable solution is called punishment by an ally, well, they’re not really an ally.
Another strange ‘allyish’ streak I’ve encountered lately is the ally that recognises that the group is being systematically oppressed, but doesn’t also acknowledge that they are being elevated by the exact same oppressive system. You don’t have to be transphobic to benefit from transphobia. You don’t have to be racist to benefit from racism. The same goes for sexism, homophobia and religious hatred. These are systemic social problems that benefit everyone on the receiving end of the system, whether they are bigots or not.
"THE ONLY GOOD USE OF PRIVILEGE IS TO UNDERMINE IT."
And what is up with the noblesse oblige attitude? It’s condescending, it’s elitist, and most importantly it doesn’t work to fight oppression. So many ‘allyish’ allies turn around and say they want to use their privilege for good. The only good use of privilege is to undermine it. The Victorian notion of the wealthy philanthropist was a resounding failure. It elevated only those within the individual’s reach and then only those that benefited the wealthy. We like to remember the towns and schools built by mill owners, we don’t often remember the workhouses or debtors prisons. It didn’t stop abject poverty or oppression of the poor then and it won’t cure systemic oppression of underprivileged groups now.
So what do allies do to actually support the people they reach out to? Reaching out at all is a start, and we can’t underestimate the strength it takes to approach an oppressed group as an outsider. Once contact is made, it’s not enough to pat people on the back for enduring. That we have to endure is exactly the problem! Get involved. Serve tea at the support group. Go march. Volunteer. Whatever you want to do. Just don’t turn around and tell us that you deserve to be privileged in whatever indirect way. Honestly, sometimes the best thing an ally can do is just not talk. Listen, learn, understand. Usually all I want in an ally is someone to not tell me what my problem is, what I should do about it, or how much they deserve.
Recognising privilege is not apologising for it. Setting up systems that give more to those with less is not punishment, even if those systems inevitably come at a cost to those who have more. Saying that you won’t apologise and you don’t deserve less does not support the people you claim to be allied with. Claiming to act out of a sense of philanthropy isn’t charity, it’s ego. Don’t do it. But rule number one is to understand that your privilege does actually mean you deserve less.