Privilege And Social Identity: Getting Real

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GENERATION WAKING UP is a global campaign to ignite a generation of young people to bring forth a thriving, just, sustainable world.

Oakland, CA – Last Fall, I participated in one of the most meaningful educational experiences of my life—a training facilitated by Generation Waking Up. A very diverse group of 25 young adults spent three whole days together examining the major issues of our time and learning enlightening frameworks from which to re-view things like social justice, oppression, and the environment. What made the training go beyond solid curriculum and into actual shifts in our mindsets and hearts was our commitment to working deeply and intimately with ourselves and with each other.

A Generation Waking Up Oakland Training Group

A Generation Waking Up Oakland Training Group

By the middle of the second day, we had shared a lot of our personal stories and often some of the pain that was behind who we are and why we act today. We had built connections and were definitely feeling a great deal of empathy for one another. But I was also starting to wonder what my responsibility was in terms of helping to level out this system of oppression, which hurt so much to realize I was part of.

That’s when we learned about the concept of “allyship,” or supporting members from a group other than your own social identity. I appreciated the model presented of being an ally as an “action continuum.” This means that there is always a range in which you can be interacting with systemic oppression, at the very bottom being “supporting oppression” and at the top being “confronting oppression.”

1wup1To make this concept tangible and not just cerebral, the perfect activity came along—one that I found much more unique, direct and authentic than most other activities I’ve ever seen in “diversity trainings”. We held an “Ally Panel,” in which members of particular social identity groups got the opportunity to sit in front of the group and share what they wanted their allies to know and what they respectfully requested their allies do and not do. I was so struck from the power of this activity, because it taught that we are all oppressed in some ways and have many opportunities to be allies in other ways. I knew I had to share this valuable information with others—many who genuinely want to learn and support members of other groups, but are often too afraid to ask and participate in the conversation.

“Privilege is complex…”

What is privilege? Can it be defined?
“In a recent video posted by Buzzfeed, young people are asked a series of questions and then told to either step forward or backward if the question applies to them. The questions were based on an exercise created by social activists Margo Adair and Sharon Howell.

Each question asks the participants whether or not they enjoy certain privileges or endure different disadvantages.

‘I think when you can represent it visually like this and so immediately, it definitely takes a new form,’ said one of the participants.
Watch the video below to see what happened.” (via Huffington Post):

The fellow participants were voicing their own personal experiences and not necessarily speaking for everyone with the same social identity. That being understood, here’s what was requested of allies:

From Low-income/Poor Folks:

  • Don’t commodify our struggles or turn poverty into a trend.
  • If you have more money than me, don’t assume you shouldn’t invite me to group activities that involve spending money. Sometimes I have a fun-day fund.
  • Help support stable housing for us.
  • Know that there is a lot of shame associated with being poor. Children have it especially hard with their peers, so if you are an educator or work with youth, step in and stop kids from being picked on.
  • To the government: It is essential to provide comprehensive services to all low-income youth, not just to foster children.
  • We are not poor because our mothers and fathers weren’t hard workers. Two minimum wage jobs were still not enough.

From LGBTQ Folks:

  • I feel a deep, playful curiosity with my sexuality. I’m working hard to release the shame society’s given me for being a sexual being.
  • I often feel unsafe to be in my own body and receive unwanted male attention.
  • I want more explicitly stated safe spaces.
  • Don’t assume anyone’s sexuality.
  • I’m tired of being put in a box, being judged, and told- “But you don’t look gay.”
  • It feels disrespectful and unsafe when heterosexual men randomly suggest a threesome with gay women.
  • I want to be seen, not just tolerated.
  • I want people to ask me normal questions about my couples story, not pretend like they’re just a friend.
  • Lots of trauma can come with being queer, so it’s hard to talk about. But genuine curiosity is appreciated.
  • I want everyone to know that this country was also built on the backs of queer people and leaders. They are an essential part of history.
  • It is never OK to call someone gay as a joke or to say “that’s so gay.” That associates gayness with weirdness. Please speak up if you hear this. True allies will interrupt oppressive talk before it gets to a gay person.
  • Let children decide how they identify before insisting on “boy” or “girl.”
  • Allow children to be safely sexual.
  • I want a society where we can all talk openly about our bodies.
  • I want to not wear a bra.
  • I want to see children’s books illustrating all kinds of families.

From Women-Identified People to Male Allies:

  • Use your power well.
  • Be aware of your space and voice around others. How much are you taking up, and is it at the expense of women’s participation?
  • Advocate for female leadership! Our world desperately needs it.
  • Breast feeding is a sacred act.
  • Brothers- be aware of how women are being treated (i.e. Is another man introducing them by only first name rather than last, or touching them without permission?)
  • Don’t call women crazy or cute because they’re showing emotion.
  • Raising my voice doesn’t mean I’m angry.
  • Race has a lot to do with the female experience (i.e. Women of color are treated markedly differently than white women, although both face oppression).
  • Deal with your anger. Don’t take it out on us because you feel safe with us.
  • We aren’t meat. We are powerful!
  • Don’t tell me to smile.

From People of Color:

  • Don’t tokenize us.
  • There are cool white folks, and problematic white folks. I don’t want to have to educate either group. It’s the job of the cool ones to educate the problematic ones.
  • There’s too much separation, even in ally communities.
  • Many generations of black men weren’t allowed to be fathers. Now, we have to relearn how to do this.
  • Schools don’t educate well on slavery. We need to discuss it so people understand the collective trauma.
  • There’s a lot of rich history of Africans before slavery. It needs to be taught.
  • Don’t whitewash our ancestors (i.e. Cleopatra wasn’t European!)
  • There are spaces where I don’t yet feel comfortable and I get triggered, such as in a yoga class full of white women. Please be compassionate with me as I’m trying.
  • Don’t flinch or grab your bag when you see a person of color. It’s obvious.
  • Don’t try to emulate the bad behaviors of “gangstas.” Don’t watch BET or MTV because its not reality and sends a lot of harmful messages.
  • Don’t talk differently around us to try and fit in. It’s obvious. (i.e. “Hey brotha!”)
  • If you are in the position to employ a person of color you like, but they don’t have the required education, give them a chance.
  • Don’t feel sympathetic all the time. It doesn’t make a difference without action.
  • Part of white privilege is not having to examine your ancestry.

1wup2You’ve probably heard many of these things before. They’re not that radical, and they don’t represent every member of those groups. It’s just a new way to frame these issues—because no longer are there faceless people yelling at you to be “politically correct”—they’re real live folks who I came to love and deeply respect, sharing what they personally experience in the current systems of oppression and how we as allies can make a difference.

As I (and you) mull over this information and allow it to sink in and hopefully be internalized, I want to remind us that no one is perfect and we’re all going to make mistakes. But don’t worry- just keep learning and participating in the conversation. My goal is to actively participate in the prevention of oppression, and I hope you’ll join me!

Eva Orbuch is a teacher and community organizer who recently attended GenUp’s Oakland Leadership Training. Eva’s reflection was originally posted on her blog, under the title, Advice to Allies

See more at Generation Waking Up

  • Tyler

    Lame. Did anyone talk about anything bigger than individual personal interactions? The idea that any individual is an expert on the struggle for black liberation or women’s liberation or gay liberation just by virtue of identifying with that identity is a really bad idea, it’s like an anti-idea. Not to mention it can be very tokenizing and uncomfortable. The idea that struggles for liberation are literally about doing a favor for an individual is just not the point. It’s like I don’t know where to begin, life isn’t a big college dorm.