How to Use Your Privilege for Good

Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and the poor are on the front lines of Trump's war on civil liberties. Here's how straight White men can help.

A lot of us are frustrated. We feel like hate has won the day, even as many of our family members maddeningly celebrate Trump’s election as a victory for the little guy. Many of us will be frustrated into inaction, while others will be inspired to get off our butts and follow some of the action lines written in publications like this one. Through it all, we need to remember to be good allies, especially those of us with privilege to spare.

Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and the poor are going to be on the front lines of Trump’s war on civil rights and civil liberties. Those of us who are safer need to step up and get involved, too. We can’t just leave it to our brothers and sisters who are more directly in the line of fire to deal with.

So, yes, I’m primarily addressing the straight White males of the world (like myself). But even if you remove two out of three of those qualities, you’re still working with some measure of privilege that can be used either to help your fellow humans or worsen their situation while also making yourself out to be a total asshole.

It’s my hope that this article will steer us all toward the former.

This is obvious, but it warrants constant restating: To help the people most affected by Trump’s reign, we have to really listen when they speak about

the issues they face, and believe what they’re saying. It’s easy to feel like you already know what the issues are. But if you haven’t been experiencing them first-hand for your entire life, there’s a huge difference. That one time someone treated you badly because you were White in another country doesn’t count against the daily micro-aggressions people of color are subjected to.

Listen to where people are coming from without any “but actually” or “well, in my experience” kind of unsolicited advice. If folks are sharing with you, they’re already extending you some measure of trust themselves. So just hear people and trust their experiences without picking them apart. Sometimes that really means a lot.

I’ll admit that this was one of the hardest things for me to unpack, personally. If you were raised with some measure of privilege, you’re probably used to being listened to and knowing that you have something to add to every conversation. In conversations with folks of lesser privilege, this often comes across as gaslighting (manipulating someone into feeling like they are the problem), or making the issue about yourself, even if that’s not what you intended. When you’re used to being heard, you can totally railroad people who are not used to being heard. It just doesn’t work out.

Don’t join the Black feminist book group as a White man because you feel like you’ve really got some good views on the subject. But do give them money, external support, or anything that helps without inserting your own voice into the situation.

Honestly, truly, even if you know deep inside that you’ve got some amazing piece of wisdom to impart, just shut up while other people are talking. Ask questions if prompted, but otherwise, see Part 1: Just listen.

There are some times when your voice is very important. This is when other persons of privilege are present, especially when they’re oppressing other people, regardless of their intentions. There are some folks (read: a lot of Trump supporters) who just won’t listen unless another White person is talking. And there are people of color who won’t or can’t speak up because they’re either scared of, or tired of, being the “angry minority.”

In public altercations in which a visible minority is being verbally harassed, you can draw the attention to yourself, assuming it’s safe enough, taking some of the pressure off of them. You can even just be a supportive physical presence, letting them know they’re not alone in the situation (as long as they don’t view you as part of the attack). If you feel you can do it without harm to yourself, record the altercation on video in case police evidence is needed.

But even more than that, use your privilege to talk to your family members and your friends, who may have voted for Trump without realizing the true human impact it would have. Try to get them to see, now that it’s happened, that they have to be a part of stopping the onslaught on human rights that we’re facing.

If you really want to be a part of the conversation, share the words of marginalized people directly, through social media. Instead of questioning a specific aspect of a woman’s complaint, even with the best intentions of trying to “give her a stronger argument,” just share it. Put her words in front of people who might not have seen them otherwise. Don’t talk about how “Black Lives Matter could do a lot better if they did X.”

Share people talking about their daily struggles. But remember to also share people being funny, creative, silly, and human, because nobody is just about the struggle.

Exposing people of privilege to the stories of others, whether they be funny, sad, or true, will help to humanize their issues. Time and time again, I’ve seen racist older folks meeting a person of color for the first time, usually as a friend of a relative, and having their whole paradigm shift. I actually heard a friend’s relative say, “I guess some Mexicans are hard-working!”

I mean … it’s a step.

This is a huge one. We saw this a lot with the Bernie Bros phenomenon. I mean, I get it — I voted for Bernie! He’s my dude. But a lot of us White folks out there, when we ran up against someone of less privilege saying we were doing something wrong, or that we hadn’t considered all the angles, we just picked up our toys and went home. How many people on your Facebook friend list said, “If Bernie doesn’t win, I’m voting for Trump”?

I’ve seen so many folks run at the first sign of opposition, because they’re “trying to help,” so others should just be grateful instead of challenging them. You’re gonna get a lot of stuff wrong. Learn from it, and do better next time. The key is, there has to be a next time. If you just give up when someone says your comment was racially insensitive, that’s when hate wins. Figure out what you did wrong. Try to absorb it. Just keep trying.

I know privilege is ingrained and taught over a lifetime. You’re not going to unpack it in a day. It’s going to take a lot of failure before you can truly help.

And, honestly, you’re probably going to make a few people’s lives a little less bright as you learn it. But trying and failing is better than doing nothing, as long as you eventually start making a positive difference. It’s certainly better than mindlessly continuing to accept privilege as a constant.

You might get some! But someone who has been beaten down by the same ignorance their whole lives is not going to treat you as their guardian angel when you do one nice thing. It’s not their job to make you feel good about yourself.

We want to be allies; it’s our choice. Nobody asked for our help directly. So don’t get all huffy when you don’t get thanked for something you did. That’s like the men’s rights activist who feels a woman owes him when he opens a door for her, and calls her a bitch when she doesn’t react. Don’t be an ally because you want something, be one because you care about people.

Utilize what you’ve got in a positive way, and engage in some actual activism.

Maybe you’ve got money. Give some of that away to hard-hit organizations like Planned Parenthood, which can help those who can’t afford coverage. Maybe you’re a graphic designer. Volunteer for an organization that needs help with outreach. Maybe you’ve got a big social media presence. Follow and signal-boost a bunch of marginalized voices. Do you have some time to spare? Keep calling and mailing your representatives. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but it can make a huge impact.

Hell, throw a mailing party. (Seriously, send snail-mail! Emails can be ignored, but mail takes up space. They have to notice it. It’s a war of perception, now more than ever.)

This article couldn’t possibly cover everything, but it’s a start. I sincerely hope, through listening, conversation with friends, and some good old-fashioned activism, we can start to turn this ship around, together.

Brandon Sheffield is a game developer from Oakland. He also writes the Hot Comics you read in SF Weekly.

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