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May 6, 2012

On Killing the Messenger – Privilege-Guilt, Internalized Oppression, and Allyship as a Two-Way Street

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 11:17 pm

Asa said something really insightful to me yesterday about privilege-consciousness. I was venting about how frustrating I find it when someone feels guilt about a privilege they have and then blames their emotional discomfort on people who lack that privilege, rather than on the fact that we live in a system of privilege and oppression in the first place.

What Asa pointed out is that, by and large, we learn about our privileges through interactions with people who don’t have them — either because those people are the ones who talk to us about them or simply by observing the contrast between our respective lives. Because we viscerally experience our privileges and their concomitant discomfort most often around people who lack the same privileges, it’s easy for us to assume the source of that discomfort is the population of people its related to. In other words, that we feel guilty around them because they’re doing something to us by being marginalized. This would be different if most peoples’ consciousness about power dynamics developed primarily through interactions with other allies, educational materials, etc. But it doesn’t. Because those kind of resources are severely lacking and people are rarely encouraged to access the ones that do exist.

The result of this is that, often, when someone feels guilt about a privilege, they see the oppressed person as the source of that guilt — and (consciously or subconsciously) want to punish them for it. Since, by definition, someone who is oppressed along a particular vector is more vulnerable in that context than someone who has privilege on it, it’s usually very easy for the person with the privilege to (consciously or subconsciously) enact that punishment in some way.

In other words: We viscerally associate privilege-guilt and other emotionally uncomfortable aspects of privilege-consciousness with our experiences with people who are marginalized. But that discomfort isn’t something marginalized people are doing to people with privileges. It’s something that Oppression Culture is doing to marginalized people — and it’s using privileged people as tool to do it. Which you’d think would make privileged people mad at Oppression Culture, right? But, usually, it doesn’t.

It’s the subtle but scary difference between: “I feel guilty and confused because of your suffering. If you didn’t exist/if we didn’t have a relationship/if you would just quit suffering already, then I wouldn’t have to feel this way.” and “If Oppression Culture didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to suffer like this and I wouldn’t feel confused and guilty either.”

This isn’t actually big news. I already generally understood that privilege-guilt is a way that people with privileges attack oppressed people, not the other way ’round. What I didn’t understand, the stellar point that Asa articulated, was that the hack for this is a particular form of allyship: Being the Messenger. Because, when someone first becomes aware of a new privilege — even someone who has a lot of experience working with their privileges, but especially someone who doesn’t — it’s always going to be emotionally uncomfortable and many people’s gut impulse will be to kill the messenger. If, as an ally, I can be the first one to trip those emotional triggers and let the person who’s coming to terms with that privilege be mad at me, that might mean one less “You’re-making-me-feel-guilty!”-bomb that explodes in the face of a marginalized person.

Here’s another interesting thing that came up for me, too: In this conversation with Asa, I was speaking (okay, ranting) from the marginalized position. I was feeling hurt because a partner of mine who tends to have much more privileged (e.g. less complicated and difficult, more easily accessible, more frequent, more orgasmic, more widely represented, modeled and validated in popular culture, easier to describe with commonly-understood language, more legible, etc.) experiences of sexuality than I do felt (perhaps fairly) like I wasn’t giving the complexities of her sexual experience enough credit. She accused me of wanting her to feel guilty about being heterosexual, “vanilla” and cis — and because of this guilt, in my estimation, she’d emotionally tapped out of a really charged conversation about rape culture in a way that let me feeling unheard and like my and some of my loved ones’ experiences with sexual violence didn’t matter. (Obviously, the broader content of the conversation and the interpersonal dynamics at play in it were FAR more complex than I can outline in a paragraph, and we processed about it later and are continuing to process it. But that was the frame of mind I was coming from in my conversation with Asa.)

Anyway, I was venting to Asa about feeling frustrated with my partner’s defensiveness. And, when he made the point that people who are uncomfortable with their privileges are naturally going to feel defensive around whoever makes them acutely aware of those privileges, my first thought was, “But of course that’s going to be marginalized people, obviously.” After all, if we don’t do that work, who else will?

That thought is internalized oppression on my part.

It’s internalized oppression because it’s a script saying that I can’t trust allies to have my back. That when someone with a privilege I don’t have is using that privilege in a hurtful way, it’s my job and no one else’s to try and raise their awareness about that. Even if doing that leads repeatedly to contentious, uncomfortable, friction-y conversations with loved ones all the time. Internalized oppression says it’s never okay, regardless of my energy level or what else is going on in our relationships or any other contextual factors, for me to simply say, “I don’t want to have this conversation with you right now, because I don’t want to fight. Let’s talk about something else.” — because if we don’t have the conversation right then and there, maybe they’ll never have it with anybody and maybe they’ll just keep doing the thing that’s hurting me forever.

One thing I’ve learned about allyship is that it’s actually a two-way street. As an ally, I have certain responsibilities to the people I’m allying with. These include responsibilities to self-educate, to check my privileges, to take what marginalized people say about their experiences seriously, and to sit with the emotional discomfort of “being the messenger”. At the same time, insofar as I am an oppressed person who chooses to work side-by-side with allies, I also have certain responsibilities – and one of them is to trust allies to do their job. It’s to expect that, if someone uses a privilege of theirs in a way that hurts me, I can simply say, “This is hurting me. I need to change the subject.” and trust them to do the research and have the conversations they need to have with other allies to understand why it was hurtful — rather than me feeling like I have to MAKE THEM UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW.

This is actually something I’m really, really bad at. It’s something I learned about myself during the last SPAN training, the one that left me crying for a week — but that I haven’t put into much conscious practice in the rest of my life: I have a lot of trouble trusting people to be my allies. Perhaps this is because I realistically understand that allyship is extremely difficult and that I really will just have to look out for my own interests a lot of the time, but partly it’s maybe also because I’m just a control freak and maybe also because I don’t trust myself as an ally to others, either — and so I’m projecting my own self-doubt onto the people who want to ally with me. This isn’t effective for building that relationship and it is a form of self-sabotage all on its own.

These are both things for me to work with: Giving my allies more benefit of the doubt that they are doing their work. And trusting myself and my own allyship to others more, too.



  1. Hey, feel free to send people my way to talk about privilege. I’ve got just about all of ’em (privileges), and somehow wound up with the superpower of not feeling defensive about that fact. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a marginalized identity to hide behind, and just had to admit fairly early on that “Well, shit. I guess I do have a lot of privilege. What am I going to do about it?” This doesn’t mean I’ll always have time to talk about it, and I definitely won’t have as nuanced an analysis as you do, but I do want to make an explicit standing offer to be the messenger for you. You do an excellent job of being the messenger for other marginalized people/groups. I’m going to tell you something that you’ve probably told other people: when you’re dealing with a vector along which you’re marginalized, it’s totally OK for your primary concern to be keeping yourself safe. You’re under no obligation to educate someone whose privilege is actively hurting you right now, especially if trying to educate them is likely to get you hurt more. This is particularly true in your personal relationships. (I guess I’m just reiterating what your entire post is saying).

    P.S. I want to acknowledge that I don’t really know anything about the actual conversation that all of this came up in response to, so I’m responding to what I understand to be your experience of it, and not to the objective facts of what was said. Since I know the other person who was involved, I want to make it clear that I’m not making any assumptions about what she said or what her intentions were, and in case she’s reading this, I want her to know that I haven’t formed any judgments about her based on this.

    Comment by corvinity — May 7, 2012 @ 11:37 am | Reply

  2. […] those scripts. At this point in my life, Asa has become one of my closest personal friends and most trusted political allies. He has a wonderful wife and son, has rebuilt a loving relationship with his family, sought out […]

    Pingback by Why I Just Gave a Bunch of Old White Dudes Five Hundred Dollars | Emotional Mutation — May 14, 2013 @ 11:43 pm | Reply

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