How to check your privilege: some thoughts on allyship, intersectionality and privilege

I’m a queer, white, cisgender, middle-class, able-bodied woman. I grew up in a city (and country) where whiteness is considered normal (and therefore neutral). I experience my gender the way my gender was assigned at birth. I’m bisexual but I pass as heterosexual because I have a boyfriend. I fit into the size bracket considered a ‘healthy’ weight. I have had access to high quality education that has not left me with unmanageable debt. My parents support me financially when I need help. My family support my choices.

I list these identities not by way of introduction but to outline my privilege, for these are ways that I am privileged. Privilege is identifying with the majority, or what’s considered mainstream, normal, and even neutral (e.g. white, heterosexual, cisgender in the UK). My life is full of privilege in so many ways. That’s the position I come from as I interrogate questions surrounding gender and sexuality.

My feminism will always come from a position of privilege, of the specific privilege of the life that I live. I will never know how it feels to be otherwise. I will never understand what it means being black, asian, an ethnic minority, trans, working class, or any of the protected characteristics (outlined by the 2010 UK Equality Act as: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation). I will never fully understand how it feels to live life without the specific privileges that make up my life. What I can and will do is check my privilege, ie. educate myself about how my life is easier because of the privilege I have.

Privilege can be a difficult thing to come to terms with. People get defensive when told they’re part of a privileged social group. White people, during upsurge in the BLM movement, may feel that they’re being accused of privilege. I think maybe it’s a natural human reaction to get defensive when told that you’re privileged. But I don’t think that’s a good reason to shut down a conversation about any minority identity or protected characteristic.

statements people make to avoid conversations about privilege:

“I’m [insert privileged identity] but I [insert tangential relationship to minority group] so I can’t be [insert anti-minority or discriminatory identity].”

  • I’m white, but I’m working class so I can’t be privileged.
  • I’m heterosexual, but I have gay friends so I can’t be homophobic.
  • I’m able-bodied, but I have a family member with a disability so I can’t be ableist.
  • I’m cisgender, but I know a transgender person so I can’t be transphobic.
  • I’m upper-/middle-class, but I have working class friends so I can’t be classist.
  • I’m white, but I have black friends so I can’t be racist.

If you catch yourself making statements like this, then you’re likely trying to exclude yourself from a conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable. You may be trying to claim existing knowledge about the issue, or attempting to prove you no longer need any education on it. This defensive reaction is part of what sociologist Robin DiAngelo calls white fragility.

Know that nobody is accusing you of being entirely culpable for all racism, classism, homophobia, or transphobia. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t benefit from a conversation about how to be a better ally.

These excuses come in many forms, but it boils down to trying to prove that this issue is not relevant to you, to get out of having to address the problem. I urge you to assume that the conversation is about you, that you do experience some form of privilege, and to think about how this privilege has made your life different to people without that privilege.

There are many different forms of privilege. One of the many privileges I hold is white privilege: because I am white, I have never experienced discrimination on the basis of my skin colour; I see people who look like me (white) represented across a variety of media; I have never experienced racism. White privilege is the absence of racism in my life.

Checking your privilege doesn’t necessarily mean admitting that you are racist, homophobic, sexist, classist and so on. Nor does it mean that the hardships that you do experience in your life are less valid. What it does mean is recognising the absences in your life of discrimination stemming specifically from your race, sexuality, gender, sex, age, ability, class or other marginalised identity.

If you find this difficult, it may help to start by thinking about spared injustice. Instead of trying to find advantages you’ve gained through privilege (as the word privilege would imply), try to think of situations in which you are ‘spared injustice’, whether physical, verbal, sexual or emotional injustices. If you’re heterosexual, you’ve likely been spared the injustice of homophobic attacks. If you’re able-bodied, you’ve probably been spared the injustice of being subject to disability hate incidents. Those attacks would have made your life harder than it already is. By avoiding these attacks because they don’t apply to you, your life has been made that bit easier.

Chart-topping black British author Reni Eddo-Lodge describes it like this:

To some, the word ‘privilege’ in the context of whiteness invokes images of a life lived in the lap of luxury, enjoying the spoils of the super-rich. When I talk about white privilege, I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (p. 87)

Once you’ve recognised that the avoidance of discrimination has made your life easier, you should be able to view the injustices you’ve been spared as advantages. Not having to fight discrimination has allowed you to put your energy into other things. That energy has given you the competitive edge over those stuck battling discrimination, whether it is in the workplace, in education, or in other aspects of life. You have in your life benefited from systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism transphobia, and more, simply because you have been spared the injustices of discrimination that our political and social systems perpetuate.

Checking your privilege allows you to understand the various ways that you’ve been spared injustice or avoided discrimination.

I’d like to call you in to this conversation by inviting you to check your privilege (or, analyse the injustices you’ve been spared). Educate yourself: don’t expect marginalised people to explain their oppression to you. Download the attached quiz and complete it honestly, in a space where you feel safe, without passing judgement. Do the work; you might be surprised at what you find out.

What you might find out:

Unlikely: you’ve been spared all injustice and are 100% privileged

Uncommon: you’ve been spared no injustice and are 0% privileged

Most likely: you’ve been spared some injustices but also experienced some injustices, so fall somewhere in the region of 1-99% privileged. Most people have experienced some kind of discrimination in their lives

Why?

Injustices are not mutually exclusive: an individual can experience sexism and racism; transphobia and ableism. The protected characteristics exist simultaneously, they do not cancel each other out, and one person can hold several protected characteristics. Holding one of these identities often results in facing discrimination, but holding several increases the likelihood of discrimination and oppression. This understanding underpins intersectional theory.

Intersectional theory recognises that each individual person has multiple categories of identity (or protected characteristics) and that these categories interact to form greater levels of oppression. A black woman is subjected to greater levels of oppression than either a black man or a white woman. This is because she experiences sexism and racism, whereas the black man faces racism but not sexism, and the white woman faces sexism but not racism. When multiple identities intersect, the likelihood of discrimination increases exponentially. They build up in layers, so the more intersecting identities a person holds, the more discrimination and oppression they face.

Feminism is not feminism without intersectionality. Standing up for women’s rights means nothing if we’re not standing up for every woman’s rights, whether she’s a person of colour, a transgender person, a person with a disability, a queer person, or any combination of protected characteristics.  

Allyship starts with checking your privilege so you can begin to understand how our social and political systems perpetuate discrimination and oppression. Allyship involves recognising that marginalised people experience discrimination for multiple intersecting identities. Allyship means listening to and learning from the conversation about oppression, rather than excluding yourself from the dialogue.

Allyship ultimately means using your privilege to fight with and for people who experience discrimination and oppression. How? Using your sphere of influence, using your voice, using your vote, using your money to amplify their voices and support their causes.


Read on

Rachel Cargle, ‘What is Toxic White Feminism? When feminism is White Supremacy in Heels’ Harpers Bazaar

Robin DiAngelo, ‘We have to stop thinking about racism as someone who says the N-word’ Guardian

‘Reni Eddo-Lodge becomes first black British author to top UK book charts’ Guardian

Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, London: Bloomsbury 2017 Amazon

Moral Maze, Racial Justice, Michael Buerk with Nesrine Malik, Nazir Afzal, Matthew Taylor and Melanie Philips BBC Radio 4

The resource(s) attached to this post is free to download. You can download more on the resources page. If you enjoy using these, please consider making a donation via Patreon.

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