Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),
I’m a cis white man and for years I’ve been attending a tech conference, also organized by cis white men. They’ve worked hard to create an event that’s welcoming and inclusive to members of marginalized groups. In the past, they’ve asked people who were traditionally underrepresented in tech to speak to the attendees asking them to be aware of their privilege. As an attendee and friend of some of the past speakers, I could see how hard and unrewarding this work was.
This year, they asked me to give the speech. I felt deeply conflicted. Unlike past speakers, I don’t have any credentials for this work. I would be taking up a great deal of space with this. Frankly, I was scared.
I spoke with an experienced activist friend and got tremendous help with my talk. When I gave it, it seemed to be appreciated. In fact, it was appreciated a lot: many people wrote and spoke publicly to compliment me. And then someone pointed out what should have been obvious to me. I was getting far more credit than the marginalized people who preceded me doing the same job.
Was I wrong to accept this speaking role? Should I have approached it differently? How can I combat the unfairness that I get credit, while the marginalized people who do better work are ignored or taken for granted?
—Not That Special
Thank you for writing in about one of the central paradoxes of anti-oppression work! My usual advice is that if an activity is rewarded, you should make sure marginalized people have the opportunity to do that activity if they want to, and if an activity is taken for granted or viewed with hostility, privileged people should do it. But what happens when the reward follows around the privileged people? What if when you shift the exact same activity to marginalized people, they get punished?
The unpleasant truth is that some necessary, important anti-oppression work will be punished when it comes from more marginalized people, and praised when it comes from more privileged people. Under these circumstances, I would check in with the marginalized people who have been doing the job in the past to see what they would prefer. My personal experience is that I would much rather have someone with more privilege do the work and get the praise than either of the alternatives (do the work myself and get punished, or have no one do the work).
If you do decide to do the work, what can you do to make things more fair? Quite a lot, actually. Mostly, you need to repeatedly and firmly redirect praise and support where it belongs, towards marginalized people who made your work possible. Here’s how to do that:
Identify in advance when you are likely to receive unfair praise for anti-oppression work. This can be hard to predict because we usually expect to get the same reaction that we see other people get for the same work, which isn’t true in this situation. Instead, spend some time consciously thinking about the likely reaction to your work. (It’s okay to prepare for unfair praise and then not receive it—consider it practice for when it happens unexpectedly.) You are more likely to get unfair praise for anti-oppression work if most of the following are true:
- You have relevant power and/or privilege
- You are seen as trustworthy and likable when acting as a leader
- You are advocating for a marginalized group you aren’t part of
- Your audience views itself as not biased against that marginalized group
- You aren’t seriously threatening the dominant group’s privileges
If you add in personal acknowledgement of privilege, expression of humility, or sharing of vulnerability, the odds of unfair praise increase.
Proactively give credit to marginalized people. When you are planning your speech or blog post or presentation, begin and end with giving credit to and thanking the marginalized people who educated you, prepared the way, or did similar work in the past. For example, if you mention the term “intersectionality,” you can add, “which was coined and popularized by the legal scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw.” If you’re not sure who to credit, ask other marginalized people who they would credit. If there is any chance that naming them could cause harm, check with each person individually to see if you can credit them by name or if they would prefer to be anonymous.
Act like what you are doing is normal for people with your privilege. When people praise you for ally work, respond with “Honestly, I believe [everyone with relevant privilege] should do this, and it feels uncomfortable when people act otherwise.” This encourages other folks with similar privilege to do similar things, instead of reinforcing the idea that only exceptional people can act as allies.
Tell people to praise marginalized people instead of praising you. List who they should be praising, by name if possible (again, ask for consent before naming individuals if there is a chance they could be harmed by the attention). You may have to repeat your request multiple times before people will listen. Some examples:
- “Thanks, [person X] has been working on this for far longer, and I just do what they recommend. They are a real leader in this area.”
- “Thanks, but the people who did the hard work are [person X] and [person Y] and they would love to get an email from you thanking them for that. Can I send you their contact info?”
- “I appreciate the thought, but [Organization X] did all the hard work and I am just riding on their coattails. I follow them on Twitter and find it super useful.”
Redirect praise into material support for marginalized people. Ask people to pay money to marginalized people for their services, to hire and promote them, to donate to their organizations, volunteer for their projects, or give whatever other form of material support would be useful to them. For example, “I appreciate the kind words, but I couldn’t have done it without [Organization X]. If you liked what I did, would you consider donating to them today? I took the liberty of printing out their donation page URL so I could hand it out.” If you’re not sure what kind of support would be helpful, ask the people or organizations concerned.
Take on more difficult ally work. Earlier we noted that you’re more likely to get unfair praise for work that does not significantly threaten the privileges of the dominant group. One way to prevent unfair praise is to advocate for changes that do significantly threaten the privileges of the dominant group. For example, in the U.S., people advocating for the federal government to make monetary reparations to the descendants of enslaved people get much less praise than people organizing talks for Black History Month.
If it seems like a lot of work to avoid unfair praise, that’s because it is! If you have a lot of privilege, you are receiving unfair praise and credit all of the time. This is happening everywhere in your life: at work, in your family, with your friends, in your hobbies. “You’re such a good father!” after you take care of your kids alone for one afternoon, “You’re so coordinated!” when you are just the tallest person on the basketball court, “You’re so professional!” when you are a moderately well-groomed white person.
Unfair praise becomes visible to you when you can directly compare the reaction to the work you do with the reaction when a marginalized person does similar (or more difficult) work. It becomes visible to you when you are consciously trying to act as an ally and decenter yourself and be aware of how little you know, and suddenly everyone around you wants to put you up on a pedestal and bury you in bouquets and proclaim you King of the Allies. Once you notice it, it feels weird, because it is!
As long as the systems of oppression that benefit you are in place, you will continue to receive unfair praise and credit compared to marginalized people. Your job is to become aware of this and redirect that praise and credit to the people who deserve it. You can also increase the difficulty of the anti-oppression work you are doing until you receive a combination of praise and criticism that feels sustainable to you.
Let me end by offering one more round of appreciation: thank you for doing this, and thank you to all the people who made your work possible. Together, you’re making the world a better place.
In next week’s column: What do I tell men who are afraid to mentor women?
Featured image: CC BY ADoseofShipBoy https://flic.kr/p/k8GX7