By Sabine Vidal
In April 2015 at the University of Cape Town, the movement #rhodesmustfall (RMF) – calling for decolonisation at the university – gained momentum. It brought to light the reality of white privilege, and the fact that few have the freedom to feel comfortable in a space where the statue of a man who stood for slavery, racism and homophobia sits a celebrated position, at what is supposed to be an equal and liberal university. RMF is a black student led movement, predominantly fighting for the people of colour’s (POC) right to feel comfortable in a space, to have their voices heard, and in the end to decolonise the university space. This had the effect of causing many white students (and white non-students) to feel attacked and confused, a feeling I definitely experienced at the beginning of this unfolding movement. After years of South Africans being told we were a ‘rainbow nation’ where everyone was treated equally, we were suddenly confronted with the fact that people were hurting, and that it wasn’t from a few racist words, but from the very structure of society itself. I had unknowingly been living in this space of white privilege, where I could choose to ignore the small daily inequalities.
This uncomfortable feeling of being cast as an oppressor, merely because of the colour of my skin, was hard to understand and accept at first. Many white students felt the same as me. However, with time and through reading and listening I reached a point where I understood how white privilege worked, why this movement was necessary, and what my place in the movement was. As my understanding grew, I found myself as an ally to the movement. An ally is “someone who makes the commitment and effort to recognise their privilege (based on gender, class, race, sexual identity, etc.) and work in solidarity with oppressed groups in the struggle for justice” (RacialEquityTools.org, 2015). Their aim is to address oppression and attempt to address its problematic nature, even if the oppression may benefit them.
The space that allies find themselves in is a precarious one. They are, by some aspect, grouped as a perceived oppressor, however, they have reached a point of understanding where they want to support the movement. Trying to navigate this position can be difficult, as it is necessary for them to follow a certain set of guidelines to be successful, sensitive and effective allies. This paper is looking at the experiences of allies while they try to learn and navigate these guidelines and spaces.
I have chosen to focus on two specific movements, that of anti-racism, and feminism. I have a personal link to both these movements. I consider myself an ally to the anti-racist movement, and I view myself as a feminist. This paper is not going to unpack white/male privilege and institutional racism/sexism. My intention is not to place judgment on those who are not allies, nor do I intend to appropriate any of the struggles experienced by those who are oppressed. I merely want to understand how the allies find their place in the movements. Understanding their experiences can help other allies find a new ‘normal’ in how they experience allyship. I am also still learning how to be an ally, so find myself in the same space as many of those I have talked to in the process of this paper.
I have chosen the name ‘anti-racist movement’ to use as a cautious generalisation of the many movements dedicated to fighting racism. There are many different names and movements each with their own connotations and beliefs. However, at the root of all them is the acknowledgment that many societies in the world have institutional racism built into their structures, where there has been a systematic oppression of POC, and that this needs to be addressed and challenged (Bonnet, 2000; RacialEquityTools.org, 2015). ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the United States, ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ (RMF) in South Africa, are the two examples of such movements I most often refer to as my interviews were with American and South African students. The anti-racist movement has been present for many years, but grew in power during the civil rights movement in the United States and the ending of apartheid in South Africa. There is a perceived revival in recent years with the two new aforementioned movements, where the persistent presence of white privilege is being tackled. They are black led movements and fight for black people’s rights and dignity in society.
The feminist movement as we recognise it today started in the 19th century with first wave feminism (LeGates, 2012). At its core, feminism aims to tackle the inequalities in society based on the structural oppression of women[i]. This oppression of women takes place in all spheres of society; in relationships, both platonic and romantic, in economics, where women are statistically paid less, in everyday interactions, where women’s opinions are disregarded and they are objectified among other instances (Hooks, 2000). There is often a misconception that ‘feminism’ is a hatred of men, an idea often expressed in my casual conversations with men when I mention feminism (Hooks, 2000). Though from my understanding it is more a movement against the dominance of patriarchal thinking which harms all in our society, even men (Digby, 2013). “When feminism is defined as a movement to end sexism and sexist oppression, it is clear that everyone has a role to play” (Goldrick-Jones, 2002, p. 2), as equality will benefit both sexes and all humanity. There are a broad spectrum of theories within feminism, and many philosophies offering different standpoints on various topics (LeGates, 2012). However, all aim to empower women and break the inequalities present in society.
Both these movements are extremely intersectional. Speaking to those who have been to RMF meetings, I am told it is considered a women led movement, a slogan often used being “the revolution will be black-led and intersectional or it will be bullshit”, with many of the leaders and speakers at the meetings being women. The feminist movement has also become more intersectional and inclusive especially with the increased awareness of trans women and gender non-conforming people (Kacere, 2014; Serano, 2013). There is the problem of feminism historically being a part of white liberalism, not taking into account the different patterns of oppression women of colour experience (Breines, 2014; Carby, 1982; Goldrick-Jones, 2002).
I conducted both in-depth interviews, ethnographic observations and surveys. In lieu of being present at actual real life discussions, I made use of ‘interest’ pages on Facebook where those who were involved in the movements could post opinions and hold discussions. While it would have been preferential to actually attend a gathering of allies, living in Netherlands, where these movements are not at the forefront of discussion, it was difficult to find such a group. I did, however, attend a panel discussion following a screening of the new CNN documentary “Blackface”, tackling the problematic nature of Zwarte Piet.
I made a status update on Facebook calling for anyone who was interested in answering any questions regarding my topic. A couple of people came forward to speak about being white allies in the anti-racist movement. However, no men offered to answer questions about being pro-feminist, leading me to ask some women who were heavily involved in social justice movements if they could recommend any men that would be willing to speak to me. I was given two names, and was able to interview one of these men through Skype and the other through a survey with the same questions I used for all my interviews. These questions could be used in interviews for both movements and included open ended questions which allowed for the conversation to flow naturally. I managed to find a guy who lived across the hall form me who considered himself a pro-feminist and was able to conduct an in-depth interview with him as well. I was able to conduct three interviews on the topic of being a white ally to the anti-racist movement, with two being in-depth real life interviews and one in-depth Skype interview. All three of these interviewers were friends of mine who I approached or who responded to my Facebook status.
For my in-depth real life interviews, I chose to sit inside a cafe near the university, for warmth as well as privacy within the noise. My first interview was with a 20 year old white male, Anthony[ii], from South Africa also on semester abroad, we had met originally at University of Cape Town. He identified himself as a pro-feminist and an ally in anti-racism. Talking to someone who identified with being an ally to both movements gave an interesting insight as to what it was like being predominantly an ally rather than part of the marginalised group. While speaking he overlapped a lot in his experiences in both movements, though acknowledging how different the two were. He spoke of being uncomfortable, awkward, and in a state of constant education, though happy to be in this position. We chose to focus on his involvement in the RMF movement, as he felt he was more active in his allyship and therefore had more experiences to share.
My second interview was on another day, though in the same cafe and the weather was equally as cold. I interviewed a 20 year old American-Asian male, Benji, who said he supported the feminist movement, although he was slightly nervous about labelling himself explicitly as pro-feminist. He was nervous and thought a lot about what he had to say, explicitly stating he was still learning and was scared to say something wrong. My third interview was with my roommate, Carol, in our room, she is a 21 year old South African who allies herself with the RMF movement. We’ve had plenty of discussions on the topic before, and so our conversation flowed easily. She, like me, felt disconnected from the movement, although she supported it, as the majority of the activist action in South Africa had taken place while we had been here in Amsterdam.
My Skype interviews were done in the evening, when both my participants and I were free. I sat in my room with the door closed to ensure privacy. It was a bit difficult to start the conversations, as real human interaction always makes it easier for a natural discussion to start. However, once we got started, both conversations went well. I first spoke to a 22 year old white female, Diana, from South Africa who considers herself an anti-racist ally. She was able to confidently articulate what she wanted to say, with sound and well thought out answers that often gave a slightly different perspective. Ethan, a 26 year old white male also from South Africa, but living in London, considered himself anti-sexist but had a much more mature approach to the other men when speaking about his allyship. He was confident, and it was evident that he had a more passive but thoughtful outlook. My last interview was a survey as Frank, a 19 year old white South African male, did not have access to Skype at the time. He was possibly the most involved in the anti-sexist movement out of all I interviewed, and so I wanted to include his perspectives despite the fact that I was not able to talk to him properly.
I also spoke casually to people about the topics in order to get a general understanding of what others outside my target group felt. One occasion I was speaking to a German white male, who was struggling with the concepts of institutionalised racism and the need for feminism. I found it exhausting trying to explain it to him, and struggled to word my arguments in such a way that would not offend him while at the same time try get him to understand how some of the things he was saying was problematic. I cannot count this as a proper ethnographic observation, however, as I became too emotionally involved in trying to get him to understand. This experience showed me how important it is to remain more neutral, while still allowing yourself some level of emotion when conducting ethnographic observations. As soon as you cross over into a more judgmental place you lose the sense of being a watcher and storyteller, and it becomes difficult to disentangle your emotions from the subject. You also risk putting the other person on the defensive, and you can not then observe their naturalistic responses to the topic. I found observing people’s responses and actions on social media an easier way to see how the experience of being an ally is approached in a setting outside just self-reflection. As I could not be present at any actual gatherings, I chose to observe the nature of posts on certain pages relating to anti-racist and anti-sexist education.
The Start of Being an Ally
One of my first questions was “how did you become involved in the movement?”, which garnered a few different answers. Anthony, Carol and Diana all said they had prior interest, but it was the events at the University of Cape Town that spurred their allyship to the anti-racist movement. Ethan said he had been taught to treat all people with equal respect, and growing up around strong women, he said:
“I would’ve been an idiot to believe one sex was greater than the other”.
Goldbrick-Jones lends support to his motivation, as in her research on men in feminism, she found many who said their experiences growing up, and “the presence of feminist women” (Goldrick-Jones, 2002, p. 4), prompted their involvement in the anti-sexist movement. Frank had a slightly different start in allyship to the anti-sexist movement. He said in the past he would consider himself a misogynist, watching pornography regularly, playing violent video games and objectifying women in an attempt to reinforce his masculinity. He started questioning his patriarchal and aggressive attitude towards his crush, which prompted him to start reading into why he felt this way. I am sure this turn around is very common among men in the anti-sexist movement, but he was my only participant who admitted he had been actively perpetuating women’s oppression. Benji also had a slow start in allyship, saying he was still trying to understand how what he was doing was wrong. Although never openly aggressive to women, he did nervously admit he may have been extremely sexist in his way of thinking.
“I used to, I dunno, like, make sandwich-making jokes and think girls got high grades because they were hot. I know those are wrong now, but the jokes were just jokes, which I’m still struggling to get my head around how they hurt women. Though I know they do!”
Everyone I spoke to all cited their continued conversations with people on the topic for their growing belief in their allyship. Anthony explained how the concept of being an ally and why the movement (RMF) was necessary ‘clicked’ for him:
“It wasn’t talking to someone who was saying ‘you have privilege’, it was talking to a friend of mine, who was very conservative, and he was saying it’s bullshit that they want to take down the statue, and then I started playing devil’s advocate, and I convinced myself. I got bumped from the other side”.
I also asked the participants how they felt about their privilege and also the process of addressing it. Mcintosh offered an important point, although written in the gender perspective, it also applies to the race perspective: “I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged” (McIntosh, 1990). Understanding and facing your privilege is a necessary step in becoming an ally (Digby, 2013). Everyone I spoke to said how valuable and important the process they had gone through was to them. Admitting that others have a disadvantage based on structural inequalities will only lead to change if one also admits that these same inequalities may give us power and advantages in life which others might not have (Goldrick-Jones, 2002). Many of the participants spoke of feeling guilty, and nervous when they first realised what their privilege was, how deep it went and how simple it really is, but they often then said they felt happy to have found this uncomfortable place in understanding. Ethan had an interesting perspective on addressing privilege, saying:
“You do not make the weak strong by making the strong weaker. The answer lies in uplifting those that are less privileged. I have only ever felt proud to do this.”
The Subculture of Being ‘Woke’
Kennelly speaks of a subculture in youth activism of feeling individual responsibilities towards the movement, where emotions, in particular guilt, are an integral product. This also manifests in ‘self-perfecting’, where the youth believe they are required to become the best they can possibly be, leading to disappointment and the “sense that one can never ‘do enough’” (Kennelly, 2009, p. 298). While reading through one of the anti-racist group Facebook pages there are a lot of posts asking for advice on how to discuss the movement with others on an individual level, and how to address it within ourselves without becoming too emotional. There are plenty of examples of people attempting to take on the responsibility of teaching others about their privilege, and then being on the receiving end of ignorant or mean comments and taking these very personally. While speaking to Carol about this idea of having to be the perfect ally, she mentioned it was something she was feeling very acutely at the moment while away from home and the RMF action. She felt because she was not there, she was not being a good enough ally, and not doing enough to help the cause.
There is a heavy subculture of encouraging, and being, intersectional in the movements. The anti-sexist white males I spoke to all also identified as allies in the anti-racism movement, and vice versa. The Facebook pages also had many members posting about intersectional matters and how to address them, including capitalism, veganism, ableism, among others. As Anthony said about his thoughts once he came to understand his privilege in one space:
“Dominos began to fall, about other things, like feminism”.
Many people become ‘woke’ (becoming aware of social injustices, a word used all over social media in the context of activism) once they understand one movement, leading to an understanding of, and possible activism against, other oppressions. You’ll find many youth activists either actively or passively supporting many causes.
Everyone I interviewed spoke of being in a constant process of learning and unlearning. There is an expectation of all allies to constantly be reading new articles and written pieces to grow their knowledge:
“Moreover, the more work I do with my own mind, the better I can help others do the same.”
Almost all participants said social media was an invaluable tool for this learning, Carol saying:
“The Facebook pages for white people to discuss the anti-racist movement and their place in it are invaluable spaces. Here we can look at and address our privilege without taking away any attention from the POC and their opinions which are obviously more important in this matter”.
On all the Facebook pages there is a constantly updating list of must read articles, with members engaging in the comments, trying to understand. The process of unlearning is a highly valued one within the movements, as many allies have acknowledged their privileged upbringing, and how deeply entrenched racism is in common thinking (Bonnet, 2000; McIntosh, 1990).
Feeling Uncomfortable, and Being Happy with It
Self-reflection and criticism is an important part of allyship. With this self-reflection comes the feeling of being uncomfortable (Case, 2012). All the participants I spoke to said they felt uncomfortable at one point or another. However, all of them also said they found this feeling necessary in their growth as an ally. As Frank said:
“I feel most human when I am most uncomfortable, when I am forced to be extremely aware of my whiteness and my cis-maleness, because with this awareness comes the capacity to dismantle these systems of ideas in my mind.”
Constantly evaluating how you see things, whether they are problematic, and admitting to yourself that these problematic thoughts are actually around, is the best way to enact self-reflection and know what one has to unlearn. Chatterton found in his research on youth activists, that they were very open to self-critique, with an aim of dialogue and improvement, rather than “self-congratulation” of their involvement in the movement (Chatterton, 2010, p. 1221). Accepting criticism, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, is also necessary:
“If I made a statement that was offensive, and they [oppressed group] called me out on that and criticised me, I would have to have the capacity to say ‘you are totally right, sorry, that was not cool’.”
Learning to accept and learn from criticism is an uncomfortable and painful process to go through, as it is very easy to take to heart (Case, 2012; Digby, 2013). Participants were saying it is something they are constantly working on, and often found it to be an awkward experience when someone calls them out on something they have said. Though, they did say they were very happy when someone did. Flanagan points out that youth are “more intellectually and psychologically flexible and more socially mobile. Thus, it is easier for them to accommodate, as well as contribute to, social change” (Flanagan, 2008, p. 126). There is also the discomfort that comes when you’re still learning what is acceptable behaviour in the movement and as an ally (Utt, 2013a). Small micro aggressions are an example of this; unconscious small behaviours which may seem harmless, but can actually perpetuate oppressive ideas and behaviours (Sue, 2010):
“I’m scared of overstepping boundaries that I can’t see”
Speaking to Carol and Diana, white females who support the anti-racist and feminist movement, both brought up the uncomfortable idea of being privileged while still being oppressed.
“It’s weird, because I know I have white privilege and that gives me a big step up in society, but then being a women takes some of that away. And I want to say I understand what it’s like to be oppressed, but have realised it’s not even comparable. Sexism and racism aren’t the same kind of oppression. I feel my privilege very acutely when I’m in a room full of [women of colour].”
McIntosh (1990) mentions this uncomfortable realisation that oppressions and privileges manifest, and are felt, in different ways. This leaves many in the position of trying in vain to draw parallels in order to understand. Though, many do find that drawing faint parallels with an experienced oppression can help one recognise other oppressions, leading to a better understanding of racism/sexism that may otherwise have been lost (Case, 2012).
Learning to Listen and Take Action, but Not Too Loudly
At the ‘blackface’ premier, the audience was predominantly people of colour with a few older white members and a very small amount of white students present. During the Q&A section it was interesting to see the dynamics play out. The forum panel was made up of four people, a black American male, a black American woman, a black Dutch woman and one white Dutch woman. People of colour of all ages would ask the panel question and make statements. However, only about three older white people spoke, while all white students remained quiet and chose to listen. Speaking to Diana about her experience in one of the RMF meetings I noticed the similarities – most white allies had chosen to stay quiet and to listen instead.
One of the major guidelines of being an ally is learning to listen (Utt, 2013b). All the participants said they found listening rather than speaking to be one of their hardest but most rewarding challenges:
“I have to actually step back. I have to actually sit out and listen. There’s this fear, that white person’s voices carry greater potency, are received with more authority. But there’s this same circle of powerful white people speaking. There’s a white arrogance, that they think they know more, and that there voice is worth more.” – Anthony
Anthony speaks of a privilege white people are afforded – that their voice will automatically be given more authority. This is also often the case when it comes to men (Goldrick-Jones, 2002; Utt, 2013a). And so allies learning to listen rather than speak allows for the authoritative voice to be passed on to where the actual authority in oppression lies, the marginalised groups whose voices are often lost. But a balance between being too silent also has to be achieved. Many allies choose silence over confrontation to respect social norms and keep the peace (Case, 2012). There is also the risk that many important perspectives will never be heard , as people are too afraid to speak, which Diana pointed out:
“It’s good to have differing perspectives, we need to be exposed to alternative ideas. Still be critical of them obviously, but shutting them out will not help anyone.”
Using privilege to enact change has become a way for allies to help within the movements. Using one’s privilege to get other privileged people to listen can be a useful tactic (Case, 2012). I asked the participants what they thought the most useful things an ally could do:
“The focus must be on other men, specifically to help them to separate themselves as humans from what patriarchy teaches them about being a man. This is a painful process, which as a male ally one must have been going through for a while already.” – Frank
“Find where discrimination is happening in your life, and around you, and do what you can to eradicate it.” – Ethan
Check Your Allyship
Allyship is often plagued with problematic thinking and behaviours which can lead to an unsafe space both for allies and marginalised groups. There is a problem of binary thinking, where allies get caught in this trap of thinking there is only one ‘truth’ and way to enact justice in the movement:
“It’s dangerous, how one-minded people can get, there’s this attitude, like ’either you’re with us or against us’. Not everyone protests the same, and sometimes people forget that” – Diana
This can also manifest in ‘holier than thou’ thinking, where allies may become judgemental over those who do not participate in activism the way they believe is correct. This is similar to when youth activists place a large importance on ‘living’ the activist identity, such as ‘performing grunge’, where middle class youth will adopt the identity of working class. They then criticise those who don’t adopt this approach to activism (Kennelly, 2009).
Occasionally there is the risk of allies co-opting the movement, and allowing their voice to become the loudest. Some examples of this include allies taking over the conversation to talk about their allyship and to ask questions about the movement (Truong, 2015). And although this dialogue is important, it should happen in ally spaces. Some of my participants felt this was an important thing for new allies to understand, that their place as an ally was not in the centre of the movement, but rather on the sides, supporting:
“I actually haven’t ever explained why I’m part of the feminist movement, because I don’t feel I have the right to be, since it is by definition a movement by women and for women, and I am not a woman. I prefer to use Bell Hooks’ approach, by saying I advocate for the feminist movement.” – Frank
Many of the allies I spoke to noted worriedly that they still hold many unconscious biases which aligned with oppressive ideas and actions. This is normal, as we have been unconsciously socialised into racist and sexist ways of thinking. These ideas have been built into the structure of society over hundreds of years, and we cannot avoid them (Bonnet, 2000; Truong, 2015). Allies have noted that the process of unlearning is a life-long one, which they will always have to work at (Case, 2012).
“It’s uncomfortable, and I have to constantly check my privilege because I know I’m still going to say or do the wrong things. But I’m so happy to learn” – Carol
From the research I have done, I can safely say being an ally is an uncomfortable experience of constantly learning. The participants I spoke to came to be an ally in slightly different ways, though shared similar features. Speaking to others helped deepen their understanding of why the movement was necessary, and understanding how their privilege manifested also helped them address it. There is a definite subculture in being an ally that slightly differs from being an activist. There is an expectation for allies to be the best they can, often on an individual level. This can possibly lead to allies flexing their ‘activist ego’ too much, trying to boost their allyship legitimacy. Many allies from one movement are also very aware of other movements and either actively participate in them or have started addressing their privilege in them. There is also a guilt that follows many allies around, which seems to provoke further learning and engagement. The allies were happy about feeling uncomfortable, which at first was a bit odd to me, but realised that when one feels uncomfortable, one will never stay stagnant. Being able to listen without speaking in certain spaces is a big part of allyship, and accepting criticism as well. There are plenty of problems which can arise from being an ally, as they have to walk the very thin line of supporting from the sidelines or letting their privilege get in the way of the marginalised groups having their voice heard. Self-reflection and evaluation is very important in these circumstances, as allies need to constantly ‘check their privilege’.
Researching this topic and writing this paper has been an intense period of learning and feeling uncomfortable for me. Being an ally, although important, is also fraught with problematic thinking, and doing this research has caused me to look at how I am being an ally, and also how I interact with those who do not consider themselves allies or who remain ignorant on the subject. Navigating through social justice movements is an uncomfortable, frustrating, inspiring, guilty, and exciting experience for allies. As well as a potentially empowering one for all involved.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
[i] When defining ‘women’, this includes transwomen, womxn and all those who may identify as women/womxn, and ‘men’ is inclusive of transmen, and those who identify as men unless otherwise stated.
[ii] My participants are given pseudonyms in this paper as some sensitive topics were explored.
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