Understanding your privilege is often cited as a first and fundamental step in becoming an ally. Here’s what that actually means.

☝️ Accept it

We love how Franchesca Ramsey, comedian, activist and YouTube personality, talks about privilege.

A lot of people get hung up on the word privilege. So, let me break it down for you nice and easy. Privilege does not mean that you are rich, that you’ve had an easy life, that everything has been handed to you and you’ve never had to struggle or work hard. All it means is that there are some things in life that you will not experience or ever have to think about just because of who you are. 

It’s kind of like those horses that have those blinders on. They can see just fine, there’s just a whole bunch of stuff on the side that they don’t even know exists. 

For example, there are currently 29 states where you can legally be fired for being gay. There are 34 states where you can legally be fired for being trans. Now, as a straight cis woman, those are things I don’t ever have to think about if I don’t want to. I’m not going to be fired because I’m straight and I’m not going to be fired because I’m cis. So, it makes sense that before I can fight for the rights of others, I have to understand what rights I have and others don’t.

So, don’t think about your privilege as something to be guilty or hung up about. Just accept that people have it differently. We bet you have had a moment in your life when somebody seemed oblivious to your personal struggle and wished they had seen it more objectively.

Franchesca Ramsey in her YouTube video 5 Tips for Being an Ally.

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves!

📝 Checklist your privilege

✅ Accept that not everyone can do the same things as easily and with the same confidence as you.

✅ Think about your blindspots. Some people have worries you have never been personally burdened with so haven’t thought about. What sort of things might these be?

✅ Don’t lose heart and worry you will “never understand”. You absolutely can build empathy and learn about different experiences.

✅ Remember these blindspots when being an ally. Allow others to take the lead on telling those stories and challenge any assumptions you have.

✅ You can’t predict them all. Let a conversation partner point out where you are privileged without feeling like you’ve failed at being an ally. You just learnt something and broadened your world view. Neat.

✅ Ban yourself from giving frustrating advice like, “Why can’t you just…” (unless you are clearly inquiring about the exact difficulties they face that you don’t.)

💡 A top example of frustrating advice is male mentors telling their female mentees to “just be more assertive” to get what they want in the workplace, forgetting how women are penalised for doing just that!

✊ Use it

Privilege is not about feeling guilty for what we have. So, why are we still accountable to use our privilege and be allies?

Because it’s easier for the in-group to make a change. The research backs this up.

  • An academic review found that, when men speak out against sexism, they are taken more seriously, experience less backlash, are not seen as acting in self-interest and are generally more persuasive than women. Dang!

💔 But don’t abuse it!

Allyship might be sounding very heroic and magnanimous so far. But there’s a dark side.

Since fighting for justice is so important and so interesting, many people who want to act as allies actually overstep and do so for social gain.

“Performative” allies act with self-interest, such as wanting to be rewarded for being compassionate, progressive or intellectual.

In other instances, badly-behaved allies absorb the negative emotions of the situation or become guilty and grow visibly upset, angry or outspoken. The social gain here is that they become centre of attention!

Making a conversation that should be about other people’s issues about you is known as ‘centring yourself’. Here’s how to avoid it:

    • Don’t talk for too long. Say enough to get the point across and tee up someone else to say their piece.
    • Be humble. If you do receive a compliment about your allyship, be positive and say it’s the least you could do and we’re all still learning.
    • If you feel yourself getting upset, quietly excuse yourself. If someone rushes to comfort you, tell them that’s not what is important and you want everyone to focus on what is important.

🌡️ Poll time

Have you ever experienced a conversation partner "centre" themselves when you have been trying to talk about your issues or be vulnerable?

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Your emotions are real and you should consult them and value them! After all, they are the tools of empathy and expression. But be mindful and process strong emotions away from the conversation so that you don’t make things all about you.

👀 Did you know?

The phrase “white women’s tears” refers to white women getting flustered and crying during conversations about racism and race privilege.

Deliberately or not, this puts them at the centre of attention. This can take away from someone or some issue that needs to be heard at that point.

You might think crying is extreme, but even theatrical gasping or interjections can have the centring effect.

In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo offers a process for a white person when confronted for a racist-like behaviour, so that they don’t let their emotions cloud their fairness.

Remembering your privilege as an ally — whether you are being “confronted” or not — means noticing your emotions and making sure you express them wisely so it doesn’t become all about you.

  • 1️⃣ Identify your emotions in the moment (hot tip: stop and breathe).Look out for feeling:indignant (“I would never!”)
    upset (“You POOR thing!”)
    angry (“The injustice! I’ll fight for you!)
    guilty (“I am sooo sorry I have had it so easy.”)
  • 2️⃣ Identify if expressing your emotions in the moment might reinforce the problem or derail the conversation. Sometimes, especially in small groups, it’s fine or helpful to show how you feel so read the situation carefully.
  • 3️⃣ Keep listening and politely excuse yourself (or simply keep your mouth zipped) if necessary.
  • 4️⃣ After the event, process the emotion with a person from your group (such as a fellow ally), through reflection or through journaling.

🗝️ Your key takeaway

Accepting your privilege can be mind-bending but it is so worth it! If you are in a privileged position and advocate for an underrepresented group, you not only have less to lose, but you have the power to make some gains. Use privilege wisely for top results; accept it, use it, but don’t abuse it.

📺 Further watching

Need further grounding in how you can understand your privilege? Watch Franchesca Ramsey’s great video in full right here.

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