How to Start Using Your Privilege by a Cis-White Woman

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, My Feminism

Finding a new element you want to add to your existing identity is always exciting. But if the element you want to add to your identity is that of ‘intersectional ally’ when you’re a middle class cis-white person like me, it’s also terrifying. Why?

Because basically I–and most probably every member of my family–have been unwittingly treading on intersectional toes for most of our lives and been rewarded by society for it. I have therefore been trained that the way to gain appreciation, love and value is precisely by being complicit in harming so many. I have been trained to survive in the society I grew up in. Through oppressing others.

And since our survival in this world is dependent on social inclusion, changing my behaviour risks my exclusion from my world and my family, whilst at the same time being shunned–understandably–by those I have unconsciously harmed. Add to that my anxiety driven by childhood trauma, compounded by a deep rooted fear of rejection, and it means that the act of trying to be an ally is directly opposed to my survival mechanisms. It means unlearning those survival mechanisms.

To learn on one hand that I have perpetuated systemic oppressive behaviours, and on the other having to face those who have been oppressed and who are angry at me for doing so makes me want to shield myself from the onslaught which risks triggering the terror I felt as a child.

But if I truly want to be an ally, I cannot ignore it. You cannot either. I cannot retreat to my comfort zone. You cannot either. I must put myself on the dangerous path. And I remind myself, as you might also choose to do, that many who find themselves at the intersection do not have a choice to be on the dangerous path. Many unlike me, are forced to fight for their survival every day. And their fight for survival is physical.

Intersectionality–for my fellow cis-white friends who don’t yet know the term–refers to the effects of compounded marginalised identities on legal outcomes for black women and was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.

Crenshaw argues that Black women are discriminated against in ways that often do not fit neatly within the legal categories of either “racism” or “sexism”—but as a combination of both racism and sexism. This specificity doesn’t mean it hasn’t or can’t evolve, but its evolution needs to be inclusive and respectful of its origins.

As a concept intersectionality could apply simply to multiple intersecting identities; for example I am polyamorous, an adoptee and a parent. These three things intersect to make my experience rather unique. The term can be used this way. But to ignore where the term originated, is to appropriate a term which was meant to support those caught at the intersection of racism and sexism. It’s erasure (you know, that thing which as allies we’re trying not to do).

Why am I even writing this article then? Surely my voice has been heard enough!! It’s true. But because our society inculcates privilege, my voice may well be heard better even here, even if I’m saying exactly the same thing that my intersectional peers are saying. Yes it’s unfair. But if all goes well, if we do our job together, we will all have the space to build a better and fairer world. Together.

Once I used to hit publish and have done with it. It was my opinion. My feelings were valid and who cared what others thought? But now I’m starting to take responsibility for my power. I care about the harm I might cause. That doesn’t mean I have to take abuse for events which I played no part in making. But it does mean that I am responsible for changing my own learned and abusive behaviours. I am responsible for my voice (and no one else’s). You are too.

So I’m not writing to take the space of marginalized voices. I’m writing to reach my main audience of cis-het-white folk. To let you know it’s not as scary here as you might imagine, as I first imagined. Because look. Here I am. I have angered some. I have been excluded. Yet it’s usually by those people who don’t have the courage to undo their own oppressive survival mechanisms. Do you?

Trust me. It’s beautiful in the world where you take responsibility for your power. Privileged people have a lot of it. You don’t have to give it away, just use it to empower others as well as yourself, but without erasing others. It requires working on your self-esteem so that you don’t feel the need to take up more space than you warrant and so that you give space to those with opinions potentially more qualified than your own. And as you become the person you want to be, you will attract the like-minded. Those who, like you want to change the world for the better. It’s what those of us with privilege pay lip service to, but seldom act upon.

For those interested in starting to use their privilege to empower others… 

Critical engagements: Intersectionality, privilege and identity politics