Thursday, April 12, 2012

Learning to be an Ally

If you’ve read this blog for a while, or follow me on Twitter, or are a Facebook or Livejournal or Real Life Friend, you know I care about racism. Combating it, that is. You also know I like to talk about race in general, ethnicity, background, socio-economic class, poverty, religion and the various issues that touch all of these.

In certain circles, I would be called an “ally”. An anti-racist ally. A White ally. I haven’t used the term a lot myself as it’s not mainstream enough to be recognized by everyone, and rather than talk about my own status I’d prefer to talk about my experiences & the experiences of others. I also am not really sure I have earned the title of “ally”. Can you be an ally if you care deeply and have lots of conversations with people? Do I need to put in X number of hours protesting to be an ally? How many books about anti-racism do I need to have read to be called an ally? I’m not sure of the answers to these questions. Deciding on a title for myself isn’t a big deal to me but the term is coming up often lately, and not just in blogs or books I’m reading.

The graduate school where I work has been hosting dialogue sessions on various diversity-related topics for years, but in the last few weeks we’ve seen attendence skyrocket. One session, which is designed for groups of 2-3 people to partner up & answer a set of questions about themselves (so we can get to know each other better), broke from its normal programming to host a session about White privilege and the “unfair” campaign. is an online campaign to educate people about White privilege. Its tagline is, “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.” Faculty taped posters from the campaign to their office doors, with mixed reactions. The posters show White faces with handwritten statements across their faces – statements that detail some of the things that are hard to see when you have White privilege, some of the offensive things people say to or about people of color. Some faculty and students reported feeling offended at the posters. Some felt the message was important but the execution was poorly handled. Others (including myself) thought the posters were a great conversation starter, and thought, “Finally! It’s about time we talked about this.” Our weekly “get to know each other” lunchtime dialogue sessions have turned into a three-weeks-and-counting series of discussions about these posters and White privilege. This week we’ll have session #4 and we’ll probably continue the series each week through the end of April, when students and faculty go on break before the summer semester.

We have also held two discussion sessions about Trayvon Martin, racialized violence, and our profession’s role in these issues. The first session was a packed house and being only an hour long, way too short to really get into the discussion the way we wanted to. So! Another one-time-only session is being turned into a discussion series. We held our second session this week and while less people came, we still had a good turnout and a fruitful discussion about race, “safe spaces” and the necessity for students and faculty who belong to the majority group (Whites) to stand up as allies alongside our peers of color.

Essentially, I have been following the Trayvon Martin story in the news, continually bringing up stories, articles, blog posts about racism to my friends and family, and going to one or two group discussions each week where we hash out the difficult feelings and thoughts related to race and racism in the United States. It has been invigorating, frustrating, overwhelming, rewarding and clarifying for me. I wish everyone could experience this. The thing is, everyone can. You just have to choose to talk about it.

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