As My Understanding of Privilege and Oppression Evolved, So Did My Relationships

Illustration of people of different ethnic backgrounds

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

From the fall of 2008 to the spring of 2010, I pursued graduate studies in the anti-oppressive practice of social work. While there was some learning, I've gained a better understanding of equity work from lived experience.

Though I graduated from my MSW with an A- average and professors bid me goodbye with hopes that they would see me in the future for doctoral studies, I still had a great deal more to learn about anti-oppressive practice.

The evolution of my understanding of equity has developed out of situations in which I have been oppressed, often by individuals expected to know better, which drives my commitment to ethical relationships.

Impact Over Intent

A preoccupation with good intentions has justified many atrocities from those with power despite the harm they cause. For instance, I reside in a country whose prime minister regularly states that he is committed to truth and reconciliation but continues to harm Indigenous children.

These violations have taught me to consider any privilege I hold in navigating my personal and professional relationships, especially as I have personally been harmed by those who fail to do so.

While power dynamics are often more obvious to me in situations where I have little advantage, I am committed to thinking critically about situations where my relative control over someone else may cause harm.

Recently, I got the opportunity to write my first culture essay for a feminist magazine about how BIPOC representation continues to be lacking in media. In my excitement, I realized I had mentioned my niece in the pitch as a reference to how little had changed from my generation to hers without asking if she would be comfortable with me sharing this story.

Although her mother was less concerned as I explained that I would not be using her name or photo in the piece, it was crucial for me to get her consent before proceeding with the commissioned essay. After explaining the situation, she assured me that she did not mind, but that attention to loved ones with less power than me when able remains my priority.

Accountability for Harm

Despite trying to be ethical, social work has taught me the need to be accountable for harm, as that may happen even with my best efforts, so I take that into how I navigate relationships in my personal life too.

What does it mean when a loved one is struggling and I prioritize my desire to help despite how that may not align well with their preference? Unfortunately, it means I may hurt them by prioritizing my own wants.

Having held roles like child development counselor, mental health therapist, and accessibility advisor, I do enjoy supporting others, but what I have had to learn is that sometimes my interest in helping can take precedence over the needs of my loved ones if I fail to unpack this.

Especially as a fat, queer, disabled Indo-Trinidadian immigrant woman and social worker who has now survived White supremacist workplace harassment multiple times, I know how that trauma history can impact my ability to engage with even the most well-meaning White individuals.

With that knowledge, I note how the oppression of my loved ones may make it difficult for them to engage with me, so I try to hold space for what they need, particularly when they are more marginalized than I am. That may mean prioritizing what a loved one who is Muslim, Black, Indigenous, or trans needs to feel safe in the relationship over my comfort at times.

Keeping Positionality at the Forefront

When I look back on the relationships in which I have felt the most violated, it was often intensified by the power they held over me and how they abused that, especially in terms of White social workers in authority.

As my understanding of power and oppression evolves, so does my commitment to ethical and equitable relationships. If a more marginalized loved one needs my help, I am conscious of those dynamics, and I am explicit about how expectations do not accompany any assistance I offer.

Unfortunately, as the eldest daughter of a single immigrant mother, I can easily recall her attempted guilt trips, despite estrangement since 2007, so I am not interested in relationships dictated by power imbalances.

It is why I think critically about what I ask of loved ones who may be more oppressed than me, as I wish White individuals were more ethical in managing our relationships, yet it is why I am close to so few in 2021.

Although consent has become a more normalized part of the discourse in some ways, I am keen on managing relationships with more marginalized loved ones where they always feel safe to decline a request of mine.

Equity Takes Work

I share my approach to ethical and equitable relationships because others who have failed to do the work to unpack their power have harmed me. I've also been capable of similar transgressions unless I was willing to invest further.

Maybe you have never paid as much attention to your relative power and oppression compared to loved ones. Still, especially if those disparities are vast, they have likely had to do that work to navigate your unawareness.

Just as power dynamics make a difference at more significant levels, they can be as influential in personal relationships with loved ones, which is why they deserve greater attention to ensure that we work to minimize harm.

Maya Angelou once stated, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." What would it look like for us to know and do better to promote ethical, equitable relationships with loved ones?

Should we have relative power compared to those we care deeply about, we have a responsibility also to disrupt cognitive dissonance regarding the problematic status quo for our more marginalized loved ones.

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  1. Kamran R. Canada’s history of failing to provide medical care for Indigenous childrenPaediatr Child Health. 2020;26(5):279-282. doi:10.1093/pch/pxaa109