The last few months have given me a lot to think about as the editor of this newspaper and as someone who considers herself an ally to marginalized communities here at Scripps and beyond. My (ongoing) journey of becoming an ally has been complicated. I didn’t come to Scripps an ally, and I don’t think I was anything close to a decent one until about a year ago. As a first year, I had multiple conversations with people about how I didn’t think the SCORE CLORGS were necessary because they were exclusionary—I won’t go into that story, because I wrote a whole column about it last year. I’ll provide a link to that at the end of this article.
In this column, I want to talk about some of the things I try to do as an ally. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a perfect ally and I’m still learning, so this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive. And while I try really hard to do all of these things all of the time, I fail (which I’ll go into later). Regardless of those limitations, I thought it would be important to write this column, especially as someone who had a pretty shitty track record when it comes to allyship until fairly recently, because I know I had a lot of misconceptions about what an ally’s role is and about what I was “supposed” to do in order to support marginalized communities in their efforts for justice and social change. Also, I’d like to note that this list is numbered for the sake of flow, not for the sake of importance—all the points are equally important and carry equal weight.
(TW: This article contains some information about my experience with mental illness, specifically depression, bipolar disorder, and suicidal thoughts.)
1. It’s not about you. You are not an ally because you want to feel good about yourself. You are not an ally so you can put it on your resume. You are not an ally so you can tell someone who calls you out on racism that you go to Café con Leche meetings so they don’t know what they’re talking about. You are not an ally to fight a well-intentioned but ill-informed crusade on behalf of someone else. You are an ally because if you are not, you are actively an oppressor.
2. That said, allyship is a process. Just because you’ve decided to be an ally doesn’t mean you’re going to be perfect at it. Like everything else, you’re going to have to learn how to do it. And when you’re learning a new thing, you’re going to make mistakes. And someone will call you out on it. Which is okay. Yes, you’ve just done or said something that’s perpetuating oppressive social norms, but you’re working on it. This is one of those areas in life that only fail if you quit.
3. Getting called out is not the worst thing to ever happen to you. When I got to Scripps, I was progressive enough to know that being racist was bad. If someone said you were being racist or marginalizing someone, that was really, really bad, and I when I would get called out, I would often get either really embarrassed (if I agreed with the person calling me out) or offended (if I didn’t). One misconception that I had about allyship was that it meant never, ever being racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, classist, ageist, and so on, which is totally impossible. We all agree that society perpetuates some pretty awful stuff, so chances are you’ve internalized some stuff that’s problematic and harmful to you and to others. Especially when you’re first starting out, there’s going to be a lot you don’t know. Getting called out is an opportunity for you to learn how to be a better ally. In order for this to work, though, you have to be willing to think critically about your behavior—whatever you just got called out for, as well as past and present behavior. You’re making progress as an ally when you make better choices after getting called out. Allies who are willing to get called out and improve their behavior are really important.
4. Don’t wait until someone calls you out to adjust your behavior. While the calling-out process is important and should be taken seriously, you cannot and should not assume that people are always going to want to call you out. We all have a lot of stuff on our minds and our schedules, and calling someone out can be exhausting and annoying, especially when we have to do it all the time. Moreover, people might be triggered by what you say—I didn’t really understand this until I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last semester. I was really, really depressed for quite a while, to the point of having thoughts of killing myself. Hearing people say insensitive and derogatory things offhand about depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide can be triggering for me if I’m having a low day. What you say could be so hurtful that it will trigger deeper depression, which leaves me to pick up the pieces. In those situations, I’m hardly in the mood to call you out. I’ve come to understand how important it is to do a couple of things to make sure I don’t do the same thing to other people. They are…
5. Educate yourself. This is one of your primary jobs as an ally. I cannot stress this enough. A big part of social justice and activist movements is education. There is infinite information about all these topics all over the library and internet. Do your research. Figure out who the prominent writers and speakers on these topics are. Read and listen to their stuff. Take more than one class on these topics if you can. It’s really easy to incorporate ally work into your everyday routine. You probably already spend a bunch of time on social media, so use that to do some work. Read the links your friends post about these topics. There’s tons of great blogs on Tumblr that you can follow—there’s everything from really long posts to gifs and graphics that are informational. Don’t forget that, even though I’m referring to marginalized groups as a singular force, and even though groups often do common work, they are not a monolith in their ideas or practices. Ideas and opinions are individualistic, and communities are frequently critiquing themselves in their work. Remember, too, that learning about these things is not an academic exercise, and it doesn’t pass for lived experiences in these areas.
6. Listen, and speak up when you have to. This is another really, really important thing about being an ally. Part of allyship is using your privilege to advocate for people when their voices are silent. I’m a person with a ton of privilege, so when, for example, I’m in a room full of other privileged people and no representation for marginalized communities, or where marginalized people in attendance are explicitly and implicitly silenced, it’s my job to speak up and advocate for their right to be heard. But it is NOT my job to speak over someone. So if, say, transwomen are being shut out of a conversation, I need to speak up and advocate for their inclusion. But if there’s a transwoman in the room, I sure as hell better let her speak and dictate how issues that affect her are going to be addressed. I’m doing nothing if I’m advocating for someone’s inclusion but silencing them in the process.
7. Marginalized people get to decide how to do their work. This was a huge lesson for me as someone who was against the SCORE CLORGS my freshman year. What I came to realize is that when I would say things against them, I was basically saying that I, a white woman, should get to decide whether Wanawake Weusi is good for black women. It sounds pretty dumb when I put it that way, huh? So this means that allies don’t get to dictate how things get done, and they probably shouldn’t propose solutions to problems that arise. They need to listen to what communities are advocating for, and then join them in fighting for those solutions. The difference is between saying to a marginalized person “Why don’t you do x?” or “You could do x so that y.” and saying “How can I help you reach the goals of your CLORG/organization/movement? What can I do?” Only offer suggestions when asked, or if you have knowledge of some administrative or logistical process the group is trying to navigate (and if they’re advocating against that process, work to help them change it). I’m someone who loves being a leader and finding solutions to problems, so this is one I especially struggle with. But the best thing a leader can do is ask how they can be a better ally, not make decisions about what should happen on their own.
8. Recognize your limitations. This summer, I worked at a summer camp for black kids of all socioeconomic classes in the greater D.C. area. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done—the kids were brilliant, but I really struggled to work with them. That experience made me realize, first, that I still have a lot of internalized stuff I need to work through, and second, that I am not a person who should be in front of a classroom of black kids. It was a hard thing to come to terms with as someone who considers herself an okay ally at a place that, for the most part, advocates for its students to do work like this (e.g. applying to Teach for America). From that experience I realized that there are better ways to use my privilege to help people, and I’m still trying to decide how best to do that. Using the newspaper as a tool of allyship has, I think, been a better use of my privilege, because I’m providing a platform for members of marginalized communities and working to make the paper a safe space for them, but I’m not using the paper to tell them what to do (I hope).
9. Know that your intentions are usually irrelevant. If you’ve said or done something that is hurtful or marginalizing, the worst thing you can do is try to defend yourself. This forces the person you’re talking to not only put in the hard work of calling you out, but also of arguing about a topic that is deeply related to their personal, lived experiences, when it’s not related to yours. This is important especially when your intentions are good—you’re not a bad person, you just need to adjust your intentions. In my experience, one of the best things you can do is apologize, and, if you’re confused, see if the person is willing to explain why what you said is problematic. If they’re not, consult someone else who you know is willing, or use your plethora of text and media resources to figure out what went wrong.
10. Make spaces safe. Always assume there’s someone in the room who could be hurt or seriously triggered by what you say and do. Some people are very private about what goes on in their lives, so anything that could be hurtful should never be said. Period. Even if the person you’re talking to knows what you mean, someone listening to you might not and they could be seriously hurt or triggered. Someone should feel equally safe in SCORE, in the Field House, in their room, in the dining hall, and in the Motley. Everyone in every single one of those spaces should be an ally working to make those spaces safe and also working to support the work that people are trying to do. Remember, it’s important to educate yourself and make sure you’re supporting people, rather than deciding how to make a space safe without any word from the groups in question.
11. You don’t get to decide when you’re going to be an ally. It might not always be cool, advantageous, or easy to be an ally. Because you’re supporting people that society works to actively oppress, marginalize, and silence, your work will not be easy, especially when you have to go to bat for these communities (remember number 6). But as a person of privilege, you do not get to decide when you’re going to speak up. There will be backlash. People will say you’re wrong to do what you’re doing. People will say you’re a killjoy or that you need to pick your battles when you challenge them every time they say something shitty—when people tell me I need to pick my battles, I like to say, “Okay. I pick all of them.” Not everyone will like you. There is no halfway when you’re an ally. And, by the way, if your friends aren’t supporting you in your allyship, you need to ditch them. They’re going to suck your energy away from the work you’re doing.
12. Guilt is the worst response ever. Do not feel guilty when you mess up. Do not. It’s a waste of your energy to feel bad about what you’ve said or done that’s not good. Absolutely be reflective about what you say and do, and let that reflection guide your decisions in the future. But do not feel guilty. It detracts from your energy to do your ally work—if anything, let your mistakes inspire you to work harder.
13. Take care of yourself and each other. I’ll be the first to admit that allyship is difficult. Remember when I said allyship isn’t about you? Well, you also need to take care of yourself—you can’t help anyone if you’re a wreck. There will be times you need to feel bad about something that happened. There will be times you need to vent about the difficulties with being an ally. But don’t rely on the communities that you’re allying to deal with your issues—that’s detracting from the work they’re doing, when it’s your job to support it. While ally training is often something groups dedicate time to, it’s often one very small part of the work they do. Help them with that work by helping each other.
14. Don’t get discouraged. As you learn about the issues that are out there that groups are trying to fight, you’re going to feel like literally everything is a problem and there is no hope for society. My parents worry a lot that I’m only feeding my depression by thinking so much about all the wrongs out there. But the truth is, you have to have an almost stupid amount of optimism to do this work. You have to sincerely believe that the work you’re doing is going to affect change, even when you don’t see that change occurring. Remember that social justice groups don’t just sit around making lists of all their problems—they almost always propose concrete solutions to the problems they identify. Keep those solutions at the forefront of your mind, and you won’t feel so overwhelmed.
I know this has been intense, and if you’re just beginning your journey as an ally, it can all seem really daunting. But making this transition is the same as any other you have to make in your life—it gets easier the more you do it. If you want to learn a little more about my journey from non-ally to ally, you can find that story here: http://goo.gl/yz7sDI. I wrote this in response to an article that a CMC student wrote last year about why she disagrees with the existence of women’s colleges.