Do you remember when you first learned about bullying? I do – my elementary school teacher sat us down and defined “bully” as someone explicitly mean to others. I still remember immediately feeling defensive: I’m not a bully; then, the pang of guilt when a hypothetical came my way: how would I respond if I witnessed someone being bullied?
As I grew older, my struggle to fight the bystander effect grew more significant. During UNC’s first-year orientation, each small group underwent diversity training. My group was composed of lovely individuals, each with unique heritages, stylistic expressions and personalities. I fell in love with this diversity as each of us shared our strongest identifiers. One individual noted they were Hungarian, another identified as Southern Queer, another an uncle and I felt … boring. As incredible as it was to be in a room celebrating diversity – I come from a conservative, white, upper-middle-class upbringing – I felt bland compared to my peers. Then, it hit me. “Ally,” I stated as my turn came. I felt proud claiming the identifier “ally,” and I felt like I deserved to claim it. At least, to my Black and Mexican-American friends and to my gay sister, I was an ally, right?
Reflecting on that day, I feel ashamed to have claimed allyship because, in that moment, I wasn’t an ally beyond theory. In the safe space offered for those who needed it, I turned the attention to myself, white saviorism unknowingly blazing through my unbacked words. The best way to be an ally would have been to actively listen and reflect on the brave conversation in the room instead of half-listening and half-waiting for a chance to share my own story, which I had none.
Allyship requires no expectation or desire for special recognition, and it is not an identity. Allyship, according to the Anti-oppression Network, is an “active, consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.” Instead of urging ourselves to speak, allyship is redirecting the mic to those voices who are repeatedly marginalized and ignored.
Allyship has never before been so important and so… trendy. Social media has shifted dramatically – this is the age of the infographic. I open Instagram Stories with reposted squares of social justice education where I would usually see birthday shout-outs.
I love a good graphic, and I admire how the Instagram landscape has adapted to become a platform for growth and education, but I fear these reposted illustrations are simply trendy and will dwindle as “allies” become comfortable again. Even worse, “activism” is no more than slacktivism. Reposting isn’t enough.
How many of us have reposted, “Help Yemen,” without donating? How many times have we read, “Call your state senator,” without picking up the phone? Who among us posted #blackoutteusday but when witnessing a racial microaggression in-person hesitated to act or did not act at all? Are we backing our words with thoughtful action, like holding institutions accountable, displaying our pronouns and working on our thought patterns? Are we preparing to vote?
Many of us “allies” are just beginning to understand the breadth of systematic inequality and feeling shame for not validating words with actions. For myself, becoming more educated on systematic inequality helps me recognize my own incorrect thought patterns. Concepts I never used to think about – the wealth gaps in neighborhoods, the selective facts I learned in history class, the ethics of mission trips – break down my preconceived beliefs. I regret how long I took to try to understand the systems of privilege and oppression in the U.S. that I unrightly benefit from, but I need to do so now with zeal. It’s not enough to apologize – I have to put in the work.
Thankfully, there are plenty of resources online beyond the Insta graphic that can aid individuals in becoming better allies digitally and in-person. As someone yearning to become an effective ally, I know I’m responsible for self-educating and following through with what I learn – one of those being the importance of educated voting in a democratic system.
This election cycle, we are not just voting on party politics; we are voting for human rights. While human rights should not be political issues, modern society is built on systems that still uphold inequality, so they must be political to be preserved.
If you are in a position of privilege and power to where this election will not affect your access to health care, your ability to humanely immigrate, your protection from conversion therapy or your personal safety influenced by your race, you are in a position to vote as an ally. I implore you to consider others who are not as lucky when you prepare to vote. And please, prepare to vote.
Coulture’s mission statement says that we aim to be a magazine for people of all shapes and sizes, for those who speak up and stand out. We recognize that it is important to hear from people with personal views, strong perspectives, and something to say. This article is part of Coulture’s “What I’m Voting For” initiative where members write about the issues they care about in the 2020 election.