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Op-ed: Privilege and Advocacy

Op-ed: Privilege and Advocacy

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Learning about the true depth of one's own privilege.

As a gay man, I understand being marginalized and having prejudice against me. I thankfully have been fortunate in the struggle to recognize my sexuality. Last winter I was in Cape Town, South Africa, evaluating the government's ability to adequately grant asylum to LGBTQ refugees. The process brought me face-to-face with men and women from all over Africa who truly knew fear, prejudice, and hate against them because of their sexual orientation and gender identification. In those interviews, I came to truly understand my privilege.

The heart of the situation in Ferguson, Mo., and all over this country, is the lack of a conversation about privilege. Fortunately, this conversation is surfacing. Privilege is not only about the color of our skin, but our sex, wealth, educational opportunities, nationalism, geography, sexual orientation, and many other factors that are often not chosen. Many Americans who have traveled to developing countries have experienced American privilege. When I was interviewing and writing affidavits for those individuals in South Africa, I constantly confronted my privileges and asked myself, How can I empower those who do not have these benefits?

I am a white, cisgender male from America with an education who happens to be gay. My being is loaded with opportunities to advocate for people who are women, nonwhite, seeking to be educated, transgender community, and queer people of color. I found my opportunity to be an ally is not only a responsibility, it is a priority.

How do we make being an ally a priority? First, we must acknowledge our privilege; acknowledge it and itemize what we take for granted. Second, identify whom this privilege effects and disadvantages. Consider what we would all be able to accomplish if these obstacles were not in the way for many of the population. Third, begin recognizing when inequalities arise. Ask how you can diminish these inequalities. Empathy is extremely important because without empathy, we will not internalize how these inequalities really feel. Finally, use your voice to create space for the voices of the marginalized. It isn't about speaking for the people we are advocating for. There are brilliant, loud voices in those communities. Other people just need to listen and know who to listen for.

Being an advocate looks different in different situations. Sometimes it is voting for women's reproductive rights. Often, advocating can just be asking a community organizer, "How can I be best used?" Other times, it is clearly a moment where we must scream, "Shut the fuck up and listen to what is being said!"

Know that being an advocate is not always easy. We are not there to lead, only to assist in the journey to equality. The communities we are advocating for can sometimes be cautious and protective of their cause. Be patient with them and keep showing up to be a part of the cause. We must have true integrity in our advocacy because when it is hard, and we get pushback as an advocate, we must stay true to our word and keep fighting.

The most important tool for a good advocate is to be open. This is not only about helping; that is a tiny piece of it. Being an ally to the less privileged is learning, sharing information, and hearing a story. This intersection of paths is where true social change happens. We can overcome these inequalities in privilege once we all find the same space, truly empathize with one another, and become companions on this journey to equality. This journey is long and may never have a final destination because humanity can be cruel. I also believe humanity is extremely loving. If we stay true to our goal, and welcome all who want to join our actions, positive social change will get us closer to equality, and privilege will be so transparent that it will not be a concern.

GREGG POTTER is an activist, writer, public servant, and the founder of Project Kinect. Currently he is focusing efforts on community development in Madison, WI and supporting the Norm:al Africa campaign. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ggpotter.

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