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Understanding, Recognizing and Addressing Privilege

Understanding, recognizing, and addressing privilege can be an uncomfortable and interrogating experience.

But, these are necessary steps to not only understanding how racism and discrimination exist in the world, but how you may be unconsciously or unconsciously upholding it. Recognize that privilege is not necessarily something we actively seek out to acquire; often portions of privilege are things you are born into such as whiteness, middle-class status, or mobility. However, it is important to note that while you may not have “asked” for these things, aspects of your privilege afford you an advantage, societally. And to your advantage, other people are actively disadvantaged, marginalized, silenced, or afforded certain opportunities to make space for you and your identity. Leveling this playing ground and power dynamics includes actively taking steps to educate yourself about privilege, share your privilege, and advocate for the rights of others. Here are some tools to begin that journey and create stepping stones to anti-racism and critical allyship. 


We also encourage you to check out these resources:  

Processes to critically reflect & reflection tools

Steps You Can Take


Beginning by understanding the “social matrix” we live within is a great way to understanding your privilege and the social dynamics and rules that contribute to racism and discrimination. Reading literature, blogs, books, zines or even listening to podcasts, youtube videos, and other social media outlets informed by critical insights and people of colour can assist in developing a knowledge around racism and discrimination that you may not have known about, due to your privilege and social location. Reading about racism and how you may be complicit in it is a necessary education step to being able to explore social location and identity. Some suggested resources to read are located in the resource tab on this page.

Exploring social location and identity 

Often, people think that social location and identity is a list of demographic and physical identity markers of yourself. However, social location and social identity is both tangible/seen, and intangible, not seen. Social location and identity can encapsulate your racial and ethnic identity, gender, religious and spiritual practice, sexuality and sexual orientation, gender identity, (dis)ability, experiences with mental health, socioeconomic factors such as housing, education, political positioning, class, immigration, and the list can go on and on. And while it is important to have an awareness about the different things that make you who you are and shape your experiences, it is even more important to understand where this positions you in the “societal matrix”. 

Social location and identity are almost like chess; certain aspects of your identity that you hold automatically awards you status/hierarchy/considerations/affordances and opportunities in comparison to others. This inherently shapes your day-to-day interactions, prosperity, and opportunity; whether you choose to acknowledge this or not. That is the locational aspect of your identity; how do aspects of your identity influence your placement on the “chessboard”, or what is better known as the societal matrix. How does it shape your place in hierarchies in school, work, day-to-day interactions, shopping, conversations, reflection in dominant media and the list can go on.  

The societal matrix is a dubious and hidden monster that is informed by societal rules, messaging, stereotypes and scripts, and dichotomized social constructs such as race and gender. Depending on your placement in the matrix, which is typically informed by your social location, you can be afforded opportunities, accolades, and experiences that other folks, in lower positions of the matrix or hierarchy, are excluded, rejected, and withheld from. Intersectionality, or the intersections of your social locations and identities, converge, compound, and connect to determine your placement in the societal matrix. This placement can be unconsciously and consciously known.

Here’s an example:  

It is no secret that a cis-gendered, able-bodied, white, Christian, heterosexual male will have a very different experience in society such as job searching and employment, day to day living, socioeconomic privileges, occupying positions of authority and leadership, etc than say a queer, racialized, disabled woman. 

The reason is that they are seen differently in terms of deservingness, capabilities, education, and knowledge based on what people perceive their identity to be and the “invisible” positions they hold. And these positions in the matrix are strategically given to folks to uphold the pervasiveness of white supremacy in social discourse, policies and procedures, social interactions, and other touchpoints of society. Reflecting on your social location and what this may or may not afford you assists in understanding how your social location impacts people, places, and spaces around you. A knowledge of this can help in strategizing language and phrasing, enhance safety, and strategize for equalizing power and privilege structures around you. 

Again, a lot of these social identities you did not necessarily ask for, but a knowledge of the privileges or and your social location assists in unpacking how you may be upholding and contributing racist and discriminatory policies/procedures/discussions consciously and unconsciously, what to do about it in regards to reflection and social actions, and assist in identifying and locating sites where advocacy and change are needed. 

Intention exploration

A necessary step in your anti-racism and critical allyship journey is understanding your own and their impacts on people of colour.

Sometimes, our intentions, no matter how pure and good, do not always align with what we say or do and can impact how other peoples perceive our communication and actions to be. Understanding that we may fumble, a reflection on your intention before speaking up and acting is a great tool to inform and strategize the safest and most equitable ways in communicating your idea, vision, or intention. Often, white folks who want to advocate for racialized persons have genuine intentions that, at times, become a bit muddled; in reflecting on your critical allyship, reflecting on the intention behind it is integral to ensure safe advocacy. 

The intentionality behind advocacy for: 

  • Personal gain and recognition or praise 
  • Without knowledge or research on the topic 
  • For the sake of looking “anti-racist” without fully understanding what that entails 
  • To join the bandwagon of posting and discussing “hot topics” and sociopolitical events 
  • To sympathize 

Can actually be more self-serving to you than it is helpful to people of colour. If your intentions are rooted in places that absolve you of guilt, blame and shame and to make you look good, or simply even just to express yourself without purpose, simply put, it is harmful, unsafe, and unproductive. Think and reflect on: why do I want to take this social issue on? What might it cost me and am I comfortable with that? How will I mediate my feelings in the process if I don’t agree? What power am I willing to give away? Do I understand the issue I am advocating for? Is this in line with what the community I wish to help wants and Where did I acquire this knowledge/idea? 

You can begin to unpack the intention behind your advocacy, speech, communication, and action in hopes of safeguarding the impact. 

However, it is important to consider, even with the purest intentions, the impact may not be how we thought it would be. Often, the style of communication we have learned to use, down to language, word choice and play, and semantics, is reflective of othering, dichotomizing language, or discriminatory phrasing. We have been socialized to communicate, unfortunately, a bit micro aggressively. Unpacking this, alongside the intention, can assist with a safer impact. Don’t let this discourage you or feel you may not be a good ally; reflect and learn from these experiences and keep going! Some tips are: 

  • Remember you can not dictate how someone may react to your response: you may have great intentions but recognizing and remembering we all come from different backgrounds and experiences that may impact how we hear, see, and perceive is important. Experiences in life can be hard and a lot can be scary, reflecting on how past negative experiences people of colour may have and how these build up over time and cause greater impact may be a good consideration 
  • Sincerely apologize, forgive yourself, and move forward: A sincere apology shows that you are willing to understand you may be in the wrong, misinformed, or possibly poorly communicated. But, it also shows you are willing to learn if you face the discomfort, call out that you may make more mistakes, but that you agree willing to learn. Do not take poor impacts personally, seek to learn, look for clarification, and continuously reflect and refashion your approaches. 
  • Learn about structural racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination: sometimes your language is harmful because you just don’t know; increasing your knowledge can assist with acquiring new and safer language 
  • Ask for clarification or repeat what you heard before responding
  • Recognize you are in control of your own emotions: while uncomfortable impacts may be stressful to be the perpetrator of, whether implicit or explicit, you can control your own defense, guilt, and other presentations of emotions to not cause further harm. If doing that means saying sorry and extending the conversation another time to give yourself a breather, in the long run, that is safer for everyone. 
  • Find support from someone or a group of people you trust to share your experiences with who are comfortable challenging some of your ideologies for the greater good. Try to not shift these responsibilities onto people or groups of colour; acquire the knowledge and reflect on these experiences without the uncompensated labour of people of colour.

Capacity to Advocate Assessment

If you are still exploring your intentions and capabilities, assessing your capacity to advocate and be an ally is also a useful tool on this journey.

Reflecting as asking yourself these questions can assess your readiness to do the work and some areas that may need more reflection and/or education before beginning (Caroline Belden, The Buzz):

  • Who am I? How do my cultural identities impact what I value? 
  • Which of my identities are most salient for me in daily life? 
  • What is the history of this group’s struggle for equity? 
  • What is the history of this group of people in my own community? 
  • What language has this group of people asked us to use in discussing who they are and what they need? 
  • Have I allowed people to name themselves or am I naming people without knowing them? 
  • Where have I, perhaps unintentionally, negatively impacted someone in this community? 
  • How can I make amends that acknowledge more than just my intent? 
  • Where am I on my journey to living as an Ally?
  • What circle of whiteness might I occupy? 
  • Where can I use my power to elevate the voices of this community? 
  • Where do I hear and see bias in my own community? 
  • How can I disrupt these narratives or norms with the knowledge I have gained? 
  • Where and from whom did I acquire this knowledge and are the sources reflective of the community I aim to be an ally to?

Walking through the discomfort, feelings of rage/disbelief, understanding how whiteness is harmful and how to process

Tackling White Fragility

A lot of the knowledge, discussion, and reflection needed in developing an anti-racist lens and to be an ally is frankly, uncomfortable. It can feel like an interrogation, it can feel hopeless like there is nothing you can do, it can feel guilt or rage-inducing. Think of racism and discrimination as this behemoth that you were born into. It can feel a bit sticky to feel responsible or to be held accountable for something you had “no hand in creating in the first place”. However, it is important to understand that while you may not have created it, you may be upholding it. 

The concept of white fragility and white rage has become terminology in the world of anti-racism work.

Often, when people of colour or other counterparts teach, speak, and discuss the roots of racism, white supremacy, and ongoing impacts of racism and discrimination, white folks get mad or sad, they cry and feel “unnecessary guilt”, or they are in simple disbelief. A statement like, “well I am not responsible for slavery”, “I am not a racist”, “I feel like you are attacking me”, “I feel so bad, I did not realize all of this was going on”, “but this isn’t my fault” are common responses that are attached to negative emotions. 

This is normal! It’s because this discussion may or may not be interrogating and tearing everything you hold as “truth”. And that can be scary; your thoughts then may cascade into a realm that feels you need to withdraw from the subject matter and discussion because of your discomfort and overall lack of understanding. This reinforces racism! But, it is a bit self-serving to stop there and center your emotions over the lifetime of cyclical harmful experiences that your friends, schoolmates, colleagues, partners, etc. deal with daily. Your momentary discomfort is a BREAKTHROUGH; it's rewriting the discriminatory and racist ideologies you formally held as truth because it was taught to you and unconsciously downloaded.

It is important to externalize this process but not onto people of colour. It is not the responsibility of people of colour to answer your questions, coddle or soothe, address what you feel are tensions, or provide examples when you are experiencing white fragility or white rage. Exploring these topics at a systemic, societal, and discourse-level can help remind you that there is a much larger machine keeping discrimination and racism alive that trickles down into interpersonal interactions. We encourage you to talk these feelings and emotions out with other allies to strategize how to combat and move forward, rather than “blaming the messenger”/ racialized people. 

Check these videos on white fragility to begin unpacking and understanding: