How can we expect others to value our lived experiences and realities if we don’t also consider theirs?
A major point of social justice work is consciousness. The idea is to be conscious of how our actions affect others, conscious of historical context, and conscious of our own identity. It’s about understanding that our identities shape the way we experience the world–and our experiences in the world shape our identities. More than identifying other people’s biases, a goal of this work is confronting our own preconceived notions. Social justice is much more than being “politically correct.”
Allyship is about bridging the gap between those with privilege and those without it. A person doesn’t need to know everything about the group they’re supporting in order to be an ally. They just need to commit to standing up for others even if it costs them a few moments of social discomfort. Allyship is a healthy way to exercise and acknowledge the privileges we all have. Because whether we want privilege or not, we have it. Everyone does. Everyone has had some type of privilege. Everyone has also experienced their own form of struggle or oppression. That’s when they needed allies of their own to support them.
When we have privilege, we have a choice. We can ignore what is going on in the world that hurts others because it may not affect us, and therefore, may not cause us to stand up for what is right. When you say you’re an ally, it means you’re committed to standing up for other people’s rights. Being an ally means publicly proclaiming your support for a group of people. Allyship is going further than just being interested in diversity. It’s a commitment to educate yourself on issues that may not directly affect you.
Becoming an ally to a community does not mean, however, that you become the center of attention. As an ally, you’re still benefitting from privilege, while the community you’re supporting is not. Therefore, their voices need to come before yours. Since they’re experiencing the given oppression, they’ll have more insight into the matter than an ally. For example, an ally who identifies as a man, while he may support women, is still benefitting from male privilege. The best way to support said women would be for him to listen to their experiences and advocate for them when needed.
High school is an especially important time to let people know that you stand by them. At this age, many people are still exploring their identities and aren’t quite sure where they fit. Having even one person’s support can give someone the courage to be who they really are. No one should be punished for their differences. Instead, we should be celebrating our individuality. Diversity makes the world colorful and interesting.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” This statement couldn’t be more true than in the hallways of high school. We are all responsible for our action–even as teenagers. Despite what we may want to believe, being a bystander is just as bad as being the oppressor. If you read my earlier piece, Growing Up Bicultural, you’d know that I could have used some white allies in high school. Just one white student saying, “That’s not okay,” would have made all the difference.
Part of white allyship is understanding it’s not people of color’s job to educate you. If you happen to have friends or teachers in your life who are gracious enough to share their experiences and answer your questions, appreciate them! But, don’t assume this action is every person of color’s reality. White allies need to remember that these conversations often take a toll on people of color. Asking them to share their experience(s) of oppression is asking them to be vulnerable, especially since it often reopens wounds they’ve been trying to close. Additionally, there is a time and a place for these conversations. Putting a person of color on the spot isn’t being a good ally.
Luckily, information on race, ethnicity and oppression is fairly accessible. Anyone can find articles, YouTube videos, documentaries, books, and so on that discuss these topics in depth. While it may not always be okay to approach a person of color with invasive and extremely personal questions, it is always a good idea to use the resources readily available.
Allies–besides listening and working to understand a person of color’s experiences–we need you to speak up, too. When your families or friends decide to make racist jokes, we’re counting on you to tell them that their words are not okay. Often, especially if you’re white, people will assume you’re okay with these comments, which gives you the opportunity to intercept racist stigmas when people of color aren’t present.
Remember, as any type of ally, you will make mistakes and that’s okay as long as you learn from them and continue educating yourself. In my own high school career, I acted as an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community. This allyship can be challenging at times because I’m a loud personality who loves to talk and crack jokes. Sometimes I mess up and highjack the conversation, but nobody’s perfect. The important thing to remember is that I try to become more aware of when I do slip up. Or, if someone calls me out on it, I remember not to do the same thing next time. However, I don’t stop and make a show of myself or beg for forgiveness.
We need to begin creating cultural norms that foster allyship. Even though many of us want to stand up for others, it’s clear that often we’re not feeling empowered enough to do so. The good news is: there’s strength in numbers! When you start acting as an ally, you will be leading the way for others to do the same. Once enough people stop tolerating oppressive behavior, the oppressors will have to stop.
Priyanka Jhalani is a first generation Indian woman who graduated from high school last year. She is passionate about social justice work. Since her sophomore year in high school, she has been heavily involved in diversity and inclusivity initiatives, including facilitating numerous discussions and giving several speeches at her school. When she has the time, Priyanka loves to write, read, run, and dance.
Editor’s Note: This article is the final of three in Teaching Social Justice’s first series. If you haven’t done so already, please read Priyanka’s previous writings that came out in May and June.