Resiliency Toolkit

6 tips for how to advocate for marginalized groups

By Linda Coutant

Professionals who work in diversity and inclusion talk about the “Big 8,” the eight typical dimensions of social identity in the United States: age, race and color, ethnicity, religion, sex and gender, ability and mental health, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status.

Each identity has groups within it that are considered dominant and others that are considered marginalized.

When people in a dominant group observe discrimination, they may want to do something to help but don’t know how. If you think remaining silent is a viable option, Appalachian State University’s Lindy Wagner says think again.

“When you have privilege or have the opportunity to do good and you choose silence instead, then you’re contributing to the problem. Your silence appears to affirm that what’s happening is OK or that you don’t care,” said Wagner, associate director for multicultural student development.

In fostering dialogue among college students about diversity and inclusion as well as social justice, Wagner works on developing students’ skills so they move beyond silence and can effectively show they care.

She offers these pointers for getting starting and remaining engaged:

Understand intent versus impact.

People in majority populations sometimes make hurtful comments or do hurtful things without meaning to. They may not intend to hurt someone in a minoritized group, but their words or actions may still have a negative impact.

This presents a two-sided opportunity, Wagner said: The person who has been hurt can step up and say they’ve been hurt by this experience, while understanding a possible lack of intention; and the person who engaged in the offending behavior can take responsibility by acknowledging what happened and take ownership of it.

“If someone says to you, ‘That comment hurt me,’ and you respond with ‘Oh, that’s not what I meant’ or ‘You shouldn’t feel that way,’ that negates the person’s feelings, which isn’t helpful. Instead, be humble and say ‘I accept I hurt you, and I apologize’ and then move forward. This is the most important tool of diversity and inclusion work,” she said.

Understand your own privilege.

Privilege is not a dirty word to fear, Wagner said, “It simply means that you are in a situation because of who you are that you might have different levels of access and influence that others may not have,” she said, “and if you can acknowledge that, then there’s potential to move forward in the ally process.”

People tend to resist talking about their privilege, she said, because of the unpleasant feelings that sometimes arise: denial, guilt, confusion, judgment or anger. “The word creates emotions and reactions based on how people perceive that society perceives privilege,” she said. For example, white men of lower socioeconomic status may feel defensive when they hear the term because they perceive society’s perception of privilege as equaling higher socioeconomic status. But the word can have other meanings, too, Wagner said, such as ability to visually blend in.

If people can feel more comfortable with their own negative feelings when acknowledging their privilege, or lack thereof, and move through those feelings, then conversations about privilege and the systemic issues it causes can flow more easily, she said.

Move beyond ‘safe space’ to ‘brave space.’

The term “safe space” is often used to describe a setting where people feel supported and comfortable. But, Wagner explains, the term also innately can support privileged identities because, “if you begin to feel uncomfortable, then you can say you don’t feel safe anymore.” That becomes an easy out, which limits personal growth. Instead, she encourages students and others to acknowledge the discomfort, accept its presence in that moment and move through the unpleasant emotions.

“Instead of staying ‘I don’t feel comfortable, I’m walking away,’ being brave is saying ‘I feel uncomfortable and I need to push forward and engage,’” Wagner explained.

“Having privilege can make us feel negative in some way – whether it is angry, defensive, hurt, guilty, all those things. It can require more work, but if you work through the negative emotions, you can become a much better advocate and ally because you’re able to say ‘Yep, I may be hurt right now but it’s not about me.’

“When we work through the differences and discomforts we may have with others, we will become more knowledgeable, more caring and stronger in our relationships. Being vulnerable is not a bad thing.”

Educate yourself.

If you want to be an ally, do some research on your own into what things might be hurtful or offensive and why. “I tell students, ‘Looks things up,’” said Wagner. “This could be in scholarly articles, blogs or specific organizations or groups.”

Part of educating yourself is better understanding the context of certain words. Some people may be surprised, Wagner said, at the common colloquialisms that originated in offensive contexts. “For example, people often use the word ‘gypped’ without realizing it comes from the context of ‘being cheated by gypsies,’ she said. “Also, people who may be referenced as ‘gypsies’ don’t necessarily call themselves that unless someone from the outside calls them that. So when you find yourself saying something and wonder where it comes from, look it up.”

Here are two articles Wagner recommends:

Additional online resources:

Listen more, speak less.

“Do more listening than speaking when you’re an ally,” Wagner said. That is, listen to and learn about the experiences of others, and then help them rise up in their own cause.

“A lot of people will take up the torch and tell everyone about the cause, when there’s someone else who’s actually experienced the cause who could tell the story better. There’s no need to speak for someone when there’s someone with their own voice,” Wagner said.

Pace yourself.

While it may be tempting to undertake 20 or 30 causes, that likely isn’t feasible, Wagner advised. “You really cannot advocate for 100 percent of the identities that exist in the world, so you have to make choices that help you be successful in your advocacy work,” Wagner said.

She also recommends exercising self-care. “Remember, it involves work and action. The road may be hard and difficult at times and you become weary. You have to care for yourself as much as you do the cause if you want to be successful,” she said.

Some approaches to self-care might be prioritizing your time, getting adequate sleep, eating well and maintaining a strong support system. For students, she recommends using resources such as the Counseling Center and Wellness and Prevention Services.