Dear 100 Hour Board,
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I'd like you guys to weigh in on some of my thoughts. I'm a straight, white, upper middle class male. I care a lot about equality and activism, and I understand that I have a lot of privilege. I also have a lot of shame related to being a straight, white, upper middle class male. Sometimes it's overwhelming, and it often stops me from joining conversations on race, gender relations, etc. that I would really like to be a part of. I want to be sensitive and understanding, but I'm worried that I can't be. Any ideas on how to do this?
- Trying to be an ally
You sound amazing. Thank you for caring about these issues. I hope you know just how much of an impact you can have with your friends and family. People tend to listen to and trust those like them, and may be dismissive of the comments of others. (I have had people tell me "you're a girl, of course you'd say that" while giving their full attention to a man saying the same thing.) While I wish people would accept my comments on feminism (as in equality of men and women), I know just how great it is when a man stands up for women's rights and talks about the reality and problems of sexism. I imagine it would be the same for those of other ethnicities and classes.
No one will fault you if you join in on conversations with humility and the willingness to admit you may be wrong. I know that's something I need to work on, because it's that humility that will truly open doors and help us better understand the lives and situations of others. It's people who are proud and tell others how to think that are unwelcome in those conversations.
-guppy of doom
First, I just wanted to say good job on wanting to be involved. It's really important that people of all backgrounds get involved in standing up for the fair treatment of all people. I definitely feel where you're coming from though. I'm also straight, white, upper-middle class male. I often feel uncomfortable about joining in on conversations about those topics because of my white-male-upper-middle-class-ness.
The thing that I find is the most helpful is to make friends with people who are involved that aren't straight, white, upper middle class males. For me, having friends from different backgrounds makes me feel less like an outsider. It gives me someone that I'm looking out for and makes me feel more like a part of the community. Having friends from different backgrounds is also great because they can help you learn how to be sensitive and understanding. One of my really good friends is gay, and he's helped me to be a lot more understanding and sensitive. If I say something to him that's offensive he tells me without freaking out. So, my biggest advice for you is to go out there and make friends. They'll be able to help you a million times better than anything else could in my opinion. Hope this helps.
I'll admit that this question hits me in a kind of sore spot. I honestly hate the culture that says people who match the description you've provided of yourself should feel shame. Yes, white people have done many racist things, and abused positions of power. But a single individual cannot accurately assume the blame for the actions of people in similar life situations throughout history.
Obviously your life experiences are very different from people who have been oppressed, or directly been at the end of racism, sexism, etc. Having the resulting different life perspective might naturally blind you to some social problems that are glaring to others. But merely lacking the natural awareness of certain social injustices does not make you a bad person. It simply implies that you need to put forth more effort to understand those kinds of problems. So put forth that effort. Listen to the experiences of other people, and conduct research into relevant issues.
Being a white privileged male doesn't somehow deprive you of the human proclivity for sympathy even if perfect empathy is not possible.
You can be sensitive even if you have privilege. No, you probably won't ever be able to understand everything, at least not on the same deep, intimate level as people who actually have to face racism/sexism/classism/homophobia/whatever else, but you can still be educated about it and be a voice for change. In fact, sad as it is to say, a lot of people don't pay attention to people who actually belong to marginalized groups when they talk about the need for change, because supposedly our "bias" means we can't be trusted (rather than thinking that maybe we would be qualified to speak about our actual experiences). So as a straight, white male, your voice for change can actually reach audiences in ways that marginalized voices may not be able to.
If you do nothing because you can't do everything, you're allowing institutions to continue that harm certain groups of people. Just because you can't do everything for everyone, you can at least do something for someone. Do what you can to raise awareness and help change attitudes, even if you can't do it all, and always be willing and open to listen to what other people say.
Ask questions and then listen.
Believe what marginalized people tell you about their experiences.