How NOT to be an Ally – Part 3 “Spoken-Language Microaggressions”

A few weeks ago, I boarded a flight from Houston to Mexico City excited for a mini-vacation and a visit to Frida Kahlo’s home and museum (see pic). Passengers searched for seats while flight attendants closed baggage bins in preparation for departure. So far so good. As a possibly Latina woman stopped to claim the middle seat of the exit row, the flight attendant, a Black woman, spoke up.

“You can sit up here in this row. You cannot sit there. You have to speak English to sit in the exit row.”

Let’s just stop right there.

  • How would she understand you if she did not speak English? (put that aside for now)
  • Why did you assume this woman could not speak English? Plenty of brown people in the U.S., including Houston, speak English.
  • Why did you fail to ask all of the white people in the exit row if they speak English before they sat down? The standard operating procedure is to ask all of them at the same time and get a verbal “yes,” but you singled this woman out.

The Woman’s Response

“I do speak English,” she said with no detectable accent. Proceeds to sit down in the exit row. The flight attendant offered no forthcoming apology.

Spoken-Language Racial Assumptions as Microaggressions

Did the flight attendant assume all brown people do not speak English, assume the woman was visiting Houston and therefore cannot speak English, assume she is an immigrant and no immigrants speak English? This behavior singled out an individual as different, lacking, and “other.” She put this woman from a marginalized group on the spot in front of everyone. There is, of course, a chance that this exchange did not bother the woman who was attempting to sit down. However, this kind of microaggression could be experienced as embarrassing and perpetuated assumptions based on perceived race because others hear your biased comments.

How could this have gone differently? Ally Recommendations:

Ask everyone:There are ways to get the information you need without singling out the individual. Ask everyone because you have to anyway per federal regulations. Yes, the flight attendant wanted to avoid having the woman sit down, get settled, then having to move her later because of a language barrier, but that is still better than telling her where she can and cannot sit. Alternatively, wait a few minutes, then ask everyone in all the exit rows if they speak English. Then you are meeting the airline and federal regulation needs, but not harming any single person. You could even say “Since we are on an international flight, I usually go ahead and ask if everyone here speaks English.”

Avoid common language-based assumptions: Enjoy this complimentary (free of charge) list of microaggressions to avoid as they perpetuate similar spoken-language racial assumptions:

  • “You speak such exceptional English.” Implied- “you speak exceptional English for an Asian person, and I assumed you were a recent immigrant with a thick accent.” Nope. Just do not say this. You can add to this category anything that sounds like, “Oh, when did you lose your accent?” or “I don’t even notice your accent.”
  • “You don’t speak Spanish?! You are not really Mexican.” This comment often originates from the racial or ethnic in-group. Implied- “you have to know Spanish to be considered Latinx, you are not one of us.” Just stop assuming someone does or does not speak a certain language or shaming them if they do not. Good? Ok, good.
  • “You are so articulate.” Implied- “you are articulate for a black person, but I expected you to speak Ebonics.” I know you want to use the word articulate. But let’s just all agree not to use it to describe how people of color speak. More than likely, that is going to land as an insult rather than a compliment.
  • “Could yoooouuu teeell meee the tiiiiime?” Latinx and Asian individuals unfortunately encounter this quite often. Speaking slowly and loudly to someone means you assume they do not speak English. And you do know that getting louder will not remove the language barrier, right (if a language barrier exists)?

Flex your ally muscles = Controlled Processing: Social cognition research reveals the power of automatic processing to maintain our assumptions based on social identity categories. This split-second unconscious thinking was built on a lifetime of persistent stereotyped messages. We have internalized those messages with no awareness that they show up in our behaviors. Allies must identify assumptions then consistently apply and practice controlled processing to counteract our training within systems of racism and other forms of oppression. After decades of working for sexual minority rights, I failed to use my controlled processing just a few weeks ago. While speaking to a feminist psychologist idol of mine, she mentioned visiting her son and his family. My next words were, “What is your son’s wife’s name?” She responded, “he is married to a man.” Yep, there it is. My automatic processing took over even though I view myself as having spent years decoding my own heterosexist assumptions. My controlled processing skills were out of practice and the assumptions jumped back in to take over. Use it or lose it!! We must stay vigilant to check and actively counteract automatic processing of assumptions.

Make intersectional connections: The event I witnessed involved a Black woman committing the microaggression. Of course, the same comments could have come from a white flight attendant or another person of color, including Latinx. As allies, we must critically reflect on our own experiences with discrimination to draw parallels to how we may enact microaggressions against others. Yes, this was undoubtedly was unintentional and unconscious. All the more reason to work hard to apply intersectional theory to our work and what may seem like insignificant interactions with individuals we perceive as different. I highly recommend viewing the video “Microaggressions in the Classroom” created by Dr. Yolanda Flores Niemann and her students at University of North Texas.

Kim A. Case, Ph.D. founded and leads the Lightning Bug Center in its mission to advance educator development as intersectional allies for social justice. She serves as a national/international speaker and consultant on diversity, equity, and inclusive practices and policies in higher education, K-12 settings, organizations, and workplace settings.

For resources related to ally behavior, teaching and learning, social justice, privilege awareness, intersectionality, and more of her work, visit and

Follow her on twitter @drkimcase. Her teach.learn.grow. blog can be found at

How NOT to be an Ally – Part 2 “He-peat, Re-white, and Amplification”

Scenario: We walk into the monthly faculty meeting expecting announcements, Dean reports, and lively discussion about academic policies. In our attempts to articulate potential consequences of a proposed course schedule change, I shared my concerns that the change would disproportionately harm our low-income students as well as those with full-time jobs, family responsibilities, drive commutes of up to an hour each way to attend class, and several other marginalized groups. No one responded to my comment. Three comments later, a white male faculty member voiced his observation that the change would introduce obstacles for working students and those with children. His plea that we should attend to the needs of these students is met with widespread agreement and follow-up commentary from the broader group.

What just happened? Could you sum up my experience in one word? Until recently, we did not have a succinct way of naming this very common phenomenon. But now we do. What happened to me in that meeting is known as the “he-peat.” The standard he-peat occurs when a man repeats a woman’s idea without citing her as the original source and no one in the room acknowledges her as the idea generator. Not only is the woman and her intellectual contribution rendered invisible, the man’s he-peat is rewarded with positive reinforcement and accolades for the supposed insight. This behavior may also come from an unexpected source: women “she-peat” women. Often, this takes the form of white women she-peating women of color. The she-peat persists because we are all soaking in a tub of the same culture that renders women’s contributions invisible. Women are not immune to implicit and unconscious bias against women.

These seemingly small slights are more accurately recognized as microaggressions that cause psychological harm and emotional stress. When your colleagues act as if you never spoke, ignore your contributions, then praise another for the same ideas, there is a swift impact and clear message. Clearly, the comment does not carry weight until a privileged person provides the perceived legitimacy. In other words, power renders the comment worthy. The he-peat erases you from existence through social isolation and withholding of proper credit. When this occurs, we are telling the target(s) they are invisible, dispensable, devalued, illegitimate, and lacking professional credibility. It is no wonder so many of us struggle with imposter syndrome.

New Terms for Ally Action

Given the topic of this blog focuses on taking credit for the ideas of others, I want to model ally behavior and name the original creative minds behind our new terms. In 2017, Nicole Gugliucci tweeted (@noisyastronomer) that her friends coined the term “he-peat” in response to these all too common experiences. Within that same thread, a tweeter named Spice (@masterq_) added the term “re-white” as a common parallel experience faced by people of color whose ideas are overlooked, then repeated by White colleagues. Speaking to intersections, I suppose we need a term for use by women of color referring to the multiplicative effects of re-whites and he-peats.

By naming the behavior, we label the harm done AND can plan for ally action. New terms help us become more aware of invisible phenomena and create a shared understanding that can be built into a cultural shift (if enough people use the new terms). Back in the 1970s and 1980s, women experiencing sexual comments and persistent degradation at work did not have access to the term “sexual harassment.” After the term took hold, women could literally name their experiences and identify the behavior of male supervisors and colleagues as illegal (note that harassment can be same-sex and women harassing men). We need allies across and within marginalized groups to help spread the use and understanding of the terms: re-white, he-peat, she-peat.

Action by Privileged (aspiring) Allies

First, stop being a person that subconsciously repeats another’s idea as if it is your own. You must work at truly SEEING all of the people in the room as full and whole credible contributors to the discussion. As Peggy McIntosh notes, we face the challenge of not seeing what we were taught not to see. So your role is to look for these harmful instances of s/he-peat and re-white theft. This is the plagiarism of conversation, but somehow socially acceptable in academia where failure to properly cite your source is comparable to outright theft. STOP doing it. If you do and then you realize someone else had said it first, go back and publicly give them credit.

What we need from the privileged is for you/us to use your cultural capital, social capital, institutionalized privilege, and assumed credibility to call attention to s/he-peat and re-white situations. Ally actions do not have to be disruptive or challenging, but can have an impact on awareness and raising positive visibility and inclusion. Speak up. Add to the conversation and call back to the original speaker. Sometimes I will contribute for the sole purpose of reminding people who initially came up with this great idea. For example, “I agree with Matt’s last comment. It sounds like he is in agreement with Sharon’s original idea about incorporating student voices into policy decisions. And I want to thank Sharon for bringing this up so that we could have this productive conversation.” The women staffers in the Obama White House called this ally behavior “amplification.” The more we engage in amplification, the more we can credit the work of marginalized colleagues, increasing their visibility as crucial contributors, and hopefully deepening their own sense of belonging.

Previous How NOT to Be an Ally blog posts available at

How NOT to be an Ally – Part 1 “Centering the Privileged”

Students, faculty, and community members often approach me seeking advice on their quest to understand interracial encounters. For example, white women and white men tend to ask me to explain misunderstandings they have encountered with people of color. “Melissa, my colleague at work who is Mexican American, told me about a racist incident she experienced with another co-worker. I tried to explain that her encounter was probably just about Stan being rude, which he is to everyone, rather than racism. But she did not seem to get what I was saying. So how do I effectively explain in a way that Melissa understands me?”

When sharing this scenario with me, the white woman we will call Penny, engaged in unconscious privileged group behavior that results in further marginalization and microaggressions against her colleague Melissa. To be clear, Penny sees herself as a good person and as an ally to people of color. Let’s break down this response and analyze how her expectations missed the ally mark and prevented her from being a supportive colleague.

Ally Mistake 1: Centering the Privileged Perspective

First, Penny focused on her own perspective and emotions. As a white woman, she cannot directly experience systemic racism because her racial group has the most collective power and control within systems and institutions. This lack of experience and the discomfort that results from hearing Melissa’s story, and therefore Melissa’s pain, (unconsciously) motivates Penny to explain away the racism. Within, social psychology, we call this motivated reasoning. Rather than analyze the instance of workplace racism, she looks for various ways to attribute the encounter to some other source, such as Stan being an equal opportunity rude co-worker. White fragility can be a strong motivator in these moments. As allies, we must consciously and consistently work to resist white fragility that leads to centering our own needs.

Ally Mistake 2: Invalidating the Marginalized Experience

Second, Penny invalidated a woman of color’s experience. In graduate school, a close friend and classmate of mine, an African American woman, came to my office and shared that one of our faculty members had confused her with another African American student. The white faculty member called my friend by the wrong name. Even though I am white, my friend felt I would understand because she knew I studied white privilege and anti-racist activism. In that moment, I asked her if she thought maybe this white male faculty member usually confused all of the students. In other words, I implied maybe his naming mix up was not about race. Within a short moment, I corrected my own dismissive statement, and we got back on track processing the microaggression she experienced. Although this happened about 18 years ago, I still think about that day as a time when I invalidated her lived experience of hurt with my own white lens interpretation. My dismissal was likely due to my own discomfort in that moment (see above mistake about centering the privileged).

Ally Mistake 3: Searching for Miss-Education

Third, Penny sought my help in “fixing” the supposed miscommunication between herself and the beleaguered woman of color with the goal of having Melissa understand her “it’s not racism” logic. Though I appreciated her efforts to seek guidance from White anti-racism scholars to better educate herself, she began with the wrong assumptions and the wrong question. Seeking education on how to get Melissa to listen to her explain away racism misses the mark. Hence the label “Miss-Education.” As a white woman, Penny does need education. She needs advice on how to listen deeply, sit with her own discomfort, and avoid placing her own needs at the center of the conversation when a person of color bravely shares her upsetting encounter with racism. The appropriate question would be, “How do I learn to attend to Melissa’s needs, not expect her to educate me, and make her feel seen and heard in those moments?”

Ally Advice

My first instinct for this section is to say, “Don’t be a Penny!” However, this requires a bit more nuance. Ally work is never complete. Even the most dedicated to analyzing privilege and working to dismantle oppression can fail to respond as effective allies in these moments. If you truly aim to behave as an ally to Melissa, take a deep breath, recognize your own internal emotional response, put your own needs aside to process later (not with a person of color), LISTEN, ask her what SHE needs from you in that moment, validate her feelings, believe her. Think about a time when you were not heard and what you wish you had received. Then do that.

Please note this post focuses on white allies, but applies across various forms of oppression and privilege. Stayed tuned for future “How NOT to be an Ally” posts covering all too common ally mistakes as well as behaviors associated with “intersectional ally” behavior.

by Kim A. Case, Ph.D.

For resources related to ally behavior, teaching and learning, social justice, privilege awareness, intersectionality, and more of Dr. Kim Case’s work, visit and Follow her on twitter @drkimcase. Dr. Case’s teach.learn.grow. blog can be found at She regularly serves as a national/international speaker and consultant on diversity, equity, and inclusive practices and policies in higher education, K-12 settings, organizations, and workplace settings.

Call for proposals: “Applications of Intersectionality to Critical Social Issues”

“Applications of Intersectionality to Critical Social Issues”

Editors: Kim Case, Nicole Overstreet, Lisa Rosenthal

Download PDF file of this call for proposals here.

The Journal of Social Issues (JSI) and special issue editors seek proposals for a special issue on “Applications of Intersectionality to Critical Social Issues.” This collection will focus on intersectional theory as critical inquiry and critical praxis as outlined by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge (2016). The contributing articles will apply intersectional theory to critical social issues, making complex connections to structural and institutional forces, the co-construction of various forms of oppression, lived experiences related to intersectional identities, social policies, and more.

Defining Intersectionality (from Case, 2017):

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) argued that individuals occupy unique and specific social locations built upon a set of simultaneous and co-constructed identities (e.g., race, sexuality, nation, class, ability, and gender) that result in complex interactions in opposition to categorical generalizations. For example, limiting single-axis categorizations problematically treat race and gender as mutually exclusive, thereby erasing women of color. These additive and single-axis schemas reduce powerful structural forces to simplistic and inaccurate individual-level explanations for inequality. Collins’ (1990) matrix of domination offered a useful conceptual structure for unraveling situated social locations that include both disadvantaged and privileged identities.

Seeking Submissions:

Within this issue, the editors welcome a variety of interdisciplinary scholarly submissions and methodological approaches such as qualitative and quantitative studies, theoretical development pieces, etc. We invite empirical and conceptual pieces advancing understanding of intersectional theory and intersectional lived experiences, particularly with a focus on implications for and applications to social issues. We seek manuscripts that are rigorous and high quality while simultaneously presenting radical perspectives aiming to disrupt the status quo within our field and/or in society more broadly. This can include non-traditional methods such as counter- storytelling, personal narrative, community participatory action research, or case studies.

All articles are expected to integrate the revolutionary core of intersectionality and directly address applications to public policy, societal/institutional structures, and various social and cultural contexts (e.g., international contexts) within the implications section or throughout the article. We encourage diversity of study populations within articles as well as author/contributor diversity including socio-demographics, global location, career stage, and discipline.

We aim to include papers that address how intersectional theory offers applications to a range of critical social issues through many topics and lenses including but not limited to:

  • structural/systemic barriers and inequities;
  • making the invisible intersections visible;
  • activism and social movements;
  • privilege and ally behavior;
  • stereotypes and implicit bias;
  • subjugated knowledge;
  • centering the voices of the marginalized (e.g., counter storytelling);
  • challenging categorical understanding of identity;
  • social justice.

If you are interested in submitting a proposal, please note the following:

  • SUBMIT ABSTRACT– An abstract of 2 to 4 pages must be submitted to the editors by email by January 15, 2019. Abstracts/proposals should feature the working title of the proposed article, the author(s) responsible for it, together with the contact information of the author(s). Please describe what you intend to cover in your article so we can anticipate the contents and focus, as well as plan the special issue in terms of topics Issue editors and JSI editorial board will provide feedback on accepted abstracts to support development of       the manuscript.
  • The detailed abstracts should describe the theoretical underpinnings of the work, the methodological approach taken, and implications for social For empirical articles, the abstract should include descriptions of the sample, methods, and primary findings. For review articles, the abstract should include descriptions of the means by which the work reviewed was chosen (e.g., selective, supportive, exhaustive) and primary conclusions. Note that submissions must reflect on completed or nearly completed work. Proposals based on empirical research in progress (or based on future studies) would not be appropriate.
  • Send abstracts to all 3 special issue editors (please copy all of us): caseki[at]; noverstreet[at]; lrosenthal[at]
  • Manuscripts should be original works not previously
  • APA style- References, citations, and general style of abstracts should be prepared in accordance with the APA Publication Manual, 6th Cite in the text by author and date (Smith, 1983) and include an alphabetical list at the end. Number manuscript pages consecutively throughout the paper. Authors should also supply a shortened version of the title suitable for the running head, not exceeding 50 character spaces.
  • Although the timeline may change, we anticipate making selection decisions and sending abstract feedback within 2 months. Full-length manuscripts will be due on or after July 1, 2019. Manuscripts may be submitted early. Manuscripts submitted after this date may not be eligible for inclusion in the issue.

We do hope you will consider this invitation, and we look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely your special issue editor team,

Kim A. Case, Ph.D., University of Houston-Clear Lake

Nicole Overstreet, Ph.D. Clark University

Lisa Rosenthal, Ph.D. Pace University

Revolutionary Today, Pacifist Tomorrow? Variations of Activism in Communities of Color

-guest blog by Tulsi Achia, University of Queensland

It’s not every day that I get to hang out with woke, witty, politicized, and incredibly clever folks of color in my world. I am Indian, emigrated to Australia in my 30’s which made for restrictive social-circles – you take what you can get, I live in a very White state, and work in predominantly White spaces as a social researcher. So when the opportunity came at a recently concluded conference to hang out with like-minded researchers of color, discussing issues of race, gender, sexuality, intersectionality and activism, man I was there for it. You bet I was. So here I am, telling you now, that I came away from that conference a little bit disappointed, and a little bit disillusioned. You can tell because I am writing a goddamned blog about it. This is not my first experience of it, but these are early years of my own activism, and this has been a recurring experience. I can’t help but feel that when you finally make contact with something that has been elusive so far, the reality always falls short of the dream. The dream being, some kind of utopia where woke, smart, highly educated folks of color come together in perfect unison to take our people to the promised land? I think that was the image in my head. Having always connected to people from different cultures and their individual and collective stories of resistance and flourishing, every time I walk into a group of folks of color, I naively assume we’re all going to get along! In case you are rolling your eyes at this idea, you can roll your eyes back to the front now, thankyouverymuch.

What was common to all of us at the gathering was this; all of us were driven toward our research and activism by the same sense of outrage at structural inequality. All of us were expressing our scholarly and racial identities in predominantly White spaces, which meant navigating not just the complexities of the self-relevant topics we were studying (race, gender, prejudice, etc.), but also the identities we were living out in these spaces. The unsurprising point of difference amongst us, was that each of us was going about our identity expression (scholarly and personal), and our activism, in very different ways. The disappointing bit was that not only did we not agree with each other’s ways (boo hoo!), but we were for some reason also feeling compelled to judge one another for it in subtle and blatant ways. Are we pacifists, are we reformists, or are we revolutionaries? Are we radical, are we mediators and interlocutors, are we strategic, or are we just plain exhausted and choosing our battles carefully for now? And why are YOU being so strategic? Stop with the respectability politics; where did it ever take us?

So this brings me to the question. Are we, as politically active people of color (and our allies/accomplices), allowed to explore and use different strategies in how we conduct our activism or express our politicized identities? And how can we build more compassion and respect for those unique stances that we take? And I think about this not just as someone who studies allyship and activism in her research, but also as a politicized woman of color, and ally to brothers and sisters of color walking the tough line every day. I am addressing this publicly only now, because I have often felt like this was an untouchable topic of discussion amongst our circles.

Why do we adopt different strategies?

Racial minorities in predominantly White, Western countries are made up of different ethnicities, racial backgrounds, and are there because of varying histories of immigration or forced migration, and colonization. They also differ in structural power and privilege despite being minority groups and disadvantaged in different ways (again a product of unique migration histories or historical factors such as colonization). For example, economic, employment, and education outcomes for African-American communities differ vastly from Asian/South-Asians in the U.S., because of historical oppressions and enslavement faced by the former, and skilled immigration that was encouraged for the latter. Differences in privilege and power between Aboriginal people versus skilled migrants in Australia is dictated by a similar history – the latter being more educated and holding highly skilled middle-class professions. While all communities of color in these societies are grappling with the same issue – that of toxic expressions of Whiteness and systemic racism, each is dealing with a different stereotype thrown at them, a different frame from which they are perceived, and a different type of threat and disadvantage. As a muslim friend jokingly observed, “being black – you deal with police brutality, being brown or muslim – you deal with airport security and federal surveillance.” So I hypothesize that choice of strategy comes down to a matrix of situational factors times type of threat times privilege.

(a) Situational factors, history and norms governing that context – Your context could be a familiar department meeting versus a conference where there are unknown people versus a protest rally versus the context of close family members or small rural community you live in. Each would dictate very different strategies of identity expression and resistance. Also, has there been a history where other predecessors of color have laid some groundwork which allows for more direct strategies or has it failed miserably in the past which might then require more steady and strategic methods?

(b) Type of threat – Threats may include real or symbolic threat, threat to identity versus threat to life and bodily integrity, job prospects, livelihood. It could be an immediate, short-term threat versus potential for ongoing threat, etc., which would make us choose one strategy over another at that given time.

(c) Privilege – As mentioned before, racial minorities in the west come with their own unique baggage of disadvantage and privilege. We might possess high power or low power as individuals in general or it could be situation-specific. That relative privilege can determine how we enact our activism. This might even include the privilege of gains accrued in a context – do I already have a fairly woke set of peers or bosses as a result of work done by others? If yes, I can afford to be a bit more radical in my stance.

And while we’re at it, what about developmental phase and insight? A feminist friend of mine was once telling me that her 20’s and 30’s were spent being direct and confrontational in her activism, being unmindful of potential threats to herself or consideration for how she could be harming or furthering the cause. Her sense was that her activism was much more about identity expression – focusing on the self, rather than focusing on the other, the cause, and the long haul. She talked about her 40’s – where she is now – as a time where she finds herself being more compassionate, patient in her activism and confrontation. She tries to focus more on teachable moments. Surely such insight develops over time, and life experience brings with it learning, insight, and a shift in values, which perhaps shifts one’s activism and stance. This is not to say that one or the other strategy is better or inherently more mature or evolved. Also, there is a case to be made for people with certain privileges having the capacity for more patience, more conciliatory strategies or more compassion in their resistance, which someone who does not have the benefit of those privileges may find no use for.

On the need to approach our activism with compassion and respect

As I continue to process my experiences in the past year, I remind myself, that the radical might just be a perfect complement to the reformist, and the mediator of today, might just be the revolutionary of tomorrow.

The movement needs all kinds, and it takes all kinds to propel a movement forward. The movement does not exist in one place or within one person or one organized group. The movement unfolds in many, many, different pockets within a system and outside of it, at different points in time. What do we risk when we don’t recognize that our activism is nuanced or different, not less than or superior to someone else’s? We risk alienating our own. We risk adding to the trauma of our brothers and sisters, when we know so well what battles each of us are fighting. We risk derailing the movement, because so much of our activism can become about us – our identity expression in the here and now. We put our well-being at risk, because we judge ourselves as “weak” or “not woke enough” and perhaps put ourselves in risky situations where support may not be available. This contest between us (and within us) needs to gently give way to a more mindful and compassionate way of living our identities, and conducting our activism.

Tulsi Achia is a practice psychologist with a background in clinical and counseling psychology. She is currently doing her PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her research focuses on allyship in the race, sexuality and gender contexts, with an emphasis on understanding pathways through which this advantaged group solidarity goes wrong despite good intentions, and how that impacts disadvantaged groups. Her research interests also focus on minority group members’ activism preferences, identity processes and factionalism within disadvantaged group-led movements.

Am I Doing This Right? Reflecting on the Complexities of Activism and Social Justice Research

Guest blog by Morgana Lizzio-Wilson, Doctoral Student at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

I’ve always been passionate about social justice. As an activist, teacher, and researcher with a combination of advantaged and disadvantaged identities, I try to constantly interrogate my privilege, seek to understand what being a ‘good ally’ means to the different groups I don’t belong to but want to support, and have conversations with members of advantaged groups about the unique identity pressures I and other disadvantaged groups face. However, there’s an issue that’s starting to demoralize me: advantaged groups’ defensiveness and lack of receptivity to discussions about privilege and allyship. When I try to have discussions about gender, racial, sexual, and/or economic privilege (to name a few) with family, students, and strangers on the internet, I frequently encounter reactions ranging from vitriolic diatribes to blatant disinterest.

I am tired of dealing with these kinds of reactions. They take up too much time and energy, and make me feel like things are moving backwards. So recently I started to wonder: should I frame conversations about privilege and allyship differently so they reach people who might otherwise react defensively? By ‘differently’, I mean in ways which minimize anger and other negative emotions which may lower advantaged groups’ receptivity. As a social science researcher, I turned to the academic literature to see if my hunch was correct. However, the answer was more nuanced than I expected and led me to reflect further on my own privilege.

What does the research tell us?

Perhaps not surprisingly, non-aggressive and indirect confrontations of prejudice (i.e., tentatively labelling an act as problematic but not explicitly bigoted) are perceived more favourably and as less threatening by advantaged group members.1 As indirect (versus direct) confrontations are seen as less hostile, they elicit less anger and more favourable evaluations of the confronter.2 This is important, as the experience of anger enhances people’s use of heuristics3, which are mental shortcuts that ease the burden of decision making, which can include using stereotypes and profiling. So advantaged groups’ experience of anger may lead them to rely on negative stereotypes of activists, which can reduce their adoption of the behaviours that activists promote.4 Thus, intergroup emotions elicited by direct confrontations of prejudice and privilege could, ironically, reduce the advantage group’s desire to engage with and help disadvantaged groups.

After reading this, I began to think that it might be valuable for activists to package their messages in ways that might reduce these negative emotions and enhance receptivity. As an added bonus, this might also reduce the amount of ‘ammunition’ that advantaged groups can use to delegitimize activists (i.e., ‘You’re so angry and unreasonable, I can’t even talk to you!’). But when I started reflecting on this research as an activist, I realized that it only tells part of the story. It doesn’t capture the exhaustion and frustration activists and disadvantaged groups feel day to day. We already have to deal with the intrapsychic, interpersonal, and structural consequences of inequality. But on top of that we’re expected to manage the hurt feelings of advantaged groups? This is a herculean task, particularly when you consider that many activists possess multiple disadvantaged identities. Thus many of us have to deal with multiple sources of discrimination and hostility, making the burden of this task even greater.

Where to from here?

Given the evidence for the benefits of strategic communication and the complexities of this issue not yet captured in the literature, it doesn’t seem appropriate to recommend a course of action that everyone should take. However, exploring this issue has given me further insight into the importance of reflective practice around allyship and privilege as an activist and researcher. As an activist, asking members of disadvantaged groups to take on the added burden of strategic communication and emotion management is not always reasonable. And as a White, cisgender (non-transgender), heterosexual, upper-middle class woman, I need to consider how my many privileges inoculate me against these difficulties, which may mean that I have more ‘headspace’ and social capital to communicate strategically with advantaged groups. Further, it’s not my right to tell groups I don’t belong to how they should react to discrimination and problematic allies when the consequences of those interactions do not directly affect me. I also encourage advantaged groups to shoulder some of the responsibility in these dynamics. It’s OK to feel frustrated and confused about how to be a good ally. And it’s OK to find it hard to confront your privilege at times (I certainly have in the past). But even though I may feel upset and hurt by these conversations on occasion, I don’t have to live with the oppression and discrimination that these disadvantaged groups do. At the end of the day, me feeling uncomfortable and questioning my privilege is not that much to ask.

As researchers, we need to place disadvantaged groups at the centre of research on collective action and social change. I know that issues related to inequality and injustice are already a main focus of Social Psychological research. But in my experience, much of this research does not consider how the multiple identity pressures and emotional fatigue disadvantaged groups experience qualify findings which suggest that we should communicate with advantaged groups in particular ways. Adopting an intersectional lens in our research is imperative if we want to better capture the complexities of social movements and provide practical applications which are feasible and useful to the groups which need them.

All being said and done, I’m keen to hear about other people’s experiences dealing with these issues. I don’t have all (or even most) of the answers to the complex questions that allyship, social movements, and privilege raise. I’m just doing the best I can and learning as I go. I figure that as long as I’m open to owning my mistakes, learning from them and other people, that’s a good start.

Morgana Lizzio-Wilson is a final year PhD student in Social Psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her research focuses on collective action, prejudice reduction (with an emphasis on sexist attitudes), and solidarity behaviours among disadvantaged groups. She is passionate about giving Psychology away, and has worked with the Women’s Collective at her university to organise evidence-based campaigns which tackle prejudice and instigate social change on campus. If you would like to learn more about her research and activism, please visit Morgana’s ResearchGate profile (, or contact her directly at


1 Becker, J. C., & Barreto, M. (2014). Ways to go: Men’s and women’s support for aggressive and nonaggressive confrontation of sexism as a function of gender identification. Journal of Social Issues, 70(4), 668-686.

2 Hyers, L. L. (2010). Alternatives to silence in face-to-face encounters with everyday heterosexism: Activism on the interpersonal front. Journal of Homosexuality, 57(4), 539-565.

3 Bodenhausen, G. V., Sheppard, L. A., & Kramer, G. P. (1994). Negative affect and social judgment: The differential impact of anger and sadness. European Journal of Social Psychology, 24(1), 45-62.

4 Bashir, N. Y., Lockwood, P., Chasteen, A. L., Nadolny, D., & Noyes, I. (2013). The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(7), 614-626.

An Open Letter to (some) White Feminist Friends: by Indu Viswanathan

Dear some white feminist friends,

I write this to you sincerely, from a genuine space of calling in. While I may feel anger towards you at times, my intention is not to fill the space between us with that anger. My wish is to use the flame of that emotion to ignite our mutual awareness, to light the spaces between us feminists, so that we may build bridges over fractures that have compounded over generations.

I ask you, first, to turn to your own experience, as feminists. White female feminists, I ask you to recall those times when you and your fellow white female feminists spoke out bravely and with clarity about those patriarchal thorns – large and minute – that had been so deeply buried under your skin that it seemed like they had become invisible to the rest of the world. Remember those moments when you vocalized enormous unevenness and inequity that had long blended into accepted, unquestioned norms. Remember the courage it took to say those things, with what might have been received as audacity. You knew it would make others uncomfortable, because you had been bearing it silently and skillfully all along. The things you finally had the space to vocalize, that once were shared glances with another sister.

And then remember hearing from other folks – men and maybe women, too – that you had gone too far. That you were being picky and difficult. Relax, it was just a joke, just an innocent mistake.

Except you knew in every bone of your body that it wasn’t a “just a joke”. Ever. It was always a coded message. Remember the quiet rage that boiled up inside when your bravery and truth were reduced to a caricature. You cannot know what I am talking about unless you are a woman, unless you have lived and walked for days and months and years in these worn out shoes that have been handed down to me by generations of grandmothers, you would think and say.

But things are changing, you were told, and you need to be grateful. It seems like nothing will ever please you, woman. I am on your side, and I would say something if I thought something was actually wrong. But now you are overreaching. You need to lighten up and to stop finding something where there is nothing.

And over and over again, you clenched your teeth in utter disbelief when you were told that your insight and self-expression and equality were vulnerable to approval. One saving grace were the men, the male feminists, who said, I do not know what it is like to be a woman in this world, but I believe that we are equals, and I believe you when you speak your truth. In fact, it is not for me to believe or not believe. Your truth is simply true. That partnership made a difference.

Now, my white feminist friends, see people of color who bring to the surface and bare their cuts and bruises, who share boldly the subtle and gross realities about being people of color living in a racialized system steeped in white power. See how they divulge and unpack and explain oppression that is so subtle, it lives in the system like a virus, coded within words, resting in the American psyche, nestled comfortably in institutions and norms that camouflage and depend upon it. Imagine the skill and awareness and courage it takes to discern it, to articulate it.

Now see how they hear from some white feminists – male and female – that they are exaggerating, that it is too much, that their constant racializing of things that are not racialized is exhausting and unnecessary. And see how they are criticized for being angry and relentless in the natural enactment of their agency. (You know the rest.)

This ongoing hypocrisy deepens the chasm between people of color and white feminists.

Friends, you cannot know the depth and diversity of oppressive experiences that a person of color bears on a daily basis. You are not meant to know, even when it is right in front of you. It will be literally unbelievable for you to learn about these pervasive, endless things, just as it was and is for some white men to accept and acknowledge your oppression. You will want to reject the scope of what they say because it is so suffocating even just to hear it. Accept it anyway, as your white male feminist friends accepted what was unbelievable to them. Remind yourself that the calling out of oppression seems relentless only because the oppression is relentless. Remind yourself that it is not your place to authenticate or validate the oppression that a person of color articulates. Your experience does not define ours, just like men’s experiences do not define women’s.

If you are truly dedicated to building trust where there is now mistrust, then consider this: you are now being asked to do for your brothers and sisters of color what you asked and ask your white brothers to do.

I have seen some white feminists learning how to do this, and I believe it is possible. It is okay if it takes some time for you to develop this new habit. It is okay to stop in the middle of a response or reaction or post or conversation and say, Hey, I just realized that I’m doing the very oppressive thing to you that is done to me. I will do better by you.

You will never know the experience of being a person of color, and you certainly cannot conflate the experience of being a white woman with being a person of color. But you already know the experience of having your truth disbelieved, dismissed, and disregarded by men in power. And you know what you seek in your male allies. So, you know exactly what is needed from you, and not just by you.

Now be that ally that you sought, that you seek, for your sisters and brothers of color. I gently offer that a more inclusive and compassionate expression of a white feminist’s power – more than speaking up – may well be knowing when listening to and accepting the seemingly unbelievable is the most powerfully healing form of support. What a beautiful, radical possibility.

With an open heart,

Indu Viswanathan is a “Mama-Educator-Scholar-Activist, bursting through the yuck with love and sass.” Please visit Indu’s public Facebook page:

Intersectionality Game- C’est La Vie: The Game of Social Life

On Saturday, January 21st, millions of women around the world united to stand up for women and the causes they believe in, including (but not limited to) the end of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, and xenophobia, along with the protection of general human rights. The backlash against these marches was immediate. Several women and men turned to social media to argue that women in the United States and Canada were not unequal and needed to “quit blaming” others and “take responsibility” for their own successes and failures (see, for example, Brandi Atkinson’s meme “I am not a disgraced woman”). The sentiment was clear: if it’s not happening to me, it must not be happening.

But it is happening.

Gender inequalities happen every day, especially to women of color, women living in poverty, religious minorities, trans* individuals, lesbians, and women with disabilities. Intersectionality highlights the complexity of discrimination experienced by individuals with multiple oppressed identities. From an intersectionality perspective, it is not surprising that the anecdotes denying the existence of gender inequality focus primarily on the experiences of White, middle class, Christian, cisgender (non-trans individuals), able-bodied, heterosexual women.

As an instructor for more than 10 years, Kosha has witnessed similar dynamics occurring within her university classes. Students with multiple privileged identities often react to discussions of oppression with defensiveness and denial. In the face of this denial, students who have experienced oppression find themselves forced into a position to either fight back in anger or withdraw from the conversation all together. It is challenging to maintain a productive dialogue when the parties involved all start from different realities.


C’est La Vie: The Game of Social Life is a simulation activity that is designed to give individuals an opportunity to experience aspects of privilege and oppression in a simulated context, so as to provide a common foundation to introduce discussions about inequality. The game, which is published in its entirety with the Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology, is facilitated via a Powerpoint Presentation. It is suitable for groups as small as 10 and as large as several hundred.

At the beginning of the game, players receive a character profile that describes the race/ethnicity, citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, and existing disabilities (or not) of a character, along with starting money and bonus credits (meant to represent socioeconomic status and social privilege, respectively). Using these existing resources, players navigate decisions about housing, education, social life, and occupational attainment to maximize their character’s wealth, well-being, and educational experiences.

Consistent with an intersectionality perspective, the factors that influence outcomes in the game are interactive, complex, and cumulative across the character’s life time. For example, early in the game, players use their starting resources to choose housing in different neighborhoods. The choice of neighborhood, along with the character’s social location, subsequently affects access to education and other resources. As the characters in the game face other academic, social, and legal situations, each character’s social identities serve to facilitate or constrain the choices and resources available to face those challenges.

Importantly, because our game focuses on several intersecting identities, it challenges people with differing social identities (privileged and oppressed) to reflect on the systems that maintain structural inequality. This in turn motivates discussion and self-reflection about one’s own privilege and oppression. Indeed, our research on the game, which is published with the journal Teaching of Psychology, finds that the game is associated with increased awareness about intersectionality, structural inequality, and privilege and oppression (Bramesfeld & Good, 2016). Anecdotally, the game has produced some of the best discussions about privilege and oppression that Kosha has ever experienced in a classroom context.

Certainly, a simulation game will not fix the numerous inequalities that exist within our society (nor is it designed to do so). However, before we can even begin to work together as a society to generate solutions to the very big problems that we face, people must be able to acknowledge that inequality is not a “one size fits all” issue. C’est La Vie: The Game of Social Life is designed to provide an introduction to these realities.

Teaching Resources:


Blog Guest Author Bios:

Kosha Bramesfeld ( has a PhD in Social Psychology from The Pennsylvania State University. She currently works as a Data Analyst for the Course Evaluations team at the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) at the University of Toronto. She has more than 10 years of experience teaching university courses in psychology and sociology within the US and Canada.

Arla Good recently received her PhD in Music Psychology from Ryerson University. Arla’s research focuses on the socio-cultural benefits of making music together. In particular, her work explores how singing in the classroom can be used as a strategy for promoting positive social relations within and across cultures.

Educators are People, Too: Reflecting on Social Location in the Classroom

How many of us think of our courses as intersectional? Yet, are we truly living up to the theory of intersectionality when it comes to pedagogical structure, design, implementation, and assessment? Are we honestly taking the time to consider how our very presence in the room might alter the environment?
Of course, making all of this a reality is not easy. Intersectional pedagogy requires continuous examination of instructor social location in terms of impact on learning, privilege, invisibility, bias, & assumptions. We must repeatedly ask:

  • What is invisible to me due to my privilege?
  • Who is missing?
  • How might I be performing my privilege in the classroom?
  • How might students respond to me based on me social identities and the interactions among those identities and power structures?
  • How is communication altered by my social location?
  • What needs to occur in the curriculum and in the classroom to account for my social location (if possible)?

circle privilegeI doubt anyone reading this wants to be Circle Teacher unaware of privilege, marginalizing students, maintaining invisibility of structures (literally a wall in this case) that result in disparities. We have to work at becoming aware of when the wall is cut to our form while others are scrambling to climb over or painfully squeeze through.

As an academic from a working-class background, I often struggle with the wall which is cut to the form of middle-class norms of communication, language, dress-code, and individualism. With a large percentage of my students being first-generation and/or working-class, this helps me understand many of their obstacles entering the academy and figuring out the landscape and where the landmines are located. Of course, being a woman at the front of the classroom also affects not only my approach, but how students view me and frame my presence.

At the same time, my whiteness, able-bodied status, and U.S. citizenship can often prevent me from recognizing the daily microaggressions that students of color, students with disabilities, or immigrant students face. My full mix of privileges and marginalized identities undoubtedly impact not only my pedagogical choices, but also how students experience me.

So what can educators do to at least attempt to correct for social location influence on teaching and learning? Some ideas:

  • Take the time to think about your own social location and intersections of identity;
  • Consider how your social location might affect your views of students and especially the areas where you might be less aware of their experiences;
  • Seek out and apply pedagogical resources that promote educator reflective practices;
  • For each course each semester, ask yourself how the assigned readings might represent your social location more than others. Adjust accordingly to bring in perspectives outside your own location;
  • Reflect on examples, videos, activities, assignments, etc. and what ways they can be adjusted to incorporate social locations beyond your own;
  • Speak openly with students directly about how instructor social location could impact how they interact with you, how you communicate with each other, and how awareness of these influences can help us overcome preconceived notions (in both directions); and
  • Expect to learn something new from students based on the rich knowledge they bring to class from their own social locations that can inform the community of learners more broadly.

And if that feels too overwhelming, as Doctor Who always advises, “hold on tight and pretend it’s a plan.”

Trying is Not Enough: Toward Intersectional Feminist Pedagogy

-This blog is a portion of my talk at the 2016 Institute for Academic Feminist Psychologists in Pittsburgh, PA.
Reading through your Institute participant survey responses, I was inspired by your pedagogical values, learning goals, and visions for intersectionality and social justice.

  • “…awakening students’ feminist identities and activism”
  • “…techniques for integrating feminist activism”
  • “…how to weave a feminist lens and perspective more wholly into teaching practices”
  • “…discuss issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in breadth classes”
  • “…teaching psych of human sexuality from intersectional perspective”
  • “…effective ways to use privilege as academics to live out social justice values”
  • “…incorporating community into research through a feminist, social justice lens”
  • “…integrating feminist theory, critical race theory, and queer theory into psychology”
  • “…applying intersectional theory”

Of course, we are quite often trying our best to accomplish these goals in hostile climates on campus and beyond. Just to name a few:

  • lower student evaluations,
  • alum threats to pull funding,
  • colleagues and admin tell us to be quiet,
  • stud disrespect such as being called Miss/Mrs.,
  • challenge you as authority figure and qualified professional in class,
  • microaggressions from all sides,
  • backlash against higher education, anti-intellectualism, rage against critical thinking,
  • being labeled as radical, bitchy, having an agenda, rude, unfair, and difficult by students ( and women of color get this at higher rates)
  • guns in our classrooms and in our offices
  • two-worlds dilemma: often feeling we don’t fit in Psychology or Women’s Studies

With all of these negative climate issues presenting serious obstacles to our learning goals for students, how do we let our feminist flags fly?
In constructing this talk, I looked back at some older talks and previous writing. What I discovered is that I typically open with some pedagogical failure of my own. And if the use of the word “failure” seems too judgmental, feel free to think about this moment in my life as a pedagogical mishap, letdown, or disappointment (though I don’t believe those words as strong enough).
So why do I tend to repeat this pattern of putting my failures out there for public consumption? That seems like a fair question to ask. Perhaps I’m subconsciously issuing a warning that you should not listen to anything I have to say. And if you do, this approach allows me to relinquish all responsibility because you were thoroughly warned. On the other hand, my hope is that I tend to do this as an act that counters the overwhelming pressure in the academy to pretend we have it all figured out, were teaching experts from birth, and have nothing new to learn. I share these pedagogical displays of privilege because we must out ourselves as lifelong learners of the profession of teaching, which is unsuccessful at times, freely admit we do not have all the answers, & normalize that process of striving for better. So here goes for today:

Excerpt from my book Intersectional Pedagogy (2016):

“The first time I taught Psychology of Women as a graduate student, the textbook was extremely narrow in focus, lacking any hint of inclusion outside normative and privileged identities within the vastly diverse group called women. Due to this shortcoming, I created a supplemental packet with readings to address race, sexual diversity, poverty, and non-western women’s experiences. This “solution” felt like a legitimate approach at the time to correct for the main book’s reinforcement of defining women via only white, heterosexual middle-class perspectives. On the first day of class, a brave student raised her hand to point out that the textbook did not represent her as an African-American woman and seemed focused exclusively on White women. She was right. My co-instructor immediately defended the text saying “no one book can cover everything.” I then agreed with the student and pointed to the packet as one way to include diverse viewpoints and avoid the idea that all women are White, middle-class, heterosexual, U.S. citizens.

Almost 15 years later, I view our supplemental packet and our response to the student as an insufficient, dismissive, and insulting Band-Aid that essentially perpetuated the marginalization of women outside the mythical norm, as described by Audre Lorde (1984). Just as Lisa Bowleg (2008) critiqued her previous research as additive in nature and lacking intersectionality, my original approach to teaching gender from a multicultural perspective served as a lesson in what not to do. At the same time, adding the packet allowed us to pat ourselves on the back as two White women instructors who believed we were acting as exceptional anti-racist allies. Not only was the packet an add-on afterthought residing outside the centralized text (in other words: important and legitimate textbook), but it also treated various social identity categories and their associated structural oppressions as separate considerations.”

So why do I label this a pedagogical failure? First, it wasn’t enough. Despite my good feminist intentions, despite my attempt to diversify the readings; despite my anti-racist and anti-heterosexist efforts, it just was not enough to prevent marginalizing students of color, poor and working class students, students with disabilities, and I could go on and on.
Excerpt from Intersectional Pedagogies (2016):

“Jones and Wijeyesinghe (2011) encouraged consideration of how teaching might be altered when instructors infuse intersectional theory. Without intersectional theory applied in the feminist classroom, educational spaces serve to both perpetuate invisible privilege by focusing on personal oppression and construct only mythical norms as worthy of earning valuable real estate within course materials and broader curricular designs. Valid pedagogies must stop pretending, for example, that White women possess no race, Latino men are genderless, or Black and Asian women embody mutually exclusive gendered and racial social locations. Even though some privileged women in my gender courses insist race and sexuality are irrelevant to the study of women while men of color often resist the deconstruction of gender and gender identity in courses addressing race and racism, intersectional theory demands attention to the mutually constitutive nature of these interacting and intra-connected systems.”

Therefore, I argue that feminist pedagogy deserves a more complicated and challenging application than we tend to enact in psychology. My next blog will address how we can go about moving toward intersectional feminist psychology pedagogy.