How to be a more thoughtful ally
Doing anti-racism work in predominantly white communities is hard, often lonely work for people of color. That's why genuine allyship is so celebrated in social justice circles. The term "ally" refers to someone who advocates on behalf of a social group for which that person is not a member (For the purposes of this editorial, we'll focus on white, anti-racist allies).
While genuine allyship is something to be encouraged and promoted, many unfortunately see the title of "ally" more as a status symbol than a responsibility. In other words, they want to be seen as good people, but don't necessarily understand or want to engage in the kind of self-reflective work required to be a genuine ally.
Instead, they engage in performative allyship. This manifests in numerous ways, but ultimately boils down to a self-centered approach that often reinforces the power dynamics of white supremacy.
For example, one of the recurring conversations in LO is "How can we get more people of color to attend *insert activity here*?" While genuinely well-intentioned, these discussions are often framed around the wrong question. We shouldn't be talking about numbers for the sake of numbers. What we should be asking is, "What are people's needs and what can we do to meet them?" Effective allyship, especially in places like LO, requires allies to meet the people they seek to advocate for where they are, rather than demanding they come to you.
It also means being cognizant of what your presence means in different spaces. For example, a recurring suggestion in the aforementioned discussions is to get a group of predominantly white people to visit venues like Black churches. While this might sound good in theory, in practice, it comes off as organizing a field trip to see Black people in their natural habitat. A more productive use of this kind of organizing would be to coordinate carpools for the plethora of solidarity rallies being held throughout the Portland Metro area, such as demonstrations against ICE or police brutality.
To be clear, there are no official rules on how to be a thoughtful and effective ally. Rather, genuine allyship is a lifestyle practice that requires constant self-reflection and improvement. That said, here are a few general guidelines:
Center the needs of marginalized people — Make the people you are advocating for the focus of your approach. A great place to start is volunteering with POC-led efforts.
Embrace discomfort — Be willing to accept feedback without getting defensive.
Don't make your allyship conditional — Your commitment shouldn't be dependent on whether you can hold a leadership position or be protected from getting your feelings hurt.
Don't deny your privilege; use it to help — If you have the time, specialized skills, and/or disposable funds to support empowering marginalized people or bolstering anti-racism efforts, utilize those advantages.
Practice proactive learning — Make researching critical race theory from scholars of color and learning about different cultures from POC platforms a part of your lifestyle rather than a reaction to a bad conversation or negative news story.
At the end of the day, genuine allyship is about putting in the work. While good intentions are important, they alone won't eliminate white supremacist power dynamics or provide everyone with the resources they need to thrive.
Respond to Racism will meet Monday, Aug. 5 to discuss "White Allyship in Close-Knit Communities." The meeting will be facilitated by Alexis James from Oregon Humanities, and as always it will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ (1111 Country Club Road, Lake Oswego). Register or learn more at https://www.respondtoracism.org.
Bruce Poinsette is the media action team leader for Respond to Racism and a 2007 graduate of Lake Oswego High School. He currently works as a freelance writer who specializes in covering education, culture, business and social justice.
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