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.

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:

Teaching Social Issues: Pedagogical Challenges and Opportunities

“Why are you complaining about slavery? If it was so bad, then why did Africans kidnap and sell their own people into slavery?” As an undergraduate taking social psychology, I was shocked to hear this quote from one of my white classmates. His comments were a hostile response to an African American speaker who shared personal stories of racial segregation and growing up poor in East Tennessee in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I often reflect on this classroom experience now that I teach courses focusing on prejudice, discrimination, and group inequalities. Although I wish things were different some 15 years later, teaching about social issues inevitably leads to an array of student reactions that present pedagogical challenges while simultaneously presenting collective learning opportunities.

Anyone who has ever included sensitive topics as part of a course’s curriculum has faced some of the unique challenges associated with teaching and learning about social issues. The first time I included readings addressing white privilege on my syllabus, a student accused me of being “racist against white people” on my course evaluation sheet. Teaching my first class as the instructor of record in Cincinnati became complicated by the police shooting of yet another unarmed black youth. That quarter, Cincinnati faced racial unrest, also called “riots” by some, that yielded classroom comments such as “Black people are violent savages.” As inexperienced as I was, I attempted to move the class toward discussion of what institutional and social factors might lead to the looting and violence we were experiencing in the city. Although some of the students of color and white students in the classroom offered explanations of intergroup relations and oppression, I consider my facilitation of that emotionally charged discussion a complete failure.

Last year, my Psychology of Women class viewed a film called “The Way Home,” in which women from various racial and ethnic backgrounds discuss the impact of race and racism in their lives. During our discussion of the film, a student declared that “ninety percent of Iraqis are terrorists anyway.” Much to my delight, four hands immediately shot up around the room. As I called on each student to contribute their comments, I became more and more dismayed that not one of them addressed the terrorist comment. This experience taught me that my perceptions of what should happen colored my assumptions about student responses when I saw eager faces raise their hands. After taking time to reflect on this classroom event, I used the online course space to craft several questions for discussion that brought the Middle Eastern women’s voices from the film back to the center of our discussion. Moments like these remind us that we must find effective ways to balance the need to meet our students where they are and the task of deconstructing such stereotypical beliefs. How do we avoid shutting down the conversation while maintaining a safe environment for all in the classroom?
As social issues teachers, we face what I like to call “teaching-social-issues issues.” That is, there are distinct pedagogical “issues” that come along with teaching and learning about social issues. Whether facing student resistance to reading works by lesbian authors or the broader challenge of designing a course on social policy analysis, faculty may feel isolated if colleagues in their departments do not include these topics in their courses. They may feel further marginalized if their colleagues question the legitimacy of infusing social issues into the curriculum. In addition, concerns about administrative views of such teaching practices may present unique performance review obstacles for social justice teachers. Given the lengthy list of challenges, why do we choose to teach about social issues?

Benefits and Opportunities
For nearly 75 years, SPSSI (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) members, passionate about social issues research, have introduced this passion to students through their teaching and mentoring efforts. We teach courses focused solely on social issues and incorporate social issues into traditional courses as a reflection of our values. Introducing students to new theories about intergroup relations and social systems, for example, facilitates student consumption of and thirst for multiple perspectives. Nothing brings a smile to my face quicker than when a student expresses a newly formed perspective on the world as a result of our time learning together. As SPSSI teachers, we are privileged to witness amazing growth among our students (e. g., a student begins questioning her hometown’s support of the KKK) while recruiting new social issues researchers. Although arguably the greatest teaching challenge, teaching social issues produces unimaginable teaching rewards.
[Note: This post was originally contributed as part of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Early Career Committee 2009 blog.]

Learning about Privilege: Shattering Myths of Education and Embracing Growth

On December 3, 2014, Channel 2 News in Houston ran a story about a white male student who was “uncomfortable” with an ungraded assignment about white privilege. A professor teaching the first-year students’ course, Learning Frameworks, at Lone Star College-Tomball asked students to reflect on the white privilege checklist, marking which items related to them. Sadly, the news report labeled the assignment as “controversial,” yet included no historical context, educational experts, or critical analysis of student expectations and myths related to learning. Although I reached out to the reporter covering the story, she declined my offer to shed some “privilege” expertise that could educate the public. Let’s shatter a few myths on our own then:

Myth 1: White Privilege Checklist = Controversial
Not really- this checklist has been around since Peggy McIntosh published it in 1988. Since then, it has exploded as a teaching tool in high schools, college classrooms, graduate-level courses, conference workshops, and community groups across the country and beyond. We are now decades into teaching and learning what is often called “privilege studies.” Many students perceive privilege content within a course as an attack on the students with the privilege. For example, studying white privilege is viewed as an attack on white students. However, rather than blame individuals, privilege studies critically analyzes the full system of oppression with many interlocking parts that include discrimination and privilege. Lucky for the student in the story, he took a course from an educated professor aware enough to include this checklist and offer him and his classmates the opportunity to think, learn, grow, and develop as individuals. This assignment is only viewed as “controversial” because most of the general population and students have not yet encountered the concept. Privilege is usually completely invisible to those that benefit from it. That’s all the more reason to applaud the professor for providing a safe space for students to grow.

Myth 2: Uncomfortable = Bad
Math makes many students uncomfortable, but no one is letting them out of math and statistics required courses to avoid discomfort. The white student in the story implies that course content should never make a student feel uncomfortable. In fact, being uncomfortable is a good sign that some serious advancements in personal growth and learning are about to take place. The key is to stay with the discomfort, explore it, and reflect on what the discomfort can teach you/us. Many teaching scholars have written about the importance of embracing these uncomfortable moments whether you are alone completing the white privilege checklist or in a room full of classmates discussing racism and privilege. This myth implies that learning should be easy and avoid the difficult task of critical thinking. Professors owe students more than easy courses and degrees that never challenged them to think critically about the world and the systems that maintain unfair group disparities.

Myth 3: Teaching about Privilege = Getting Fired
Sadly, many of the public comments posted in response to this story online called for the professor teaching about white privilege to be fired. This type of backlash is quite common when teachers attempt to raise awareness about oppression, discrimination, disparities, and especially privilege. These calls for firing the professor amount to an uninformed witch hunt designed to maintain the status quo and squash attempts to develop critical thinking around the structure of racism at the societal and institutional level in the U.S. Medical doctors regularly ask us to do things that make us uncomfortable such as get blood drawn or endure a colonoscopy, but we understand that this is for our own physical health and do not call for them to be fired. In much the same vein, learning about privilege and reflecting on one’s own biases is for the greater health of the min. Avoiding the facts or firing someone that illuminates those facts only keeps us ignorant and uninformed. Instead, we should express our gratitude to this professor for being willing to bring very difficult discussions to students and offer them the chance to learn about themselves and hopefully better understand others in the safest place for doing so – the college classroom.

Supporting Privilege Studies:
I will close with a call to action. Educate yourself. Be open and willing to discover your own biases and invisible privileges. In the matrix of privilege and oppression, most of us experience a mix of privileged and marginalized identities, but we all hold ultimate responsibility for making our own privilege visible. Take courses that challenge you. In fact, demand that your coursework requires you to truly think, reflect, and grow. Be brave and allow learning to take you to uncomfortable places that just might lead you to an entirely different world that you never knew existed.
For more on privilege studies, Dr. Case’s website includes publications and information about her book, Deconstructing Privilege; Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom.