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Does the term “ally” prevent us from forming real solidarity?

Image: Farrukh

Something that’s been on my mind lately has been the notion of allyship. As many folk know, there have been various reactions to my previous blog post, specifically to the comment on microaggressions. I feel myself to understand such reactions—how they’re historically situated and, as a result, presently created—because I’ve seen them before. However, I have to acknowledge the situation which helped foster the development of my own working definitions of social justice concepts. In other words, that my worldview is colored by the various ways in which I’m privileged. I have material privilege, light skin privilege, and first world privilege. Honestly, I’m sure there are more ways to conceptualize and categorize the ways that I am privileged for the sake of developing a more thorough framework for understanding how I, and others, experience the world. I say this because I want to take a step toward having a better understanding of the ways in which people reach out to one another across boundaries of marginalization. What does it mean to be an “ally”? Is it an appropriate concept to discuss certain relationships? Can one be a false ally, and how?

A few weeks ago, University of Wyoming’s president sent out a campus-wide message via email detailing the ways in which the school wants to move toward a greater commitment to diversity. (I’m not really a fan of the term “diversity” and the bureaucratic ways in which it gets used, but I suppose it achieves certain goals.) Of course, this was a response to the multitudes of student protests across the nation. In addition, there was to be, and indeed there was, a forum in which issues of diversity were to be addressed. In response to this planned forum, a group of students who call themselves Break ThrUWYO decided to organize a walkout. (For more information on Break ThrUWYO: their Facebook page, their walkout speech, their letter to the president, and a brief article on the walkout.)  They decided on this course of action for a couple different reasons. UW, as I recently learned (though I did not verify all the information presented to me), has a poor track record in addressing issues of marginalized students. Why should this forum really represent a marked difference in the school’s approach to issues of marginalized students? The forum was also not viewed as a safe space for students to discuss their personal experiences here at UW. What if word spread that someone had a complaint about an individual or group? Would it further fuel discriminatory behavior? Might someone lash out? Furthermore, because there was limited amount of time for people to speak, it felt as if minority students and clubs were in competition with one another to air their grievances. Many students who participated in the walkout gathered to meet afterwards to discuss anything from policy to personal experiences. It was here that I met the first faculty member to reach out to me after having shared my own experiences.

Kerry Pimblott, a faculty member in the African American & Diaspora Studies department, came up to me and expressed her concerns and sympathies for my situation. She told me I could meet with her later in the week to further talk if I should like. I did, and I’m so happy that I did. Though I am not isolated here in Wyoming (I have friends and, well, allies), she wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be isolated in my time here. She listened to me talk about who I am, where I’m from, and my experience so far in being here at UW. During our talk, I found out that the retention rate of students of color isn’t very good (though this varies across race/ethnic groups). The most severe of these numbers: from 2012-2014, there was a 23.7% drop in the black/African American student population and a 22.2% drop in the American Indian and Alaska Native student population (this includes both undergraduate and graduate students).1 Though there are more factors at work in creating these numbers than simply students dropping out, they do provide a small sketch of UW’s environment and subsequent challenges. I was dismayed, though ultimately unsurprised. Friends of mine have expressed their own struggles with the backdrop consideration of dropping out. It’s a thought that seems to have defined much, though not all, of their time here. I was very touched that Kerry wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be one of those students who left.

I’ve encountered folk who express their status as an ally, specifically a white ally, though many times I felt something amiss in their stance. As a result, I came to realize that it is not enough to say that one is an ally to truly stand in active relation to the liberatory struggles of certain oppressed groups. Kerry is not one of those people of simple declarations. She listened to me, comforted me, and offered insight based on her own experience of living here in Wyoming. She even put me in contact with other graduate students of color who experienced or continue to experience some degree of isolation as well as recommended a couple faculty members to reach out to. I felt safer in knowing that not only does someone like her, a faculty member, feel this way, but also that she’s willing to put herself in active relation to my personal situation. Since then, I’ve had a couple other faculty members reach out to me with words of heartfelt support, and, because of their words, I feel like I don’t need to compromise the way I express myself. They seem to understand their position of power and how their words, situated in their power, may lend themselves to building my sense of security here (at least, I think they’re aware of this).

I am forever grateful to anyone who finds it important to reach out to those who have been historically silenced. I have internalized silencing through both my experience of being as biracial Filipino American and my experience of my gender identity. I’ve internalized the social values which result from systematic oppression. I’ve doubted myself, apologized for myself, and, yes, silenced myself. For most of my life, I didn’t trust the epistemological authority of my thoughts, my experiences, their dynamic construction intertwined with history, lack of history, upbringing, lack of a mirror. I am forever grateful to anyone who both understands and actively supports me and my various acts of expression because my expression has been and always will be an act of seeking truth. My poetry will always be a way for me to explore what it means to be existentially bound and destined toward a certain land, people, yet what it means to also not belong to those things, to be figuratively, if not literally, exiled. What it means to be Other to one group of people, yet also be Other to another. What it means to grow up reading historical narratives that erase who I am. To feel always and deeply erased.

It’s been a difficult path for me to get where I am today. No longer afraid to speak in many ways and contexts, but also still afraid. I hope, going forward, that I can also not simply declare myself to be “ally” to others who have experienced a different oppression than myself, but to be humble to their experiences. To not only take the initiative to educate myself and to eat crow, but to also understand the ways I must stand in solidarity with others and act upon that understanding. There are endless ways in which one can stand in solidarity with others given who that individual is, the context of the situation. However, I do believe one of those ways is to give someone a space to express themselves and to protect that space. I want to do for others as Kerry has done for me.

 

  1. UW Enrollment Comparisons, Spring 2012-2014
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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Does the term “ally” prevent us from forming real solidarity? | Mon Blog

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