Positioning Privileged White Men in Social Justice: Exploring Barriers and Strategies for Privileged White Men and Those who Work with Them


Positioning Privileged White Men in Social Justice: Exploring Barriers and Strategies for Privileged White Men and Those who Work with Them

Kyle C. Ashlee
Aeriel A. Ashlee
Miami University of Ohio

In recognition of the recent 30th anniversary of the Standing Committee on Men & Masculinities (SCMM), the SCMM has launched a series exploring the concept of intersectionality as it relates to collegiate men.  Contributing authors will explore how dimensions of race, religion, gender, and other social identities converge and shape the experiences of college men and how higher education professionals can best assist these students. 

Introduction and Overview

With increasingly diverse college student populations, exploring intersections of identity has become a central programmatic and developmental focal point within student affairs in higher education. Often this means educators pay particular attention to student communities who experience multiple points of marginalization. In this article, the authors assert that exploring intersectionality for those with privileged and dominant identities is also necessary to engage in transformative social justice work.

Consider the intersectionality of three privileged identities, heterosexual, cisgender, white men. This demographic has access to more institutional power and privilege than many other intersectional identity groups (McIntosh, 2003). While these advantages are inherently problematic, they also provide this college student population with unique opportunities to significantly impact systems of oppression. For the duration of this article, the authors will refer to this demographic, acknowledging their multiple points of privilege, as “privileged white men.” This thought piece will highlight helpful strategies and approaches for privileged white men looking to become more effective social justice advocates. Specifically, this article will:

  • Examine the six stages of Bishop’s Ally Development Model (2002)
  • Identify challenges and barriers of engaging privileged white men in social justice work
  • Explore strategies for privileged white men and those who work with them in navigating challenges and barriers to social justice work

The social identities of the authors for this piece are important to consider in terms of positionality and potential bias in perspective. Kyle Ashlee identifies as a white, cisgender, heterosexual man. These identities afford him numerous unearned privileges. As a result, he believes it is his responsibility to do his own work around power, privilege and oppression in addition to engaging other folks with privileged identities in social justice work. Aeriel A. Ashlee identifies as a heterosexual, cisgender, transracial adoptee, womxn of color. These identities in conjunction with her marriage to Kyle, make the topic of this article particularly relevant for her both personally and professionally. Additionally, Kyle and Aeriel both identify as mid-level professionals, highly educated, and temporarily able-bodied. They are positioned in a way that may influence their ability to understand the lived experiences of identity communities to which they do not belong.

Before delving into the core tenets of this article, a few acknowledgements are worth noting. First, this article will focus specifically on race and gender as two acute social identities. While identity is extremely complex and all dimensions influence each other (Jones & McEwen, 2000), the authors have chosen to focus the scope of this article on the intersection of race and gender. Second, some of the language used in this piece, such as “men,” “male,” and “masculinity,” is limited in its false characterization of gender as a binary. The word choice used in this article is intended to reflect the dominant/subordinate power dynamics of our patriarchal society. Lastly, the discussion is framed in a pro-feminist and male-positive lens, calling the dominant group (i.e., heterosexual cisgender, white men) to action in social justice work.

Bishop’s Ally Development Theory

Anne Bishop’s 2002 framework for understanding the development of social justice allies, which she outlines in her book Becoming An Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in People, combines both cognitive and behavioral components. Originally written about interracial social justice allies in particular, Bishop contextualizes power and privilege more broadly and thus the authors of this article have applied the model to the engagement of privileged white men as social justice allies. At the core of Bishop’s approach to allyship is the understanding that allies recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society and take responsibility for changing these patterns.

According to Bishop (2002), ally development begins with understanding oppression; how it began, how it is maintained, and how its cyclical nature entraps individuals and institutions. The second step involved in becoming an ally is to recognize and understand the interactions among oppressions. Bishop (2002) compares oppression to an interconnecting web, each strand reinforcing one another. She calls upon allies to recognize the similarities among oppressed groups and to collectively confront oppression, thereby rejecting the notion that there is a hierarchy of oppression. Step three of Bishop’s (2002) model acknowledges the pain that accompanies an increased understanding of one’s role in the cycle of oppression. In this step, Bishop (2002) conveys that healing this pain is essential to breaking the cycle and to growing as a social justice ally.

Bishop (2002) makes the political personal by calling upon allies to become workers for their own liberation. Bishop (2002) requires allies to examine their previous role within cycles of oppression as a way to learn new skills in dismantling oppression. This fifth step encourages allies to focus on listening to and supporting others rather than leading or co-opting the movement of a oppressed group. Bishop (2002) directs allies to center their work within the dominant group(s) to which they belong, educating their dominant group peers. The sixth and final step to Bishop’s (2002) ally development model emphasizes the importance of maintaining hope while working for social change. Bishop (2002) asserts that being an active social justice ally can be difficult and encourages allies to remember that a social movement is a long-term journey. Therefore, they must hold onto the sincere belief that what has been learned (i.e., racism, sexism, homophobia) can also be unlearned.

Challenges of Allyship

The concept of allyship is complex and requires both intentionality and reflection for privileged white men. Bishop’s (2002) Ally Development model demonstrates that allyship is a process of awareness, healing, and action. This process is not always seamless and many challenges come along with the development of privileged white men as effective social justice allies.

Even the most well-intended allies can sometimes cause unintentional harm. In his work, Keith Edwards (2006) discusses the contentious tug-of-war between intentions and impacts of ally behavior. Edwards (2006) notes that:

[F]or those who are the direct targets of oppression, underlying motivations may

appear to be irrelevant; only the outcome of the behavior matters… as educators seeking to be effective allies and to develop effective ally behavior in others, understanding underlying motivations can be a tool to develop more consistently effective ally behavior. (p. 53)

In other words, effective allyship must consider both intent and impact of anti-oppressive behavior.

Another consideration for effective allyship is the notion of ally as a labeled identity. While identification is important, both for allies and for those with whom they are working, the title of “ally” can sometimes lead to a problematic sense of accomplishment or enlightenment for the person of privilege. Instead, effective allies must constantly strive toward a better understanding of their own privilege and how their identities impact others. Allyship should be viewed as a verb rather than a noun, determined by action and commitment. For privileged white men doing social justice work, mistakes will be made in their ally development and that behavior may not be congruent with allyship. Therefore, for the purpose of this article, the authors call upon Brod, Terhaar, Thao, Laker, & Voth (2005) who indicated that the most reliable and authentic naming of social justice allies is done by members of the oppressed groups.

Finally, allyship for privileged white men is complicated by the uncertainty of when and how to show up within a social justice movement. While allies have their place in working toward social justice, they should not be the ones leading the way. Much of the work necessary to make positive social change requires people from dominant identity groups to do their own work in understanding systems of power and privilege. This includes amplifying the voices of those who are marginalized and disrupting oppressive behavior in spaces occupied solely by those with dominant identities. However, it is imperative that allyship be informed by those experiencing oppression so as not to co-opt their efforts. If allies do not collaborate with and listen to those from marginalized communities, their work runs the risk of reinforcing systems of oppression and perpetuating harm.

Barriers for Privileged White Men

Privileged white men can experience significant barriers that impede their development as effective social justice allies. From his professional work with men’s programming as well as his own lived experiences, Kyle believes that many of these barriers result from personal fears and insecurities about making mistakes and the personal shame associated with being held responsible for these learning moments in allyship. Fear and shame can be strong motivators for action (Brown, 2012), and these feelings can be enough to deter many aspiring allies from social justice work altogether.

Specifically, the barriers for many privileged white men in doing social justice work include silence and pluralistic ignorance. In traditional hegemonic masculinity, men are taught to be silent and fiercely independent (Kimmel, 2009). This means that many men struggle with expressing their authentic feelings for fear that they will be judged and criticized by other men. Men’s socialized silence can create a barrier in challenging others around oppressive language and behavior. Additionally, some men believe they are alone in their efforts toward social justice. Research around the concept of pluralistic ignorance illustrates that college men often believe more men participate in harmful behavior (i.e. high-risk drinking, victim blaming, sexism, homophobia) than really do (Berkowitz, 2011).

Strategies for Working With Privileged White Men

While fear and insecurity can significantly deter some privileged white men from becoming effective social justice allies, Kyle believes there are strategies which can help these men work through these feelings, feelings that can lead to inaction. From his professional experience advising and mentoring college men at multiple colleges and universities, Kyle has found that the challenges and barriers for those with dominant identities doing social justice work may never be resolved completely, but having skills to navigate them can be paramount in maintaining resiliency in effective ally development.

Engaging in continued self-work is one of the most effective ways for privileged white men to overcome the challenges and barriers in doing social justice work. Self-work is the process of understanding one’s own privileged identities and identifying personal attitudes and behaviors that reinforce cycles of oppression (Ashlee & Ashlee, 2016). Self-work requires aspiring allies to be vulnerable about their own biases and areas for growth. In doing so, privileged white men can develop their capacity to be authentic and experience empathy with those who experience oppression.

In addition to self-work, allies can develop their social justice competency by conducting their own independent research. Many times allies depend on those from marginalized communities to help them understand why a specific behavior is problematic or oppressive. This unfairly places the responsibility on those who are the target of oppression. Instead, those with dominant identities must do their own work in understanding systems of privilege and oppression rather than relying on the target group to teach them. One way that privileged white men can do this independent learning is to read current social justice literature. An accessible introduction to the topic of social justice and allyship is VITAL: A Torch For Your Social Justice Journey (Ashlee & Ashlee, 2016). Additionally, a vast library of books on social justice and identity can be found on the suggested readings page of the Social Justice Training Institute.

Privileged white men can also become more effective social justice allies by building their skills for intervention. Overcoming the fear that many men feel from their socialization of hegemonic masculinity takes patience and practice. An increasing number of active bystander intervention training programs have been developed across the country and are being successfully implemented with college and university students (Banyard et al., 2007). These programs approach men from the perspective that they can be an active part of the solution and allow college men the opportunity to develop their skills of intervention with other men. Not only does this process increase their effectiveness, it deconstructs their pluralistic ignorance by revealing and normalizing other men who are willing to stand up against oppressive behavior.

Lastly, privileged white men can work through the challenges and barriers to doing social justice work by engaging in dialogue. There are two types of dialogue – intragroup and intergroup – and both are important in developing effective social justice allies. Intragroup dialogue includes creating spaces for members of dominant identity groups to be authentic and vulnerable with each other as they explore their own privilege and biased behavior. This type of caucusing develops awareness around one’s own identity and contributes to social norming around positive group attitudes and behaviors in social justice work. Conversely, privileged white men can also participate in intergroup dialogue, or shared spaces among dominant and targeted communities, as a way to develop understanding and empathy across difference. Bearing witness to the lived experiences of others through intergroup dialogue can encourage privileged white men to reflect on the impact of systemic structures of oppression in a space uniquely safe space.

Barriers for Those Working with Privileged White Men

Similar to the importance of identifying barriers for privileged white men to show up as social justice allies, it is equally important to identify barriers for those working with aspiring social justice allies. Drawing upon her own experience as a social justice educator, co-author Aeriel Ashlee identifies three barriers to working with privileged white men in social justice work.

First, confronting individual microaggressions and navigating systemic macroaggressions on a daily basis is exhausting. Even the most well-intended ally has the privilege of “turning on or off” their social justice lens, whereas for those with targeted identities (i.e., people of color, women/trans-people) showing up to a patriarchal work environment every day or living in a racially segregating neighborhood, is not a choice one can opt in or out of.

Second, challenging and supporting those with dominant identities in their social justice journeying should not be a responsibility that falls to those who have systematically been oppressed. Existing in an oppressive society is taxing enough, the burden to “educate” dominant groups about their privilege should not fall solely on those historically marginalized. When people with targeted identities are busy taking caring of those with privilege (i.e., a woman of color holding a white woman’s hand as she cries about her white guilt), the voice and energy of the targeted identities is redirected to support the dominant narrative.

A third barrier for those working with privileged white men in social justice work is the fear of being perceived or portrayed as the “angry one.” Without a doubt confronting and owning one’s role in systems of oppression can be uncomfortable work. Unfortunately, sometimes while working through their own privilege, aspiring allies from dominant social identity groups inappropriately project their discomfort to others. For example, when a woman of color articulates her frustrations with institutional racism and is minimized with a comment about going on yet another “angry black woman rant.” The fear of this unjust characterization and trivialization may be a barrier for some folks working with privileged white men.

Strategies for Those Working with Privileged White Men

In light of these barriers to working with privileged white men as social justice allies, it is necessary to the health, wellness, and retention of those working with this dominant group to also identify strategies for working through these barriers. Again, drawing from her own experiences as a social justice educator and partner to a heterosexual white man, co-author Aeriel Ashlee shares five strategies for working with privileged white men in social justice work.

First and foremost is self-care. Dismantling oppressive systems can be arduous work. Giving oneself permission to put down the banner as needed is necessary to one’s longevity as a social justice advocate/educator.

A second and related strategy to self-care is setting boundaries. While engaging allies is important to social justice work, this should not come at the expense of one’s own wellness. It is okay, appropriate, and even sometimes necessary to say “look it up, yourself” – allowing allies to do their own work, rather than shouldering the unrealistic expectation of always being the teacher (with patience, answers, etc.).

In addition to self-care, it is important for those working with privileged white men to remember to be graceful, towards others and ourselves. A challenge with learning edges is that sometimes they cut. Whenever possible, it is best to assume good intent of aspiring allies with dominant identities. Similarly, it is important to have compassion and kindness toward oneself when working with privileged white men. Triggers are an inevitability of tackling issues of power, privilege, and oppression. It is important to acknowledge that triggers can be a reflection of our own work in addition to external conflict with others. These triggers should be respected for their authentic indication of feelings and attuned to with care. It is more important to show up authentically than perfectly.

The fourth and fifth strategies for navigating barriers to working with privileged white men are interrelated. Create and cultivate intragroup dialogue spaces, finding support and solidarity with others who are also working with dominant group(s) to vent, process, problem solve, and find hope. Relatedly, engaging in dialogue across difference, intergroup dialogue, is important for those working with privileged white men as this provides a space to build empathetic relationships, and to create opportunities to share, learn and practice vulnerability around issues of power, privilege, and oppression.


Whether you identify as a privileged white man or someone working with this population in social justice work, the authors of this article hope that this discussion has been useful. This brief reading can be shared with colleagues and networks of support, as a meaningful way to engage in important intra and inter-group conversations about working with privileged White men in social justice work.

Discussion Questions

  1. What barriers have you experienced as a privileged white man doing social justice work?
  2. What barriers have you experienced with privileged white men doing social justice work?
  3. What strategies have you used to navigate these barriers?


Abes, E. S., Jones, S. R., & McEwen, M. K. (2007). Reconceptualizing the model of multiple dimensions of identity: The role of meaning-making capacity in the construction of multiple identities. Journal of College Student Development, 48, 1-22.

Ashlee, K. C. & Ashlee, A. A. (2016). VITAL: A torch for your social justice journey. Cincinnati, OH: Brave Space Publishing.

Banyard, V. L., Moynihan, M. M., & Plante, E. G. (2007). Sexual violence prevention through bystander education: An experimental evaluation. Journal of Community Psychology. 35.463-481. doi:10.1002/jcop.20159

Berkowitz, A. D. (2011). Using how college men feel about being men and “doing the right thing” to promote men’s development. New York and London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

Bishop, A. (2002). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression in people (2nd ed.). Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Brod, H., Terhaar, J., Thao, M., Laker, J., & Voth, J. L. (2005, March). Effective strategies for engaging allies: Explaining water to fish. Pre-conference program presented at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators National Conference, Tampa, FL.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

Edwards, K. (2006). Aspiring social justice ally identity development: A conceptual model. NASPA Journal, 43, 39-60.

Kimmel, M. (2009). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

McIntosh, P. (2003). White privilege and male privilege. In M. Kimmel & A. L. Ferber (Eds.), Privilege: A reader  (pp. 3–25). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

About the Authors

Kyle Ashlee and Aeriel A. Ashlee are doctoral students in the Student Affairs in Higher Education (SAHE) program at Miami University. The Ashlees are co-authors of VITAL: A Torch For Your Social Justice Journey and co-founders of Ashlee Consulting LLC. The firm focuses on building inclusive communities that value diversity and social justice through facilitator training, inspirational story sharing, and dialogue program development.

Please e-mail inquiries to Kyle Ashlee or Aeriel A. Ashlee


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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