Being white, straight, cisgender, male, and able-bodied in this country is like winning the lottery.
You didn’t do anything to deserve your prize, but you still get one. In one case, it’s a large sum of money, while in the other, it’s a set of privileges that extend to preferential treatment by police and within the legal system, higher likelihood of employment and educational opportunities, and freedom from discriminatory policies on accessibility, reproductive rights, voting — even on using the washroom.
While the concept of white privilege has become more mainstream following traction made by movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More, the fight for equality has existed for centuries. That it’s taken this long for many people to finally pay attention is disheartening.
However, it’s also an opportunity for those who’ve enjoyed their privilege unchecked to reimagine their role in society, and how that role is informed by systems that make life easier for them at the expense of everyone else.
There are basically two responses to this: you can shove your fingers in your ears and deny that this privilege exists, or you can commit yourself to making your space in society one that supports the rights of women and non-binary folks, non-white people, those with disabilities, those below the poverty line, and those who don’t identify as straight.
The former option explains the popularity of figures like Donald Trump and UKIP leader Nigel Farage: plenty of people like to believe that they’ve earned their place in society, no matter how much they’ve been helped by racist, sexist, and generally awful systems. They complain that our society has become “too politically correct,” and react to the fight for equality with fear and hatred.
On the other hand, those who decide to commit themselves to being allies are faced with a question: where do I start?
As a white, male, able-bodied, and mostly straight person, this is a question I ask myself constantly. How do I take my status in society — no matter how unearned it is — and use it to support those who don’t have the privilege I do? There’s no easy answer, and you’re unlikely to find any consensus among marginalized groups — some even deny that those outside the group can ever really call themselves supporters.
For what it’s worth, I try to be conscious of not overshadowing others’ voices. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her incredible essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” placing too much value on male voices in society “keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; [and] crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.”
Just look at news sources that hire white men to review Lemonade, or directors who cast Jared Leto to play a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club. Even when it comes to speaking to the experiences of oppressed peoples, white men still get preferential treatment.
For me, allyship is a process of becoming that is never really finished. It’s about being critical of oneself and unlearning years of societal conditioning. Sometimes I catch myself using racist language without meaning to, or making unfair assumptions based on gender or sexuality. I’m not perfect; the best I can do is to correct this behaviour when I notice it, and try to be better. You never really stop learning.
With that in mind, I’m going to shut up now, in hopes that others will have room to speak.