Privilege and Allyship: What They Look Like, and What You Can Do

Stephen Dann
Stephen Dann

By the Adios Barbie team

Privilege. A hard thing to accept, let alone leverage in productive ways. But with intersectional feminism as a core tenet of Adios Barbie, it’s something we’re always thinking about — and always working to improve.

Because “checking your privilege” isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a constant process of learning, making mistakes, owning up to them, and trying again.

The Adios Barbie staff recently sat down for a round-table discussion on what privilege is, where it shows up, and what it looks like to constantly challenge ourselves to do — and be — better. Our conversation was difficult at times, but always valuable, and we hope it sparks a similar discussion within your circle.

Happy reading — and happy smashing the white-supremist-cis-hetero-patriarchy!

— Allison Epstein, co-editor

Caryn Rubanovich, social media manager: Privilege can be a tricky thing to identify, because it can be invisible to the very person who benefits from it. Since we’re often unaware of our own privilege (or privileges!), it’s difficult to challenge it.

Pia Guerrero, founder and editor: Exactly. I define privilege as a literal blind spot — something you just can’t see. And you don’t know what you don’t know! It takes practice and courage to examine ways in which you’ve received unearned advantages in society.

Caryn: Was there ever a time you had an “aha!” moment with your privilege? A time where you suddenly saw what you’d been missing?

Jessica Roberts, intern: I grew up in a very conservative Catholic family, and I went on to attend a very Catholic school. While things were better than they could have been for LGBT students at my university, it certainly wasn’t the most receptive place to come out. It was then that I started to see my own privilege around sexual orientation. And I was having a truly difficult time reconciling my Catholicism with my unwavering support for friends, colleagues, and professors I knew were openly not heterosexual.

Allison Epstein, co-editor: I can understand that. It’s hard to accept that the organizations and people most meaningful to us can also be so problematic. What did you end up doing?

Jessica: I decided that it’s my church too! As much as my impulse was to walk away, I could do so much more by staying and working for change from within. I struggle to be both Catholic and feminist, respectful of both the lives of unborn babies and a woman’s valid right to choose what happens to her body. It’s not always easy, but the work is worth it, and I believe it will pay off.

Caryn: Thank you for your honesty, Jessica. Privilege can give us access to spaces that marginalized groups aren’t able to reach — and it’s there that we can do real work within our own communities to open up those spaces.

Janaya Greene, intern: For me, growing up, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a minority. But the older I got, the more it became clear. I’ve been taught not to reach for the glove compartment in the car until you clearly tell police officers that you’re getting insurance papers, so they don’t think you’re grabbing for a weapon … even if they asked you to get the papers in the first place. Or how important it is to straighten my hair for job interviews. Things like that.

Those lessons made it pretty clear to me that there was a certain way I had to act in order to be safe and accepted.

Rosanna Brunwin, intern: I grew up in the UK, so my experience with racial privilege was quite different. In the UK, I think a lot of people pretend that white privilege isn’t a thing, and that race is a non-issue. Although, I mean, 13% of the population voted UKIP (for non-British folks, that’s the United Kingdom Independence Party: a right-wing conservative anti-immigrant political party) in the last election, so obviously racism is a problem. But it’s not something people are comfortable talking about.

Allison: So the “you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge” thing again.

Rosanna: Exactly.

Kate Walford, intern: I had a similar experience growing up. No one really ever preached “color-blindness” to me, but I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be racist or prejudiced, so I sort of adopted that idea. I wasn’t offered any critical ways of thinking about race, and it seemed like the right thing to do was to proclaim I didn’t see people defined by their skin color.

Pia: Many people are taught to think about race — or not think about it — that way. But we have to realize that it isn’t really a productive way to deal with race. It denies that racism exists, and that we have implicit bias or prejudice.

RosannaI did have an epiphany moment of understanding privilege, though. It happened when I came out. I was a white middle-class girl, and while I was very much aware of the racial, social, religious, cultural, and sexual issues beyond my gender, I hadn’t ever experienced what it was like being on the “oppressed” side of the oppressor-oppressed binary. When I came out to my parents six years ago, I wasn’t greeted with the loving, welcoming reception I was hoping for. In fact, they didn’t really accept it for a long time after I came out.

But they’ve come around, with time. No matter how ingrained your prejudices are, you can always be educated, and you can always learn to better yourself.

Caryn: That’s a very powerful story, Rosanna; thank you for feeling comfortable enough to share it with us. Hearing stories like yours gives me hope that people can change their minds on these issues — it drives me to continue doing this work.

Lisbeth Leftwich, intern: It’s really difficult to come to terms with your privilege at first, though, because society’s built on us not doing so. That’s something I realized when I began my first year at USC. It’s an expensive private school right in the middle of the impoverished neighborhood of “South Central” LA. I tutored a group of children in the city.

When I got back from a really long day of working with these awesome, wildly intelligent, and often negatively stereotyped kids — who had talked at length about what it was like living in a neighborhood where everyone knew exactly how many sex offenders were on their street — I was welcomed by my roommate who had had “the worst day ever” just because she had to wait several hours to be initiated by her sorority.

It made me realize that our school was a system that actively worked to keep the privileged from having second thoughts about their lives and their own privilege, and I was participating in it.

Pia: Absolutely. The inequities are stark, especially when compared to the amount of privilege that comes with having financial access to higher education.

Lisbeth: It can be really unnerving and challenging to have to confront privilege, and can bring up a lot of denial, guilt, and shame. For me, after that moment of cognitive dissonance, the more important question becomes: What do I do with my privilege?

Allison: Having privilege in and of itself isn’t your fault. It doesn’t erase the ways you’ve genuinely suffered in your life, and you can’t help the situation you were born into. But you can help how you leverage that privilege. Are you using it to make a difference and reduce your own negative impact on others? Or are you closing your eyes and pretending it isn’t real? That’s the real question.

Caryn: That’s not to say that it’s easy. In the spirit of intersectionality, I also want to mention that we can have privilege with certain identities, but experience oppression with others. I like to think of my identities as one big pie chart. It’s always 100% me, but depending on where I am or who I’m surrounded by, my pie chart slices shift — certain identities become more salient while others virtually disappear.

What do you struggle with as you work on your allyship? And what have you found important to keep in mind?

Kate: I’ve been volunteering at a community college, and I’ve found it can be incredibly othering to talk about these issues — like we’re talking about marginalized people as though they can’t speak for themselves, or are less capable. I’ve often felt confused about how to interact with individuals I work with in an understanding way, especially when I completely lack understanding.

Jessica: My struggle is somewhat similar. I grapple with entering a dialogue or space that’s not mine — wanting to be an ally, but without co-opting or occupying a space that should be dominated by a community’s own voices and wisdom.

In my work with Alzheimer’s prevention and caregiving, I try to do this by donating my money, my time, and my voice to raise awareness. I don’t try to flaunt my allyship by wearing cause-colored bracelets or expecting praise for my work. Allyship is an action, not an identity. It’s not something you can put on. It’s something you have to commit to beyond talk.

Janaya: When I understood my privilege as a straight / hetero person, that realization led me to write a short story — that later got turned into a film — about a lesbian couple in high school. Once I got really into activism and social justice, I felt sooo bad! I wondered if I was taking someone else’s spot, or if people in the LGBTQ community would be upset that I was a straight person writing about a gay couple.

But what I found was that the people in the LGBTQ community I heard feedback from were happy with what I’d done. First, they were happy that I’d written something in the hopes of changing people’s minds and fighting prejudice. Also, I’d spoken with many gay people before the movie was released to see if they found anything offensive or unsettling in the story before I went ahead with it.

I think that’s really important with allyship. To always listen, and not to deny anyone’s feelings. Everyone is entitled to their feelings, no matter if you disagree or not. After you’ve listened, you just have to implement what you’ve learned with others.

Allison: That’s such a valuable point. There’s this unfortunate tendency for us as allies to speak for (and over) the communities we want to amplify — because privilege teaches us that our voices deserve to be louder than marginalized groups.

Pia: Those with privilege are told that we know best … and that these groups need our help. It’s not surprising how many movies, books, and TV shows feature the white savior trope, with this idea in mind.

Janaya: With allyship, I always think we should have open ears, be willing to learn, and remember that the issue isn’t about you. It’s about helping to amplify the voices of those who identify with an under-privileged group. It’s about putting your privilege to good use.

Rosanna: I’ve seen firsthand how using privilege properly can help people change their minds. Which makes it so important to educate people, starting with ourselves. As an ally, we have a duty to call stuff out and offer a new perspective on things. It’s not the responsibility of members of a marginalized group to educate everyone in the world about their situation.

Lisbeth: I try at the very least to stay awake to my privilege and the way it affects any dynamic I’m a part of. For example, I recently got into a discussion about the social construct of virginity with a group of friends, and one of the men in the group began talking over everyone else until his was the only voice that could be heard – even though women in the group had actual experience with the pressure of staying “pure” and the policing of our sexuality.

It’s difficult to be the right kind of ally when society has always taught you to take a leadership role in every group situation. It’s hard to see the privilege you have, because there are so many structures in place to make you comfortable with your position in society.

Stepping back and letting someone else describe their own experiences can be difficult and humbling when you have knowledge you want to share, but it’s also one of the most important parts of being an ally.

Allison: I love that, Lisbeth — “stay awake to your privilege.” It hurts to be aware of injustice, and sometimes it feels like it hurts more to be aware when people around you are still asleep. It can feel easier not to think about privilege and activism and the negative impact our presence can have, especially when we genuinely believe in justice. But no one ever said activism was going to be easy.

Pia: You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge (or see, for that matter). At Adios Barbie, we strongly believe that prejudice and bias will only disappear when we explore and own our privilege. This is crucial — and it’s how we learn to be better advocates for social justice. If we want a fair and just society, we must identify that we are privileged on a daily basis and work to change the inequities that exist in society from that place. It’s an ongoing journey of self-exploration, generosity, and — most importantly — courage.

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