Being a Good Ally: Lessons Learned at a UC Davis GDOPx Workshop

Yesterday, I attended UCD’s Graduate Diversity Orientation Program (Extension)’s (GDOPx) workshop on being a good ally led by Dr. Jinni Pradhan. I thought it would be nice to take the time here go over a few takeaways on basic allyship as well as some new perspectives about allyship I hadn’t considered before.

What is allyship? The Anti-Oppression Network has a great article that defines allyship as “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people.”  In its most basic form, allyship involves developing and practicing empathy towards all people. This includes everything from using inclusive language (using preferred or neutral pronouns, or “folks” instead of “guys”) and avoiding making assumptions about other people or groups of people, to shutting down racist great-aunts at Thanksgiving dinners, to self-educating on topics rather than asking marginalized groups to educate you, to actively attending rallies protesting oppressive policy.

One of the first steps towards becoming a good ally (or an ally, period) is recognizing your privilege. What is privilege? Everyday Feminisim has a good article covering the basics, and defines privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.

The workshop emphasized that everyone has a different set of privileges because everyone has had a different lived experience.

Allyship also involves working towards intersectional liberation of people belonging to oppressed groups. Here’s a wonderful comic created by Miriam Dobson (twitter) illustrating intersectionality better than I could explain it:

Comic licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License by Miriam Dobson.

Allyship is work, and involves making mistakes, recognizing and apologizing for those mistakes, and moving on. At the workshop, we discussed calling in rather than out when others make mistakes: for example, if a person says something that could be construed as ableist during a dinner party, taking that person aside and explaining one-on-one to them in a respectful manner why their comment may be harmful or exclusionary is better than calling them out in front of the other party guests – bringing them into the conversation and learning process rather than making them feel left out.

We also watched this great video from Franchesca Ramsey (host of MTV’s Decoded; twitter, facebook, website) outlining tips for being an ally:

The most important takeaway from this video is that ally is a VERB, which implies action: the work towards being a better ally is never over. One can always improve.

Some other things that allyship can involve:

  • being uncomfortable, and being ok with that discomfort
  •  active listening
  • the Golden rule AND the Platinum rule: Treat others the way THEY want to be treated
  • being aware of current events that affect marginalized communities
  • recognizing that intention is not the same as impact: even if someone means well, their words or actions may have a negative impact, and that means something despite all good intentions

There were two points that I came away with from the workshop that I’ve never really thought about before, and want to emphasize here:

  1. Allyship is a give and take; a partnership. Allies who are not members of a specific marginalized community often receive more praise and are more valued than allies from that marginalized community. What folks should recognize is that being exposed to diverse viewpoints, experiences, and cultures is a privilege: diversity makes our communities richer and betters our understanding of the world. Allies on both sides of the partnership benefit from participating in and leveraging the alliance.
  2. I’ve heard a lot of people react defensively when their flaws as an ally are pointed out. I think this comes from the assumption that allyship is synonymous with basic human decency. In reality, it’s more nuanced than this: instead, we should assume that all people start from a place of poor allyship with groups of people they don’t share qualities with, and the farther removed from a group you’ve been all your life, the worse ally you’re naturally going to be. If a person has never had lived experiences as a member of a marginalized group, how could they ever be an effective ally for members of that group? People are not just born knowing what it’s like to be someone else: that’s why the phrase “walking in someone else’s shoes” exists – we were all wearing our own pairs of shoes before we tried another’s on.

I think it’s best to think of one’s self as an “ally in training” for all perpetuity because we can always improve, and self-improvement is a task that is never completed. I am just at the beginning of this learning process, much of which has involved consuming as much self-education materials as I can get my hands on, and stepping aside to really listen to people carefully and thoughtfully without taking up space myself. I think this has been an easier way to approach allyship because I’m not taking many risks in which I may make mistakes. This blog post in itself represents a next step for me: I am speaking out, a little – but hopefully also magnifying others’ voices and reaching people who may not have been exposed to these ideas before. I hope I’m not speaking over anyone else.

I encourage anyone who is reading this to do the research on all these topics themselves. There is so much more to this than I can ever write in a blog post, and this is really the farthest thing from my area of expertise. I wrote this to expose some folks in my social circles to these ideas, many of which they may not come across otherwise. Please feel free to engage with me one-on-one if you are interested in learning more about these topics, or if you have any concerns about any of the ideas I’ve put forth here. I’m happy to amend my statements if they are problematic or oversimplified.

The feature image is actually just a snapshot of the interactive word cloud found here.

See upcoming Equity and Inclusion events at UC Davis here.
For more on Diversity Resources on UC Davis’ campus, click here.

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