It can be hard for allies to figure out their role is social justice work. On the one hand, allies with privileged identities are asked to listen more, to allow marginalized voices to be in the center, and to be aware of how space they take up. On the other hand, they are asked not to be silent in the face of injustice. They are criticized for not speaking up, for not using their privilege to push for change. They are asked to show up to events to support causes but then are told that just showing up to an event is performative and not real allyship. They are asked to educate themselves and not burden the people they are trying to support but then are also criticized when they take it upon themselves to organize spaces of education that are centered on their role in social justice.
So what’s an ally to do? Both of us have spent quite a bit of time in our offices–with both students and colleagues–working through these contradictions. Oftentimes we leave these conversations feeling like allies are put in untenable positions as they struggle to live a life of social justice.
We do have some ideas, but we want to recognize that this is hard work, and we all make mistakes. (Stay tuned for a fall term post all about our mistakes!) First, we’d say that regardless of how much criticism you get, how well-intentioned you are, or how frustrated you are that you can never do the right thing, you need to remember that your frustrations of being an ally are never as frustrating and difficult as being a marginalized person in society. If you find yourself at a place where you think that you no longer want to support the people or the causes you want to support because you keep getting criticized, perhaps it’s a good time to take a step back and reflect on your motivations.
In his discussion of social justice ally identity development, Keith Edwards notes that an altruistic mindset leads to a situation where allies are unable to be critically self-reflective about their actions because they believe that they are “empowering” those they are supporting. For Edwards, when allies rely on acceptance and praise from marginalized peoples, they get “easily derailed by critique” from them. (47) Though they aim to be “an exception from the system,” they ultimately perpetuate it. Similarly, Jamila Lyiscott argues that we need to stop thinking that we are “giving” marginalized people “a voice”; instead, perhaps there are times when we can use our privilege to create spaces where these voices can be heard.
Second, when you know you need to learn, instead of relying on individuals, go to events sponsored by groups that you want to support. Board Members of the group CAUSE (Carleton Alliance of Undocumented Students and allies for Empowerment) spoke in Anita’s class recently about how one way allies can be supportive is by attending events that they organize, such as the events for the Undocumented Awareness Week. They also noted that it would be great if more allies came regularly to their meetings (though they cautioned allies against attending and trying to take over the meeting).
Third, we’ve experienced that sometimes viewing oneself as a “good ally” actually gets in the way of the work that one needs to do in allyship with individual people. We’ve both been in conversations with male friends who identify as feminist and, yet, when we critique their actions or what they say in a particular moment, they have heard us as challenging their self-identity as the “good guys.” The result has been frustrating circular conversations where we become the bad ones and they get to avoid taking responsibility for their actions or words. #notallmen but really yes, ALL men.
Most importantly for both of us, being an ally means listening. We talk about this a lot because we think about it a lot, and we both continue to learn how to listen well. Listening without reacting (Adriana says: “with an open heart and mind” and Anita says, “oh geez. Cheesy!”) when someone tells you that a term or a framework you’re using reinforces, rather than challenges, unequal power relationships and unjust structures, policies, and practices can be difficult. We thought that a recent episode of “Politically Reactive” provided a beautiful model for how to react when you’re called out on something you’ve said. On a previous episode (“Political Analyst Angela Rye Calls It Like It Is”), the hosts, W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, had used the term “spirit animal” and in this episode (“Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl on Rad American Women”), they spoke about how listeners criticized their use of the term as a cultural appropriation of Native culture. They not only apologized, they also talked to Dr. Adrienne Keene, a Native scholar who has the amazing blog, Native Appropriations, to get more information about their mistake. [Added bonus: On that same episode, their interview with writer Kate Schatz and artist Miriam Klein Stahl who created the illustrated children’s books, “Rad American Women A-Z” and “Rad Women Worldwide” includes a discussion towards the end about white feminists and male feminists, which is relevant to our discussion about allyship.]
In other words, listening means not being defensive about past actions or words and leaning into the learning that now you need to do as an ally.
Speaking of listening, we appreciate all of your feedback, emails, and comments–both online and offline. Our goal has always been to create spaces of dialogue and learning, and we look forward to coming back in the fall with a number of posts that should continue this work. We have a line up of topics that include: the politics of language; what might coalition politics demand from us in terms of kindness and patience from all sides?; how do we not get so mired in attention to structure and system that we head towards activist paralysis? what are women of color alums’ experiences of Carleton and how has Carleton helped to shape their lives?
Happy summer full of reading, reflecting, revelry, and righteous action!
Keith Edwards. (2006). “Aspiring social justice ally identity development: A conceptual model.” NASPA journal, 43(4), 39-60.