Privilege — within any given community, whether formal or ad hoc, social or professional, members will express varying levels of privilege. Some people will be playing the game on easy mode, others will be struggling with subtle and overtly oppressive societal and institutional structures. If you are a person of privilege who recognizes the reality of this imbalance and strives to make your community a more accessible and welcoming place to those who aren’t as privileged, you might identify yourself as an ally.
You are wrong.
Being an ally is not something you are, it’s something you do. “Ally” is not an identity, it is a set of behaviors that help acknowledge and promote underprivileged members of your community. But you have privileges that they do not and not all of your words and actions will fall under the banner of “being an ally”. Even if you consider yourself well-versed in your understanding of oppression and privilege, you will, eventually do or say something that reveals your privilege and is offensive, insensitive, or callous, if not outright cruel. The whole point of privilege is that it’s largely invisible to those who have it — including you. If you have colleagues that respect you, if people in the broader community value the work you do, if you are recognized as an important voice, people will call you out on your privilege.
How you respond to that criticism makes the difference between self-identifying as an ally, and actually being an ally.
I am going to propose a metaphor. It is necessarily imperfect. On the surface, it may seem to trivialize the issues of oppression and privilege. This is an unfortunate, but unavoidable consequence of the need to use an uncomfortable but uncontroversial situation to frame this issue. I believe this metaphor works, up to a point. It works for people who accept that privilege is real and has influence over the way we experience life. It works for people who recognize their own privilege exists and want to help build a more equitable society. In short, it works for people who want to act as allies.
If you are engaged in the work of being an ally and genuinely believe that addressing issues of oppression and privilege in your community is a worthwhile goal, being called out on your privilege is akin to being informed that your fly is down.
Allow me to explain. Leaving your fly down is embarrassing for you, but, more importantly, it makes those around you uncomfortable. The egregiousness of the offense can vary from relatively innocuous to mortifyingly exposed. Some people may be so upset that they won’t be able to work with you. The longer you leave you fly open, the more upset people will be. And, most importantly, unless you actively check your fly, the only way you know it’s down is if somebody tells you.
Nobody wants to wander around with their fly open and you shouldn’t want to blunder through life with your privilege unchecked. But people aren’t perfect, and you will make mistakes. So how do you respond to being caught with you fly down or called out on your privilege?
Fix the problem. Your fly is down. Zip it up. Don’t make excuses. Don’t go on a long tangent about how you just came out of the restroom and it must have slipped your mind and the zipper on these pants is just not very good. Don’t defensively demand to know why they were looking at your fly to begin with. Don’t ignore this step and move on to the next. Zip up your fly.
Thank them. When someone tells you that your fly is down; when someone calls you out on your privilege, they are doing you a kindness. No one wants the embarrassment of walking around all day with their fly open. No one should want the embarrassment of wandering through life alienating their friends and colleagues through unexamined privilege. Calling this stuff out is hard. It is emotionally draining and it is a constant uphill battle for those of less privilege. A simple thank you is the very least you can do.
Move forward. Now that the immediate offense has been addressed, you need to step back and examine why you left your fly down and what you need to do to repair any relationships that you’ve damaged. Maybe it was fairly minor and all that’s needed is a simple apology. Maybe it was a horrific error and you’ve exposed yourself to a large group, who are now mortified and uncomfortable around you. Maybe there are people who now want nothing to do with you. You need to put the effort into understanding why your actions were so hurtful and what you can do to, if nothing else, avoid repeating the same problematic behavior.
Here’s the thing: It is not the responsibility of the person who told you your fly is down to also take you shopping for new pants. It is not the responsibility of the person who called you out on you privilege to educate you. That is your responsibility. If your friend is willing to help you down that road, that is great, but they are not obligated to do anything beyond telling you your fly is down. The rest is on you.
Remember, they’ve already done you a kindness by letting you know your fly is down, return that kindness by putting in the effort to learn from your mistakes.
Here is what you should not do. Don’t take your pants off and swing them around your head — when someone calls you out on your privilege, don’t double-down and make them even more uncomfortable. Don’t leave you fly down and insist it is their problem, not yours. Don’t talk about how horrible it is, for you, that someone pointed out your fly is down — the problem is not them pointing it out, the problem is that your fly is down. Don’t constantly force those involved to re-live the fly-down incident by retelling it over and over again in an attempt to justify your actions. Fix the problem. Thank them. Move forward.
What if I feel that someone was incredibly rude when telling me that my fly is down?
Fix the problem. Thank them. Move forward.
What if I feel like dozens or hundreds of people are ganging up on me because my fly is down?
Fix the problem. Thank them. Move forward.
What if I feel that the amount of anger being directed at me for being caught with my fly down is disproportionate to my offense?
Fix the problem. Thank them. Move forward. You don’t get to dictate how others respond to your actions.
What if there’s a roving horde of vigilante flycatchers brutally scrutinizing everything we do with the intention of pouncing on anyone for even the most minor infraction?
Does that actually change the fact that your fly was down? Fix the problem. Thank them. Move forward.
What if I intentionally left my fly down to make an incredibly sophisticated statement about the way in which having you fly down makes people uncomfortable?
You are not being an ally. You are being gross.
Honestly, this isn’t that hard. If you have privilege, you’re going to get called out on it. You’ll probably feel bad. You should feel bad. You’ve made your friends and colleagues uncomfortable and reminded them that you have unearned advantages they don’t. But getting called out on your privilege doesn’t make you a garbage monster any more than being told you fly is down makes you a flasher. How you respond to that criticism is what reveals who you are.
Further reading and more resources:
- The ethics of admitting you messed up.
- Getting Called Out: How to Apologize
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (.pdf)
- It’s okay to be smart, Joe Hanson. It’s not okay to be offensive.
Thank you. This needed to be said. I hope it’s as widely read as it needs to be.
Hmmm. And may I ask what the impetus for this topic was? Seems someone got out of line maybe? Was it me? I hope not. Because in my field I try to be, as described here, an ally. Am I privileged? To be able to work for a company that let’s me run things and promote my outreach message. Absolutely. So, lemme know Andrew cause if I go commando, having my fly down could be really embarrassing.
The incident that inspired this post is described in the final link at the bottom, though I left it intentionally non-specific so that it could be broadly applicable.
Thank you. This was incredible, and I find the metaphor to be quite apt when, as you noted, it’s taken in the right spirit by individuals who truly want to *act* as allies. I’ll be bookmarking it and, in sure, linking to it and tweeting it frequently.
Thanks for the direction Andrew and the write up. It does need to be said and worked on. Hmmm. Yah. I’m more childish than most but I really thought that was a pretty bad video. Epic fail comes to mind. And to the comments in the end of one of those blogs about how epic a failure it is, Dr. Isis, could you please change your collection of 6 women to include Dr. Sylvia Earle? Or make it 7 please. Even better. Come on, she helped change a world AND she makes submarines. Duh. How cool is that? I should probably log into that thread for that comment but since I’m here already…
This is a wonderful post! Thank you.
It’s an interesting metaphor, but it only goes so far, as you almost certainly know. You outline 3 steps to take on being called out, but you only complete the metaphor for the second two… when being called out for privilege, there is simply no “I”ll just zip that up while my ears turn red” option. You’re left with Thanking Them, and Moving Forward, but those steps don’t work quite as well when your boxer shorts are still peeking out.
Of course, if you’re being a jerk, that’s different than just being privileged…
While I think this a wonderful metaphor, I can’t help but think you are alienating those whom you mean to educate and win over to your side. The whole bees honey and vinegar argument, you know. Privilege isn’t a necessarily a sin. Anyhow, hope you haven’t
I hear this argument a lot, and it’s really a derail. It detracts from the important issue (think about your privilege!) by trying to distract the messenger (I don’t like how you gave the message! Be nicer to me!). Reading this post, I don’t see anything that would de fact constitute alienation. There was no name-calling, no rude language (not that it’s not okay to be angry about privilege). There may be no way to add more honey to this kind of message. It’s probably gonna sting a little, no matter what.
Privilege isn’t a sin, but it does result in institutions where some people are disadvantaged. Finding out you have privilege can be painful, and “unpacking your invisible knapsack” takes effort. You’ll feel some discomfort, but that’s not the fault of any blog post. It’s a natural reaction to realizing that you have advantages others don’t. Sit with that discomfort.
Thanks for this rather unexpected post! It is a topic I’m working with and on (actively and distributing information about) for a while now, and this – or any other ocean science communication blog – is the last place I expected to find it. But: THANK YOU! I love the fly-down-analogy. Never heard that one before!
I really like the analogy.
I think understanding that privilege is BY DEFINITION invisible to the person who has it makes it easier to understand how you could be doing something hurtful without even meaning to.
There are a few people who stand on street corners and wave their junk around, but most people leave their fly down by mistake and never intend to offend. It doesn’t mean they haven’t though.
This is a fantastic way to describe this. Great post.
I am that dumb person. So in this metaphor, what do you do to Fix it? I really don’t know what I can do about not seeing the privilege that I have, and that this person has informed me of. Do I Apologize? Because I’ve been ostracized for being “apologist” before. What do you do to “zip up”? Is this more than a matter of taking a moment to see things from the other person’s point of view? In the moment where I have offended someone because I’ve failed to see the advantages I have over them, what is an appropriate action? I have been paralyzed in these situations because I have no idea what to do.