Crash Course on Allyship

My life experiences have been critical to my unwavering commitment to “allyship”. Over the course of my social justice journey, I’ve learned that allyship is key to social justice and is an active way of life and a state of being. It is using bridge-building to ensure equality, inclusion and opportunity for everyone by evoking empathy and perspective to those around you to inspire a call to action.

Recently, I attended the Women’s Convention hosted by the Women’s March in Detroit, Michigan, where I had the opportunity to attend an allyship session with Whitney Parnell. Whitney is a rising black millennial activist, and the co-founder and CEO of Service Never Sleeps (SNS). SNS is a non-profit organization that mobilizes communities to promote allyship. The training she gave us was SNS-based and was a wonderful way of summarizing allyship. This article is going to be a crash course on what I have learned from Whitney and my own experiences throughout my own social justice journey.

The first thing to always remember is that allyship is not political. It is rather based on the notion that work needs to be done towards creating a socially just world where marginalized communities no longer have to lead excruciating conversations with each other about survival. It ultimately works toward “shared humanity”.

Whitney defines shared humanity as where we as a collective society embrace who we are and thrive to reach our highest potential. It is working towards social justice. It is the idea that diversity is beautiful and should be celebrated. It is that people should have equal opportunities. It is where we recognize that social injustices are both on a local and global scale. It is the thinking that we as a society have a responsibility to do something about the injustices in the world faced by marginalized people.

Allyship is very complex, and thus difficult to define. One of the most critical things about allyship is being able to define it not only to ourselves, but to articulate it to others as well. Whitney uses an acronym to allows allies to explain to people why a situation may be is unjust: DOES IT.

  • Diversity: This is the acceptance and coexistence of different people in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability, etc. All of these differences make up our identities, so being able to coexist in a diverse world is so important. There seems to be a need to agree on everything, but there is beauty in our differences and living in a heterogeneous world.
  • Opportunity: This is synonymous with equity. Having the same starting point and playing field is critical to opportunity because equity means understanding that people have certain starting points while trying to work towards having the same opportunity as everybody else. Equality does not equal opportunity.  Equity equals opportunity. School systems demonstrate this particular discrepancy as a school receiving minimal resources versus a school receiving lots of resources will affect the trajectory of a student’s life in terms of primary education, secondary education, and post-secondary education.
  • Equality: This can be seen in society visibly through discrimination, but also subtly in terms of the differences of wages or opportunities given. These inequalities between groups of people penetrate throughout societies due to bias and prejudice.
  • Survival/Safety: This is based on not having access to housing or food as both are critical to survival. If the “DOE” is compromised then someone’s survival/safety is also compromised. For example, police brutality against people of colour is a direct demonstration of the fact that because diversity isn’t accepted, it effects people’s safety.
  • Intentional Treatment: This is the idea that we need to be intentional and proactive towards ensuring “DOES” happens as we live in a socially unjust world. We normally think that if we don’t perpetuate injustice, then we have justice. However, this is false, since systems of oppressions exist in our society, so if even one of the DOES features is compromised, then the situation is socially unjust.

Since allyship is so large, the first way to tackle being an ally, is looking within. We need to take our identities and break them down. What pieces of us represent marginalization? What pieces of us represent privilege? Consider the pieces of you that represent marginalization, you have the right to fight for your people, but also thrive and survive because it is not your role to dismantle the systems that are oppressing you and your people. On the other hand, the pieces of you that represent privilege is where you should be an ally because you have the responsibility to dismantle the systems that you and other marginalized communities are a part of. We can all execute or exercise allyship in areas where we hold privilege – our race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, education, socioeconomic status, health, ableism, etc. This shows that we have a complexity in our identities. We are on a spectrum of privilege and marginalization.

Thus, as allies we need to care, learn, act, influence and maintain, or in other words, CLAIM.

  • Care: Being empathetic towards issues by recognizing that there is marginalization and privilege in the world and that you want to do something about it.
  • Learn: As allies there needs to be a constant stance of humility. Being the most woke is never possible for allies because you will never completely know the struggles of marginalized communities. By being humble you are constantly working on yourself and learning and unlearning systems. Furthermore, the way you learn is just as important as what you learn. Tokenizing one marginalized person to be your source is very wrong as no explanation is ever owed to you. When people share something about their marginalization, it is a gift because amidst their exhaustion they decided to share and trust an experience with you.
  • Act: We need to make sure that we are considerate and respectful with our privilege.
  • Influence: Understanding the power we have on people around us is key with allyship.
  • Maintain: Allyship is a lifestyle, so while allyship is hard and exhausting, you need to maintain your position as a bridge-builder.

As allies, we are working within the different systems through service, self help, education, advocacy and direct action. When working there are two things to remember. First, that people are inherently good and two, that opponents (people that have behaviors and mindsets that are opposite of allies) are driven by these systems and implicit bias. Opponents have a mindset about a way of life that their actions reflect. They have opinions that are based on their experiences or a lack thereof, so they think they are right. However, opponents are usually issue-based, and as like us, they are complex too. So summing up opponents as “evil people” is wrong. As allies we are trying to disrupt their bias and systems with our empathy and influence.

We have a responsibility to approach opponents in such a way where we are trying to hear them and understand them because we truly need to believe in respect. No one wants to hear or listen to someone who is yelling “you are a horrible person”. It is important to approach opponents from a stance of humility based on the following idea: “I have to work on myself, so join me in working on yourself so we can work together in helping our hurting brothers and sisters.” There is an importance in humanizing our opponents because it puts us in a position where we can engage and reach. This however, is entirely the job of an ally. The marginalized are not responsible to say, “I really want to understand you, so thank you for letting me know why you are so hateful towards me and my people." No.

Depending on the type of ally or opponent, we have to decide how to approach them. There are leading activists, active allies, passive allies, neutrals, passive opponents, active opponents, and leading opponents. The end goal of approaching someone is to move them one over on this spectrum to bring more tolerance in the world. Passive allies have the same mindset as allies, but are passive in action. These people need tools and encouragement to become active allies. Neutrals are either oblivious to the world’s social issues or are “fence sitters”. These are the people that have a tendency to say “I’m not political” or “I just want to stay out of it”. Neutrals think that staying impartial is the best way to deal with social justice, but it actually is not. Since they lack the personal connection to marginalized communities, aligning yourself with their values to evoke empathy will bring them over to the passive ally position. For passive opponents, their mindset is opposite of an ally but are not doing anything other than saying horrible things. To have them become neutrals, letting them know that their beliefs and values will not be compromised by other people’s existences will bring them over. For active or leading opponents we notice that these people are extreme in their mindsets by actively hating on others through violence or discrimination.

Allyship in action happens in two ways – engagement and shut downs. Engagement is an approach that is focused on the opponent where there is discussion and an exchange of ideas through empathy and perspective. On the other hand, shut downs occur through bystander intervention. Bystander intervention is based on the three Ds – direct, distract, and delegate. When directly focusing on the target we are say “are you okay?”, but to an aggressor we say “what are you doing? Stop.” In terms of distraction, we are focusing on getting the target safe without addressing the problem. Lastly, delegating is done in public places when hateful comments are being spewed and someone of higher authority needs to intervene.

According to Whitney, there are four barriers we face as allies, thus as people with privilege we need to be constantly educating, learning and growing ourselves. The four barriers are as follows:

  • Fragility: People can be sensitive to digest their privilege, and thus are defensive. However, privilege and power doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means that we have a responsibility to work towards the corresponding community to have the same sense of shared community.
  • Guilt: Some people who are socially aware that they have privilege become “stuck” in the feeling of guilt. Feeling guilty means there is self-awareness, however by not moving on, there isn’t any progress for social justice. Guilt is a gateway emotion, so using it in a proactive manner instead of wallowing is really important.
  • Tears: Although empathy is critical for allyship, there is a difference between crying with and crying on marginalized people. Allyship is hard work, thus having a community is needed for support. However, marginalized people cannot uptake your burden, as they are the ones that are actually suffering from the oppressive systems.
  • Saviour: People tend to accidentally fall into the trap of making social justice about them, rather than the marginalized. In allyship you should stand next to, or behind communities, but never in front of. As allies we are trying to amplify the voice of others, not speak for them.

Based on what it means to be an ally to bring upon social justice, there are some assumptions that need to be made. Whitney has outlined 7 key assumptions of allyship that are very important to understand.

  • We all are of the human race, but have differences that should be embraced. Hence, differences used to separate and divide us is a tactic that is used, not a truth.
  • The U.S.A.’s foundation has roots of established power of white, straight, and Christian, males, which have systematically been set up to maintain a power dynamic.
  • In order for social justice to be achieved, current systems must be challenged, disrupted, dismantled, and replaced.
  • With all issues of social injustice, the oppression, disadvantage, and marginalization of one group demonstrates the opportunity and privilege of another group.
  • All of us have implicit bias.
  • It is the right of the marginalized to continue thriving and the responsibility of the privilege to actively work towards social justice.
  • People can be influenced and changed.

So overall, allyship isn’t easy, but it’s ultimately a choice. Marginalized communities are forced to engage in difficult conversations for survival’s sake. Brown parents have to explain to their children why people are yelling at them to “go home”. Mothers have to instruct their daughters on how to stay as safe as possible in public settings. Brothers and sisters have to advise their gay sibling on how to withstand constant bullying. Muslim colleagues have to encourage each other to stay strong amidst a public narrative that’s targeting them as threats. Loved ones of a disabled family member have to say that they’ll just have to find a way to make it work, despite circumstances not being considerate of their needs. We basically live in a world of distrust, pain and divide. Allyship is how we change that.

Allyship matters because there is a need to support the marginalized to amplify their voices and to validate their experiences. Feeling with and being with is so important. Allyship however doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. Whitney says making mistakes is a part of the learning process as long as there is an “oops” acknowledgment. This is having the humility to learn and apologize even when there was no intention because we are making up the position of privilege. Something allies need to do is “nip things in the butt”.  There is so much power in preventatives because small issues grow into larger issues. For example, if a woman is being harassed everyday, it begins to add up for her and the man then begins to think his actions are acceptable. Furthermore, this sense of harassment may turn into assault and may pass on to future generations. Ultimately, there is power in addressing something that may seem insignificant, as eventually it can grow in severity.

So what motivates people to disrupt systems and implicit bias?  There are a number of reasons why people become allies.

  • Experiencing the marginalization yourself
  • Knowing between right and wrong
  • Witnessing a blatant wrong
  • Having in a relationship with a marginalized person
  • Hearing from someone we trust

Allies have a special opportunity to bridge the divide that lacks understanding through empathy and perspective. Allies can motivate others to be drivers of change and celebrate our shared humanity. As someone who is marginalized, I am done with people telling me that it is the job of a brown person to stop receiving racism. I am done with people telling me that as a woman there is work I need to do to stop receiving sexism. But as a cis-gendered -straight person with privilege, it is my job to say there is no room for discrimination based on sexuality. Based on my socioeconomic status and education, it is my responsibility to give back and push for equal opportunities for others. It is my job to push through the discomfort for the sake of standing behind and next to marginalized communities to dismantle systemic oppression one person at a time and one mind at a time. However, as a marginalized person, it is also my right to constantly thrive and be my best for myself and my people.

So let's stand together as allies and make a positive change in the world!

*Disclaimer: Featured image is not mine. Retrieved here.

**The information presented in this article is based on my own personal journey and a lot of what I learned from Whitney Parnell. To learn more about Service Never Sleeps and bringing training sessions to your city, check out their website here.