One Way to Be an Ally
Editor’s note: Although this essay discusses specifically being an ally against structural racism in the United States, the concepts apply to many forms of allyship. The author has requested to remain anonymous.
Hi. I am white and I am an ally. I am not a perfect ally—let’s go ahead and get that out of the way. I’m not even sure I could say I am a “good” ally. I would like to be, and I strive to be the best I can. But this isn’t an essay about me. I wrote this essay because I want to encourage other allies to act where they have an opportunity and responsibility to act. This is an essay about one way in which passionate allies—even those who are shy and reclusive—can be effective.
I call myself an “ally” because at some point I hit a transitional turning point. I went from simply not wanting to be racist and not wanting racism to exist, to acknowledging my complicity in structural racism (and other forms), actively wanting to combat that complicity, and desiring to do something real about racial injustice.
Since that time, however, I have struggled to figure out how to do that effectively. How can I be a helpful, active, useful ally without inserting my voice where it doesn’t belong and becoming destructive to important conversations and movements? Much of my personal introspection and growth has come from online communities. But these conversations are not places where my voice generally belongs. It’s my responsibility to hear, to be receptive, and to really listen to people of color’s stories. My responsibility in this case is to be an active listener, to seek out these voices, forward/share them, and also absorb and be changed by them. Similarly, when I attend protests and vigils, like those in 2014 for Mike Brown in Ferguson, it’s important to be there in solidarity, to add to the number, and it’s important to me because I care about the issue. But I always found myself asking, what else can I do? How else can I be involved in activism without being a destructive, quieting, or self-centered force? How could I be helpful without “making it about me”—even accidentally?
I don’t have all the answers for that, but I have one. This answer is simply to talk about racial injustice issues and white privilege with people whom you care about, and people who care about you.
One reason why being an effective ally or activist feels difficult is the scale of the needed changes. Real socio-political change happens on a massive cultural level—it happens because the larger cultural subconscious of a population becomes deeply convicted of a problem. In the U.S., it is hard to see how massive change in race relations will happen without a widespread, massive cultural acknowledgement of the problems—and without the country as a whole being openly ashamed of its history. Laws and policies in many countries reflect the cultural subconscious of the population and how they changed over time. Scandinavian countries are considered some of the most progressive in the world regarding issues related to gender equality, like parental leave. They have laws which attempt to ensure such equality, laws that came out of a wider cultural conviction. Wider cultural conviction regarding gun control in Australia made tighter regulations possible and has had a direct impact on firearm mortality rates there.
One problem for the U.S. is that it is geographically so huge: the U.S. population is spread out over it in many regional pockets—rural and urban, small and large—all with their own local subcultures. Thus the mass U.S. culture is varied and often fragmented. But massive cultural change doesn’t come from nothing. One place that it stems from is individual relationships.
I am an introvert, and because of this I build relatively few deep relationships. But when I do, I invest a lot in them. My sphere of influence is small, but it is there. And here’s the thing. People who care about me and love me, over time, come to care about the things I am passionate about—however tangentially—even when they disagree with me.
Obliviousness and unawareness is a huge, huge problem and roadblock for massive cultural change. It’s also a huge roadblock for personal change. Which of these can we directly address as individuals?
Structural racism doesn’t oppress white people. They can more easily stay oblivious to its existence. Just like many allies in a previous life, many people do not understand the difference between personal vs. structural racism, active vs. passive racism, and conscious vs. subconscious racism. Less introspective people may not even be familiar with these differences in relation to other concepts or issues.
The first step toward becoming aware of a problem is relating to it personally somehow. Awareness of a particular issue grows as the brain makes connections between it and other things—or between it and people they care about. As an ally, sometimes you are the only relationship that can offer this connection, this relatability, for the people you care about.
For example, after being vocal about racial issues in various conversations, you may find friends and family members emailing or messaging you articles related to racial issues with captions like: “I thought you might be interested in this” or “This made me think of our conversation.” You may have a friend who is a teacher ask you for further reading on the subject because they want to start a conversation about racial injustice with their students. Your mom might forward you an article about the PCA church addressing racial injustice even though you aren’t religious, because she is, and she knows you will care about this issue (and how it relates to her church life, because you care about her). Your sister may forward you an article about someone only reading books by minority authors for a year. Your friends or family may reach out to you in any number of ways because you are someone they care about and they know you care about this issue—and they know you care about them.
Prior to your conversations, your sister and mother may have already been aware of racial issues. But your conversations can give all of you more reason to pay attention, more sources of growth, awareness, and accountability. Another motive to care.
And there will be other family and friends in which prior to your conversations, you may not know if they were aware of or cared about racial issues. But in following weeks, months, and years the topic comes up again in conversation or just in an email with a link to an article.
Often it may be in relation to another specific area in which you and the family member or friend share an interest—video games, literature, academia/the university, or just general politics. In these cases, the person might not have done more than glance over such an article and forget about it if you and they had never talked about racial issues. With the added layer of connecting the issue of racial injustice to someone they care about—an ally—and the desire to fully comprehend why the ally cares about the issue—a person can grow in understanding the issue of racial injustice itself. They take a step towards becoming more aware of the problem, even towards becoming another ally.
I’m not telling you this so you can feel some glow of pride when someone associates caring about racial injustice with you. It’s not about you and it’s not about me. I’m telling you this because it’s our responsibility to be vocal if we are sincere and want to be an active positive force. Silence is agreement.
So even though you may be shy or reclusive and only have a small sphere of influence, attending protests and vigils when allies are welcome and listening to the voices of the oppressed is not the only thing you can do to be effective. Be proactive and vocal about racial issues if you care about them. When they come up in conversation with family or friends, be honest and passionate about why you care about it. Help them understand why it is important.
Things to consider when talking to a friend or family member:
Relating to Oppression and Understanding Privilege: People who are oppressed in other ways can often relate more quickly and easily to issues of racial injustice and oppression—i.e., females who have experienced sexism and misogyny, trans individuals who have experienced transphobia, people who have struggled with mental illness stigma, people of working and lower class backgrounds who have experienced classism. Intersectionality is important. But as discussed earlier, even just considering the idea of “favoritism” in a general way is helpful. Favoritism as a word is broad—it implies that individual taste is the key variable (versus cultural power). As in: I’ll give favoritism to my best friend’s son for a promotion within my company. I may not be doing it entirely on purpose, but there is an obvious conflict of interest in this case—even more so if it were my own child. With white privilege, Americans—especially white Americans—are, as a culture, far blinder to how pervasive it is and how damaging it is. We don’t want to see it. It sucks. We don’t want it to be true, so we don’t want to acknowledge it exists.
Disagreement and Defensiveness: What is your family member or friend going to do if they have a knee jerk disagreement with you about racial issues? I’m talking about family and friends that love you, with whom you’re engaging in this conversation because you genuinely care about them and they care about you. They might call you “too politically correct” or an “over-sensitive, bleeding-heart liberal” or a “social justice warrior” or say you have “white guilt”—using all in a derogatory way. You are more than capable of weathering these comments. Your discomfort will pass. Even if after a conversation it appears you are both still in complete disagreement, you have still planted an important seed. Even if the seed is just expressing that you care about this issue. They now know it’s something you’re passionate about. They will be more prone to notice and be aware of its existence because they care about you and they will think of you when it comes up. You may also be their only source to go to if they later have questions about such issues.
They may also feel you are accusing them personally. This is a case-by-case thing and I don’t know if I can give advice on how to handle it effectively for every situation. From personal experience, if this happens and both of us in the conversation are white, the most logical step is to acknowledge my own complicity in racism, be it structural or personal, active or passive, conscious or subconscious. The point of the conversation isn’t (usually) my friend or family member’s personal instances of racism—it’s that racism is a real, widespread, and pervasive problem, and that it’s important to identify and discuss it so we don’t stay blind to it and complicit with it.
Aggressiveness: I’m not saying you should go out there and “witness” like a religious missionary. Blindsiding people often puts them on the defensive, especially if you come from a group of friends or family that is generally non-confrontational (as I do). (If you do come from a confrontational background and you have more to offer on how to handle those situations, please do.) However, once you are an ally and you are actively working to be more aware of the permeating, far-reaching, vast tendrils of racism and its effects in our culture and society—you’ll see that the topic of racial injustice is relevant very often to conversations with family and friends. It’s relevant to many subjects.
To wrap up, there are other ways that I and other allies can be effective and vocal and not silent. This essay is not to serve as a “as long as you’re doing this, you’re good” card. No. But I want you to see how the very smallest-seeming opportunity to be vocal about racial injustice is important and can act towards the wider cultural shift that needs to happen in the U.S. Don’t let those opportunities pass by without action. Don’t stay silent.
Race in the literary world
Race in video games
Calls for Socio-political Change
General Info on white privilege and racism
Activist Writers & Books
– James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time
– bell hooks – Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, Teaching To Transgress)
– Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow