Amherst is constantly host to numerous conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and other identities. This is a guide for people in privileged positions taking part in these conversations. It’s worth noting at the start that privilege comes in a lot of ways: It’s not just being white or male, but also being straight, cis, wealthy, abled, neurotypical, Christian… the list goes on and on.
Of course, this guide is just my advice, and certainly isn’t anywhere close to exhaustive.
The best thing you can do as a privileged person in a conversation with someone from a marginalized group is to listen. Don’t ever assume you understand someone else’s experience. Even after you’ve listened, you won’t completely understand their experiences. As a white guy, I’ll never know what it’s like to face racism or sexism. At most, I’ll understand superficial aspects of that discrimination. It’s also important to realize that one person’s experience isn’t identical to that of others from the same group.
Some conversations aren’t for you.
Not everyone has a place in every conversation. Sometimes you should sit back and listen, but sometimes you should just back off. Some spaces are “safe spaces” where members of a marginalized group can interact without the influence of their oppressors. Spaces like these, or conversations about intra-community issues, are usually off-limits to you, and that’s okay.
Learn your place as an ally.
As an ally, most of what you do will be listening and asking, “How can I help?” However, one of the places where you can often best help out is in engagements with other privileged people. Last year, in the wake of the Ferguson non-indictment, it become the work of white allies to help black voices be heard by other white people. There’s a great article about this here. Allyship is really a verb. It’s something you do, not something you are. And if you aren’t actively practicing allyship, then you can’t claim to be an ally.
Recognize your internal prejudice.
Don’t say, “I’m not racist, but…” because you are. I know I am. We live in an oppressive society that privileges various groups, and it’s impossible to be raised in this society without internalizing some racism, some sexism, some homophobia, etc. In fact, even if you are part of one marginalized group, you can still be privileged in other ways, and thus have internalized prejudice. A queer white guy could have internalized racism, for example. It’s also important to recognize that internalized prejudice isn’t your fault, and you shouldn’t take someone telling you you’re being racist as an accusation or insult, but rather an opportunity to be self-reflective and improve. Analyze your beliefs and emotions critically, and recognize when your prejudice is shining through.
Know your privilege.
Understanding how your own life has been – and continues to be – shaped by privilege is essential to dismantling that privilege. Never deny that you have privilege when a member of a marginalized group tells you so. For example, people often argue that poor white people don’t have white privilege. While some aspects of white privilege are negated by class – the economic ones – the fact that you are far less likely to be killed by police or arrested for drug use/possession remains. You’ll get paid more than people of color, and fired less often. Accept that you have privilege, and critically evaluate the ways it manifests itself.
Your politics don’t make you right.
Despite what Bill Maher might think, being liberal doesn’t make you perfect. You can still be racist, islamophobic, sexist – and Bill Maher is all of these things – even while reiterating the Democratic party line. And here I’m not talking about internalized prejudice. I’m talking about things that are explicitly discriminatory: saying “All Lives Matter,” calling Muslims terrorists, supporting Gamergate or buying into the “feminazi” conspiracy. Liberals do all of these things, and just because they also support same-sex marriage doesn’t mean they can’t be gross and offensive.
It’s important to keep all of this in mind as you engage in difficult conversations at Amherst. We have an incredibly diverse campus, which is a wonderful thing. But it also means you have to understand that everyone’s coming from a different perspective, and statements you might see as innocuous could well be offensive.