As the semester is now in full swing at my institution, I am becoming increasingly excited for new experiences. One of my professional highlights for the spring will be having the privilege to attend ACPA and in thinking about the conference and the closing speaker, I’ve watched (as I’m sure most of you at this point have) Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability in addition to engaging in her written works. As I’ve been reading her works it has caused me to really, truly, authentically, and vulnerably examine my work as an “ally”.
What does it mean to be an ally? How do I serve as an ally to others? Being an ally is a term that I grew up loving and desired to emanate, and have growingly become challenged by the term and how I feel that I am effectively taking action since I made the conscious effort to become one.
I first became aware of the term through my Quaker high school education, which helped me in developing an initial understanding of social justice. In my undergraduate studies, my understanding continued to grow as I became engaged in leadership and identity development through programming and my reading of books like “Readings for Social Justice & Diversity”. Texts like these helped me understand how a city, like my hometown of Philadelphia, can have neighborhoods with unimaginable affluence, and yet fifteen minutes away have some of the most impoverished communities in America. I finally could start wrapping my brain around how as a society, particularly from a city that espouses the nickname “The City of Brotherly Love”, could allow, support, and enable this to happen through oppression on levels that I couldn’t and to this day still can’t fully comprehend. I also became troubled the more that I learned about these issues, the more that I saw people like me (white, male, privileged, etc.) being the involved in the reasons that perpetuated these issues due to established societal structures of oppression that supported people that looked like me. Along with this I also realized how few people like me were involved in creating sustainable solutions. I started to realize that while my education and life experiences did not cause me to initiate such systems, I was complicit in it and the effect it has on those throughout the country.
With this realization I went about working to try and better learn about, support, and advocate for those who were targets of oppression. The two main questions I had been; how as a member of a group of people that did not have societal structures put into place to stop me could I engage in genuine dialogue with others? How could I work toward tackling the issues, individual beliefs, and societal structures that continue to harm individuals and much of our society at large?
At the time I went immediately to groups of people who I thought also had shared my discomfort and views, other white people. While I was excited about this prospect, I found it very frustrating that so many of my white peers who had come from similar backgrounds and education did not appear to care, get involved, or even want to talk about these issues. As I furthered my education in graduate school and am now furthering my education as a professional, I’m still advocating for a call to dialogue about these issues in addition to better educating myself and my community about the realities of these issues. However, the more I find myself trying to engage my communities in dialogue I frequently encounter pushback about the need, value, or reality of issues of social justice. One extreme example of a conversation that I can remember was during my senior year asking a classmate what he thought about how societally disadvantaged so much of the African American community appeared to be in Philadelphia and him responding, “why does it matter, it isn’t MLK Day?” While this response may seem abnormal or extreme to many (in addition to displaying an astronomical degree of privilege amongst other things) it left me asking the question; do people feel that they only need to be allies at certain times or for certain issues?
While there are many examples that I can think of one such example distinctly stands out to me. Last year as the Supreme Court made a series of decisions on significant laws that would impact and reshape the country, one particular instance that stands out is the court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act. One particular part of the rationale that was conveyed by Chief Justice Roberts for striking down part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that astounded me was that “…nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” Outraged, shocked, and confused I did what any millennial would do… I took to social media to see who else felt the way that I did. I was amazed at the scarcity of people commenting on the change to the VRA and the gutting of one of the most important and crucial civil rights laws. Even after Texas wasted almost no time in taking immediate action to implement new voter laws the number of people commenting, discussing, or even acknowledging the change were few and far between. Yet several days after the demolition of the VRA when the court announced that married same-sex couples would be entitled to federal benefits my social media world exploded in support. While I like many of my friends and colleagues was thrilled with the Supreme Court’s decision to support same-sex couples as it will benefit people throughout the country and for years to come…I was left wondering how people could appear to be selective in their allyship. By seemingly supporting only one issue of civil rights while not acknowledging, addressing, or becoming aware of another huge loss in civil rights.
These issues forced me to really look inward at myself really examine/challenge my own whiteness and inherent privileges and figure out my role and the action I can take in working to be a true advocate for progress across the entire social justice spectrum. This school year I made a commitment to greater action with my staff and my students in being comfortable with discomfort and working to take action. Recently in that effort I came across an interview by @suey_park with @drdavidjleonard, which has helped give me better direction and has caused me to further reexamine my work on social justice in that “It’s not about choosing the right word, it’s about making the commitment to racial justice” (Park, 2014). This article was able to help me articulate things that I had not been able to previously. “…white anti-racists often fall into the trap of viewing change through activist work rather than as organizers, as teachers and as members of communities of ‘ceaseless agitation’ and change… And while doing the work, be accountable” (Park, 2014). While my understanding of what it means to really be a social justice educator continues to evolve, I’m excited to continue taking action and using my role as an educator ever chance I get in hopes of developing a community of educators and agents of change. I’d encourage you to take time to actively challenge yourself in answering these questions…
How is it that I display vulnerability and can be authentic in my work with social justice to myself and to others?
How do I stop worrying about how I am perceived and instead how I act?
How do I see yourself growing and working to better my community?
How can I be a true educator today & make a difference on my campus?
What will I commit to doing today?
Brian Lackman is an Area Coordinator & is the Coordinator for Residential Curriculum in the Residence Life Office at Davidson College. He has a BA in English Literature from Chestnut Hill College and a MS in Educational Leadership Studies with a focus on Higher Education Administration from Oklahoma State University
Park, S. (1/6/14). Anti-racist activism and white ‘allies’: A conversation with Dr. David Leonard. Retrieved from: http://rabble.ca/news/2014/01/anti-racist-activism-and-white-allies-conversation-dr-david-leonard#.UssrENyojs0.twitter
Pope-Davis, D. B., & Ottavi, T. M. (1994). The relationship between racism and racial identity among White Americans: A replication and extension. Journal of Counseling and Development 72(3) 293-297.
Trepagnier, B. (2006). Silent racism: How well-meaning White people perpetuate the racial divide. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.