Get real about privilege — become an ally

Two men holding hands. (Wikimedia Commons/Victorrrmz)

Two men holding hands. (Wikimedia Commons/Victorrrmz)

A lot of mis-education about oppression leaves people with privilege feeling guilty and second-guessing themselves — in effect, disempowered. Is that what oppressed people want for their potential allies? I don’t think so.

For me as a gay man brought up working class, I want self-respecting allies who use their privilege to advance our common struggle for equality and freedom. I was delighted, for instance, that in my Quaker meeting it was the heterosexual Friends who led the process that resulted in the recognition of equal marriage in the meeting.

I used to practice the kind of anti-oppression training that piles on shame and blame, and that raises among privileged people more anxiety than confidence. The more I realized that I wanted to work for real change, the more I understood that doing so will require people of privilege joining the oppressed by stepping up in strategically useful ways. The all-too-common idea that privileged people should “step back” is too rigid. Making change means that our allies need the confidence to play different roles at different times, depending on the circumstance, on our respective needs and on the common goal.

The history of movements reminds us of the many ways that allies have come through: nuns and priests dressed in clerical garb joining coal miners’ picket lines to reduce the violence from state troopers, wealthy people financing films that tell the stories of poor people’s struggles, straight people refusing to get married until LGBT people have that right — it’s a very long list.

When a group of us in the mid-1970s created a collective called Men Against Patriarchy, we ran workshops in which we asked men to speak about times when an adult stood up for them as boys, and times when they themselves stood up for a woman or a child. It completely changed the tone of the workshop. That’s when men could also acknowledge the times they laid power trips on women and in other ways acted out the dominant scripts.

Glimpsing ways that male privilege has been used gradually released them from their guilt, instead of it becoming balled up inside them as a missile to hurl at the next man they caught being politically incorrect. Our success with that alternative training mode stimulated the journey I’ve shared in my book Facilitating Group Learning.

The key, of course, is the relationship between the allies and the targets of oppression. Sometimes allies make their action all about themselves, which distances them and makes them rightful targets of anger from the oppressed people they’re supposedly trying to be useful to. It’s all too easy for an ally to accrue power for themselves when they already start out privileged. That’s why everyone needs to stay anchored in their shared goals and in an awareness of those in the most vulnerable circumstances.

One exercise of power, for instance, is initiative-taking. Who speaks first, asks first, proposes first? Sensitivity to that is what led to the “step back” formula in the first place. Where should the initiative lie in a relationship between oppressed and ally?

The more situations I think of, the more varied my answer to that question becomes. I’ve had a long lifetime of experience on both sides: in an oppressed identity and in the role of ally. My favorite ally behaviors range on a spectrum, from when the ally takes the least initiative to when the ally takes the most initiative. In this column I’ll look at two extremes that I’ve encountered on each end of the spectrum.

When the ally gives up initiative

In 1989 I joined two other activists on the first Peace Brigades International team in Sri Lanka, the island country off the tip of India. The national Bar Association asked Peace Brigades to send unarmed bodyguards because human rights lawyers in Sri Lanka were getting assassinated by hit squads. The government was complicit in the killings, so there was no other practical way the Bar Association could continue human rights work except to ask for help. Peace Brigades International had already done similar work in the police states of El Salvador and Guatemala.

We team members knew that our value as unarmed bodyguards lay in our privilege. We were from the United Kingdom, Spain, and the United States — significant countries whose donations mattered to Sri Lanka’s fragile economy. Already the West was concerned about the Sri Lankan bloodbath; if internationals started getting killed as well, the government would be in real trouble.

We also knew that we might be in trouble, too. Peace Brigades International told us to make our wills before we came. We were the first ones in this role in Sri Lanka, and no one knew for sure whether “protective accompaniment” would protect either the lawyers or ourselves.

The larger task of third-party nonviolent intervention is complex, but here I want to focus on the relationship between the Peace Brigades team and the lawyers. I, the ally, did what I was told.

If the threatened lawyer wanted me to sit in the outside office so, if a hit squad came, I could delay it while he exited out the back, that’s what I would do. If the lawyer wanted me to sleep in his house and answer the door at night while he got ready to flee, that’s what I would do.

We volunteers arrived with some practical tactical knowledge about confrontations, but the lawyer was in overall control. My tall, white, male, U. S. self — privilege oozing from every pore in Sri Lanka —was at his disposal in keeping himself safe. I think of that situation being at one extreme of the positive spectrum of kinds of relationships between oppressed and ally.

By now there have been thousands of people doing civilian peacekeeping in many countries where violence and human rights abuse are rife — including in the United States — and countless lives have been saved by the astute use of privilege. You can read cases of third-party nonviolent intervention in the Global Nonviolent Action Database.

When the ally takes the lead

One day, my friend Daniel Hunter and I flopped ourselves on a double seat on the train bound for New York City. We were off to do interviews for a book we were writing together. As we settled in, Daniel casually lay his arm on mine and leaned against me. I began to sweat as the fear rose within: being affectionate in a dark movie house is one thing, but this was broad daylight on a train!

As it happens, I have my brave days when public displays of affection are fine with me, but I also have my not-so-brave days when I just want to hide. I appreciated that this straight friend could be okay with appearing to be gay to the other passengers, but I was feeling worse by the minute.

I told him so and disentangled my arm from his. Daniel took a risk, and he asked me to talk more about it. As I talked, my anxiety lessened and it started to seem ironical. I was the experienced gay activist in the situation, but I was the scared one, and the straight guy was taking the initiative in defying the heterosexist norm.

And then I got it. In that situation, Daniel was freer to act precisely because his sexual orientation enabled him to see clearly what was going on. Psychologically, his arm on mine threw me back to age 14 when it was dangerous to do what we were doing. I reacted to my fantasized danger. (FEAR = Fantasized Expectations Appearing Real.)

When Daniel was 14 he hadn’t been scared he would be found out to be gay, and he was free in his privilege to look around and accurately notice that there was no real threat in the Amtrak car. He would be pushing the envelope, sure, but not very much.

Daniel and I both benefit from the retreat of heterosexism. He is as clear about that as I am. He chose to act as an ally to me, knowing I’m primarily in the line of fire of homophobic reaction. He initiated a personal/political act that was not only in solidarity but also did me a favor: It gave me another chance to feel my feelings of nervousness and release them. Pushy? Yes. Did he take a risk with me? Yes.

We chuckled again at what we’d just gone through, and settled down (arm in arm) to enjoy the ride.

People with privilege who are self-confident enough to take a risk can find many, many ways to act against oppression. Some involve minimum initiative-taking, some maximum and most somewhere in the middle. But if we’re committed to liberation, it can be a great thing to have privilege!

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