What is an Ally?

An ally is someone who supports a marginalized group they are not a part of. They listen to what is being said, they lift up the voices of those who have been silenced, and they fight for what is right, advocating for justice and helping to make the world a more inclusive place. They recognize their privilege and use it in a way to promote equality and bring attention to major issues. Allies are human like everyone else, and they will make mistakes. Good allies work to correct those mistakes and learn from them, apologizing in a way that validates the feelings of those they hurt and moving on to do better in the future.

If you consider yourself an ally to any marginalized group, you probably know some of the many struggles these groups face on a day to day basis. You’ve heard their stories about discrimination, prejudice, and hate. They deal with the internal biases of most of the population, and even outright violence from some. They face invalidation and harsh judgement, often from the people they care about the most. Anyone who has to handle these sorts of things on such a constant level is bound to have some pent up anger and frustration, both at their situation and the people who put them there. It is a natural and normal response to oppression. Marginalized groups are justified in their anger, and questioning or discouraging the expression of those feelings is something called “tone policing,” and causes more harm than good. Yes, you attract more bees with honey than with vinegar, but minority groups have faced enough hardship that to invalidate their anger is akin to invalidating their experiences.

Intersectionality is important to address here, because it shows us all of the different ways in which people can be oppressed or privileged. It is not a dichotomy or a hierarchy. A straight white man could be disabled or be part of a religious minority. A queer black woman could be extremely wealthy. There is no ultimate ranking system here. Whatever issue has the spotlight, allies need to use their privilege to assist the cause and highlight the voices of the oppressed (without speaking over them). Working together is the best way to move forward.

As I mentioned, allies make mistakes sometimes. They could say something offensive, accidentally talk over someone, give false or misleading information, or give too much merit to oppressive ways of thinking. If someone is a true ally, they make these mistakes unintentionally. However, impact is greater than intent. No matter how well meaning you were, if you made a mistake, you caused some damage. It is time to listen and learn. Depending on what mistake was made, one or people who were affected could get upset with you. They could be angry, they could yell, they could express real hurt, and this is perfectly valid. It’s not going to feel nice, but the last thing you want to do is go on the defensive. If you’ve misgendered a trans person on accident and they get upset, think about where they are coming from – they could’ve been misgendered repeatedly that day, or had a difficult interaction with an unsupportive family member. Your intentions don’t seem so important when you consider the impact your mistake had on them. If you use a racial slur that you didn’t know was a slur and someone gets mad at you, think about the effect you had on them – maybe that word was used to belittle them throughout their childhood, and you’ve accidentally reminded them of all those hard times. Whether you meant to or not, you hurt them and they have every right to be mad.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of fair-weather allies floating around out there. A fair-weather ally’s main motivation for supporting marginalized groups is to get a pat on the back from others. They want to seem like a benevolent superior, who is “woke” and progressive, but when things get messy, they threaten to abandon the cause all together because people got angry with them. Fair-weather allies hear the angry words and think only of themselves. They tell the marginalized person that their anger is only going to turn people off from supporting their cause, implying that the only reasons they deserve justice and equality are their attitude and good manners. If you were truly an ally because you believe that all people deserve support and validation, you would understand the anger. You would listen. You would do something to make amends, not go on the defensive and make threats.

Mistakes are human, but if you’re called out, be careful not to react with an inhumane response. We can all learn and grow. Do not let your fortress of privilege prevent you from dealing with the feelings of the marginalized people you support. Provide a platform, educate others like yourself, and most importantly – listen.

The Science of Social Justice

Centuries ago as the Dark Ages came to a close, we moved into the Enlightenment. For the first time, science and reason was valued above religion and the authority of the church. To this day, science is still a major social authority and is seen by many to be the ultimate objective truth-finder. While the scientific method is in theory a stable and unbiased way of discovering new information and learning about the world around, scientists are just as biased as humans every have been. Science has an influence on culture, but culture also has an influence on science.

A major example of this is scientific racism. From the 1600s until the early 20th century, the scientific method was abused to promote white supremacy. Experiments that were questionable at best were performed with heavy biases and taught to the masses as fact. This supposedly ironclad discipline overlooked blatant racism for hundreds of years. “Scientists” would use the skull sizes of Caucasian and African men to show that white brains are bigger, by shoving beans inside and counting them as a way of measuring intelligence. When the experiments weren’t going the way they were expected to, they were tweaked, altered, or reconstructed to produce the desired result and confirm the racial prejudices of the day. We like to think that objective truth will eventually win out – after all, it did in this case, though only after too much time and too much brutality. But we’re smarter now, right?

The current social justice debate steeped in scientific rhetoric is gender and sex. I’ve studied this subject in depth and can go on for days about the scientific justifications behind the separation of gender and sex as concepts, the legitimacy of trans and nonbinary identities, and the social construction of our current system. Bill Nye Saves the World hit Netflix last year and took on the topic in a wonderfully crafted and scientifically backed episode. People who are opposed to the current gender movement use the DNA episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy to show that Bill has been bought out by the liberal tumblr snowflakes as though a kid’s show from the 1990s is a better authority than a show for adults in a time when the topic is gaining more progressive scientific attention. When people try to refute these social justice points using “science,” I am attempted to come right back at them with… actual science.

This should be completely unnecessary. Maybe it’s a product of our competitive, capitalist society, but the intense scrutiny people face in order to validate their own existence on someone else’s terms is absurd. These pseudo scientists who believe their middle school level understanding of biological sex makes it okay to invalidate marginalized people will likely not change their mind no matter what evidence you throw at them. They will invent conspiracy theories or try to delegitimize certain areas of study. The best argument against them is kindness and human decency. It is about respecting people’s identities and making life as livable and enjoyable as possible for every type of person. It is about promoting the rainbows of diversity and individuality over the grey clouds of conformity. It is about defending people’s experiences and feelings because they are human and worthy of respect, not because a scientist said it was okay.

The science is there, but why does it have to be?

What Is Oppression?

Oppression can be defined as subjugation achieved through social means that affects whole categories of people. The term refers to the systemic weight of prejudice and discrimination on folks who are marginalized by it.

Conversations about oppression can get pretty complicated because of the way various oppressions and privileges interact in our society and our culture. Oppression is a systemic issue, meaning that it’s built into the systems and social structures of our society.  Someone isn’t “oppressed” because their feelings are hurt, they’re oppressed, because society in some way, prevents them from having the same rights and privileges as anyone else.

An example of this would be schools who refuse to use a transgender child’s correct pronouns or name. While cis (anyone who is the gender they were assigned at birth) folk often take the privilege of being gendered correctly for granted, it can be pretty devastating for a trans person to not have those same rights.

What Is Social Justice?

Social Justice, as a discipline is about learning how to think about society, culture, and interactions both from and considering the perspectives of other people similar to and different from yourself. It focuses heavily on things like mutual liberation, listening, empathy, and justice. It can easily be divided into two main tasks: Reflection, and Action.

How Reflection looks in practice is going to vary, but the most important part involves something called “self-crit.” This is the hardest part of social justice because it requires a lot of introspection and empathy, which doesn’t come easy for most folks. It takes considerable effort to try and empathize with a perspective that you’ve never had or experienced.

Self-crit is where you sit and examine your own behavior for ways that it may impact folks with different experiences than you. One example of this is speaking loudly and slowly when speaking to a person of color. From your perspective, you are being respectful of their language barrier. From their perspective, however, you are making assumptions rooted in systemic racism about their ability to understand English. For a marginalized person, this could be incredibly hurtful and frustrating. It makes them feel as if you assume that they are uneducated, incapable of speaking English, and if you somehow think of them not so much as an individual person, but rather as a stereotype. It can feel very condescending. This is an experience people of color face frequently, and it acts to dehumanize them, or make them feel as if they are somehow less important.

If you were to self-crit in a situation like this, you would sit and think about those words, and attempt to place yourself in the marginalized person’s shoes. Can you imagine living in a world where everyone assumes you are incapable of communicating in English? It would get pretty exhausting pretty quickly. Maybe you could picture a situation in which you yourself felt like people treated you as if you were less-than, or spoke to you as if you couldn’t possibly be on the same level as them.

So now that you’ve unpacked, and resolved to adjust your behavior, what now?

Now it’s time for Action. Action is both an internal and an external thing. You need to adjust your behavior, in this case, by approaching people of color with the same tone of voice and volume that you would use to speak to white folks. You can make an effort to adjust your behavior to take into account the things you’ve learned through self-reflection, and you can work to educate other white folks on why speaking to a person of color with that volume and that tone can be so hurtful.

Social justice is about the journey. It is an ever changing concept, and as we learn and grow and self-crit, we learn how we can make the world a more just and equitable place for all of us to live in.