In the past few months I have been actively trying to be a better ally. I have been immersing myself in writing and discourse, and I’m just now starting to take a more active role in promoting and educating on intersectionality in my various social groups. The concept of privilege and intersectionality is not simple. It is, by definition, complex. But once you get the tools to understand what it all means, you can start deconstructing your interactions and reactions and you at least are speaking the right language.
One thing that has been a struggle for me, however, is transforming the idea of “ally” into something tangible. Luckily, there are so many sources out there that exist to make this work make sense. Last week I was reading one of my favorite writer’s tweets (not uncommon), and came across this:
I saw it while I was waiting for the train, and literally repeated it out loud, right on the platform. Look for where your privilege intersects with oppression – that is where you act. I thought about it for most of the commute. I tried to think of examples of where my power was, where I could attack the system. What I love about this phrase is that if you let it marinate, you start to convert the abstract to tangible action. At various points in the past week, that phrase would rise to the forefront of my mind. It is stuck in my head as my own rallying cry.
What does that mean for me? Well, let’s start with my privilege. I am a white attorney who works at a large law firm. I’m heterosexual and married. I was born in the United States (Alaska though, basically Russia according to some) and I speak English. All in all, pretty privileged. I am also female and Jewish, but I work in a city and in a profession that treats Judaism as normal, so I mostly “pass” there. Jewish lawyer in Chicago? Nothing to see here.
Where does my privilege intersect with oppression? My workplace is the first place that comes to mind. I think it helps to start small, so let’s start there. As a heterosexual, white attorney, I am able to speak for others without the associated detrimental outcomes that might occur if those without my privileges took the same course of action. For example, transgender accommodations are a huge topic these days. I can comfortably sit in a conference room and opine on the need for gender-neutral bathrooms without feeling like someone will view me any differently. In that context, I’m just a person stating my opinion. When it comes to staffing, I can affirmatively request other women or people of color to be on my team, and I can check in with them to make sure they are getting the experiences they deserve. That comes with the territory of being an associate, and can fit easily into my job description.
I also have been involved in recruiting. Getting the right people in the room is essential, and if you are one of the gatekeepers, you can use that for good. When I recruit, I consciously work to take it one step further instead of just connecting over similarities. Similarities are the comfort zone, and like attracts like. But if that’s all I look for, I’m going to have a bunch of petite women who really like reality television in the room. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not the point. Connecting through differences takes practice, and I’m happy to work at a firm that proactively trains on addressing unconscious biases during the recruiting process (and elsewhere). You can do that important work too.
Once you have the mantra in your head, you see it everywhere. Take the Grammy’s, where Adele used her acceptance speech to promote Beyonce. I’m not going to go in to why I think Lemonade deserved to win Album of the Year, because lord knows the last thing the internet needs is another Lemonade thinkpiece by a white woman. Let’s just say I’m a fan. So when Adele stood up and used her moment to promote a black woman, it meant something to me.
Was she perfect? Probably not. But she was real and she was authentic and she used her privilege to address something wrong with the system. And as a white woman who is working on ways to be an ally, Adele was inspiring. She gave ME strength to speak up from the heart, even if it’s scary or you might get it wrong.
So I’m taking my mantra and running with it. Thank you to the women of color who have lived this their entire lives and still take the time to educate the rest of us. I stand with you.