Dear Emerging Ally,
So I wanted to take a moment to talk about privilege. It's a hard discussion. So I apologize ahead of time as I will probably say something wrong. I just know this was a difficult concept for me to understand. But once I realized it I started to begin to understand the issues underrepresented people face. And hopefully I became a better ally.
Privilege is a tough thing to grasp. Particularly for those who have it. It’s tough to see the world from the outside if you’ve never left the house. The elements of privilege seem normal parts of everyday life so it’s hard to see them as special. They seem normal so the assumption is it’s the same for everyone. Part of allyship is learning that it’s not the same. Pulling the curtains back on your assumptions - the assumptions that you have probably grown up with.
This is the hard part of listening. What’s normal to you is suddenly revealed as not. The universality of your worldview is shaken. Your view of a speeding ticket is suddenly not the same as others. (I still remember a traffic stop with a friend in the car who after said he was thankful I was there because I was white.) The late night walk from the bus is viewed differently. As you listen you need to internalize that. What you hear is not wrong. It is not to be challenged. It is a reality just perhaps not yours. That is why you listen. To learn. To understand. To grow. Without that growth you can’t help.
Privilege is emotional to admit. If I have gotten my success because of my race or gender doesn’t that necessarily undermine my own efforts? Everyone likes an underdog story and we are all the hero of our own. So to admit to the advantages of privilege pokes a hole in that balloon. And that’s hard to take so we often mentally brush that reality aside in favor of a more pleasing narrative where we rise on our own merits.
Each of us has overcome things and faced challenges. There is pride in that. And there should be. But we need to recognize that the hurdles others face are higher. To achieve your level of success others will have had to accomplish more. That doesn’t diminish your success. It’s not a competition. It’s a reflection of reality. A reality that has always existed. It’s only been recently revealed.
Privilege is also a tool. It allows you to insert yourself as an ally to benefit others. It puts you in situations where you can advocate. The rooms others are not in. It is powerful tool when discussing issues. People react differently for white men. When I bring up diversity issues the response is taken seriously. It gives cover for those in disenfranchised groups. Helps bolster their point of view. Just remember not to take credit.
Credit is a huge issue here. When you repeat or emphasize a point from someone in the minority others may try to give you credit and ignore the originator. You need to deflect that credit back to the originator. You will have to work at this! It may surprise you how hard you have to work to push that credit back. Non-diverse organizations will have a tendency to force the credit back on you as the culture is geared towards giving white males credit for everything. I have had to go back into offices repeatedly after meetings to remind people that “no it was not my idea”. But if you let the credit remain on you it will undermine you. You will be perceived as yet another white person taking credit for someone else’s work. Your allyship will be for naught.
Using your privilege as an ally is most important when a problematic comment is made. Even when the subject(s) of the comment is not there.
The first time this happened I didn’t know what to do. A closed door. The meeting was ending. A risqué joke. Problematic comment. Folks laughed. I smiled politely - peer pressure is a horrible thing. I left as quickly as possible. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was in effect a test. Those making the joke were seeing if I was “safe”. The group later came to my cube. While I liked the attention I didn’t like the context. It started to identify me with the group. Create an unwanted reputation. I later went over and privately said I didn’t like that humor and would appreciate not having comments like that said around me.
It was hard. It put me in between groups at the office. I wasn’t as welcome with the jokers. But I wasn’t yet perceived as an ally because of my association with those same jokers. That's the thing. Whether its behind a closed door or not everyone knows what is said in the office - closed door or not. Think about it. You know everyone’s favorite sports teams even if they don’t tell you. You see signs. Others tell you. The same is true for allyship - people will know.
I didn’t make a public show of it. A few private conversations with offenders. A quick comment to support someone. “Hey, not cool”, “Just stop - I don’t like this” was all it took. No grandstanding.
Also I made the issue around me. “That insults me” - and it did. That is also important. It puts me at the center. It moves the conversation to me and away from the original intended party. It puts my privilege in play as a shield.
As I said it was hard… but it was necessary. And it proved incredibly beneficial in the long run. People began to understand that those comments were not accepted around me. It began to create a virtual “safe zone” around me. And people began to gravitate to that safe zone. I couldn’t change the entire corporate culture but I could change the immediate area around me. The more I emphasized I didn’t like that behavior the easier it became and the more trust increased. And I would get support. I got allies. I got mentors. And those allies and mentors created a network. Both within and outside company. Even helping when I faced layoffs - for which I am forever thankful.
It also had an interesting broader effect. I began to build a broader level of trust. People even outside that “safe zone” so to speak. I would get comments like “I would want my daughter to report to you”. People also began to trust what I said from a business perspective. If I was leading a project my status read outs would get a little challenge but not as much as others. I don’t really know why. My guess is that word got around that if I was willing to take those tough stands to create a safe zone, a simple project status could be trusted.
Do I want privilege? No. But if I have it I should use it to help others.
As always I hope this helps. I look forward to future conversations. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.