How To Actually Be An Ally To Students Of Color On College Campuses (And Beyond)

COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 9: Jonathan Butler (c), a University of Missouri grad student who did a 7 day hunger strike listens along with founding members of the campus group, Concerned Student 1950, during a forum speaking to students on the campus of University of Missouri - Columbia on November 9, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. Students celebrate the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe amid allegations of racism. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Source: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As the end of the week approaches, I will admit that my heart is heavy. Events at the University of Missouri, Yale University, Claremont McKenna, Ithaca College, and more have demonstrated the power and impact of student organizing this week, but student activists at college campuses across the country have continued to come face-to-face with people who claim to be "liberal," or "progressive," or "allies" and yet don't do anything to actually support these claims. Black Girl Dangerous columnist and editor Princess Harmony Rodriguez coined the term "ally theater" to describe the phenomenon of vocally and publicly declaring one's own allyship on social media, as though to take any responsibility for dismantling systems of oppression off oneself. This is not genuine allyship. So, how can you be a decent ally to students of color at college campuses right now, given everything that has happened?

I am always wary of people who frequently proclaim that they are allies, because if you are actually in solidarity with a movement, your actions will speak volumes about your allyship. Speaking up and educating people is beyond important, of course, but just know that solidarity cannot and should not end at a Facebook status.

1. Acknowledge Your Own Privilege

I know that people are tired of being asked to check their privilege. But before you can lend support to any movement, it's important to think about what you are bringing to the table. Asking people to think about the ways in which they have privilege is not meant to be a shaming tactic, or an attempt to guilt-trip them. Privilege and power inform the ways in which we interact, and also determine who will be heard and who will be silenced.

If you are a white person, don't immediately go on the defensive when someone comments on your privilege. They're not trying to shame you, and your white guilt is not going to help remedy inequalities. Don't shy away from the privilege and power you have. Understanding your privilege will help you educate other people in positions of privilege with the knowledge that they're unfortunately more likely to listen when you talk than when a person of color does. It will also help you think about what it would look like to dismantle systems of oppression by assessing the ways in which you subconsciously perceive or interact with people of color. Rebecca Carroll, an op-ed writer for the Guardian and director of digital media and marketing at Scenarios USA, summarized this well:

I think among the most pressingly crucial concepts for white allies to consider is not simply the privilege and power they possess in a system that favors, elevates and rewards that privilege and power, but what it would mean or look like to take that privilege and power down a notch, or maybe a few notches. Because operating at even a privilege deficit for white people is still operating from a vantage point. I don't mean give up your Pottery Barn rugs, and I definitely don't mean feigning deference toward black magical magic (despite our obvious magical magic). I mean cultivate racial consciousness in ways that will inform your intellect and language, and greatly affect the way you interact with black folks.

All this said, just remember that checking your privilege at the door is not the same as movement-building or cultivating racial consciousness. It is an important introductory component, and the rest of this guide will provide numerous suggestions about where to go from here. And when you're on a college campus, everyone is privileged just to be there and have access to academic resources, but everyone's access is still not equal, and marginalized folks often have to fight a lot harder for the departments, resources, and safe spaces they care about.

2. Listen To (Or Read) And Amplify The Narratives Of People Of Color

Think about what you've been reading or watching lately. Have you been reading narratives about Mizzou written by black students? Have you been consuming alternative media that amplifies the voices of people of color? Have you actively sought TV shows, books, and movies that have people of color as main characters? Or have you been content to just read what is produced en masse by white people, for white people? The latter is common, and here's the reason: a privilege that goes hand in hand with whiteness is the ability to see yourself represented in media, as though whiteness on screen and in print is the norm and everything else is a deviation from that.

This is especially important right now. When you're reading and talking about events at Mizzou, at Yale, at Claremont McKenna, are you reading and listening to people of color, especially black students? Are you carving out safe spaces for them to talk freely and openly about the injustices they face? Or are you sharing and consuming articles that would rather criticize the protesters than think about why the protests are actually necessary? In moments like this that thrust racial injustice into the public spotlight — although, for people of color, this injustice is ever-present — it is crucial that people who want to "be allies" actually read up on what marginalized folks are saying, instead of making some grand philosophical gestures about freedom and dialogue.

A few resources if you want to commit to amplifying the narratives of marginalized folks: Black Girl Dangerous, Everyday Feminism, Colorlines.

3. Start Conversations, And Take The Burden Of Education Off People Of Color

It should not always be the responsibility of marginalized people to start conversations about oppression and injustice. It is a privilege to be able to not talk about racism, and many people of color are tired of having to constantly bring up things like the events at Yale and Mizzou, and then being shut down for being too "sensitive." If you are a white person and want to be an ally, remember that ally must be a verb and not a self-proclaimed status.

The willingness to start conversations goes hand in hand with taking the burden of education off people of color. There are plenty of people of color in the public sphere who are writing about and speaking about their experiences. People of color shouldn't always be asked to essentially be a representative of their entire race — if you've ever witnessed a moment in class when someone is talking about slavery or police brutality and everyone turns to the only black student in the room, as though that student is required to share an opinion, you'll know exactly what I mean. People of color also shouldn't be forced to take on the emotional and often physical labor of educating everyone who makes an ignorant comment. We can't step back from racism, ever, and as a result, the process of educating folks with privilege can be draining and even toxic.

Here's where allies come in. Part of being an ally is using your privilege to step in and educate other people with privilege. This does not mean speaking over people of color, but rather standing with them and doing the work that they can't or shouldn't always have to do. At college campuses in particular, there is a wealth of material available if you want to direct other white folks to resources such that they might start educating themselves. That way, you won't always have to put people of color in a position where they need to justify their identities or lived experiences.

In 2013, Everyday Feminism writer Jamie Utt mentioned that allies don't take breaks. This is one of the most difficult things about being an ally, but it is not meant to discount the importance of self-care. Here is Utt's reasoning:

Part of the privilege of your identity is that you have a choice about whether or not to resist oppression. And falling back into your privilege, especially when you are most needed, is not being in solidarity.

4. Be Cognizant Of How Much Space You're Taking Up: Know When To Show Up, And When To Make Space For People Of Color

One of the most crucial things to remember when you're trying to be an ally is that it's not about you. You shouldn't be speaking over people of color. You should be using your privilege to engage other people with privilege, but in spaces designed by and for marginalized people, you should not be trying to lead the charge. Educate yourself on movements, show up to movement-building spaces, and ask people of color how you can help them do specific things, like spread the word or shield them from police. But don't assume that you know how to organize a movement better than people of color, don't launch anti-racist initiatives if people of color aren't at the table — and don't do what Hillary Clinton did when she tried to tell Black Lives Matter activists how to do the work they've been doing for years. That's not allyship and that's also not "constructive criticism" — it's taking up too much space and assuming that you somehow know more about what people of color are fighting for than they do.

This is a common phenomenon on college campuses. Marginalized students will launch movements and try to get legislation passed in their student senates, and white students involved with those movements will try to tell marginalized students how to ensure political success. Here's the problem: People of color have a lot more to lose in political spaces than white people do, and we have to work so much harder just to be taken seriously in those spaces. Political organizing is certainly important, but when you're on a college campus and the people you're organizing with are your classmates, recognize that students of color will almost definitely face more severe consequences for speaking out than white students.

Being cognizant of how much space you're taking up also involves constantly educating yourself so that you're not taking up room in safe spaces by asking questions that could be answered by a Google search on your own time. It also involves actively creating space for people of color. For example, halfway through writing this article, I took a break to attend an action and march that black students at Northwestern were holding to stand in solidarity with their counterparts at Mizzou, Yale, and beyond. Before the march began, one of the organizers asked black women to come up to the front, because their voices are frequently silenced, even in the movements that attempt to serve them. This is what solidarity looks like: Not only recognizing the power dynamics in certain spaces but also actively finding ways to amplify the voices of people of color.

In summary: Recognize that lending your body to the occupation of a space is vital, and if you are unable to do that — because it isn't always possible to attend protests and sit-ins — then at least make sure you are engaging with people of color to see what you can do. (Again, don't put the burden of education on them; educate yourself as much as possible before trying to figure out how you can be an ally to a movement.)

5. Be Receptive When You're Being Held Accountable

If a person of color tries to alert you to the fact that something you've said or done is problematic, don't go on the defensive. Let me make it clear that our anger is a manifestation of our grief, and of the injustice we experience. So if we call you in about something you've said, don't assume just because you "identify as an ally" that you are exempt from making mistakes — and also don't assume that we're coming from anywhere but a place of love. We alert you to mistakes you've made because we require your support and solidarity and want to help you serve our movements as best as you possibly can.

This is when a discussion of "hurt feelings" is actually relevant. You are certainly entitled to your feelings, but recognize that your hurt feelings as a white ally are a lot less pertinent or urgent than the marginalization, oppression, and death of people of color. If someone tells you that you're perpetuating a microaggression, for instance, think critically about why they're saying that, apologize, and use your new knowledge to educate other people with privilege who might not be as willing to listen to people of color. You can proclaim your anti-racist allyship all you want, but that means nothing if you're not actually supporting, listening to, and learning from people of color.

6. Respect Safe Spaces, Even If You're "Legally" Allowed To Enter Them

This is particularly pertinent right now. Safe spaces are supposed to be safe precisely because marginalized people need to be able to be open and honest without fear of being silenced, and to heal together. These are not the right spaces to have abstract discussions about how you feel as a white person or "ally." Those discussions are certainly important, but save them for spaces with individuals who share your identity and privilege.

A certain moment during the Mizzou protests has sparked a great deal of controversy this week. Protesters told a student journalist, Tim Tai, to back up, and Tai responded by saying that the First Amendment gave him the right to be there just as it did the protesters. But as Terrell Jermaine Starr pointed out in The Washington Post, Tai's legal entitlement to enter and report on that space does not necessarily mean he should have done so.

These student protesters were not a government entity stonewalling access to public information or a public official hiding from media questions. They were young people trying to create a safe space from not only the racism they encounter on campus, but the insensitivity they encounter in the news media. In the outsized conversation that erupted about First-Amendment rights, journalists drowned out the very message of the students Tai was covering.

What I find even more appalling than public support of Tai — rather than of the protesters — is the fact that very few people seem willing to consider that these are students — students who don't exist within a vacuum. They're not just story subjects, and they're certainly not government officials. They're students who are being subject to death threats because they've dared to speak out against the racism they've experienced on campus and elsewhere. The public reaction to this interaction has simply affirmed the power imbalances that these black students are attempting to combat. Being an ally in this case means explaining to people with privilege why marginalized folks often have a significant distrust of the media. Their narratives are constantly misrepresented, suppressed, and not given as much weight as those of white public officials. Being an ally also means actively advocating for every student of color's right to access educational spaces without fearing for their lives.

7. Understand The Relationships Between Different Forms Of Oppression

The key word here is intersectionality. When different marginalized groups stand in solidarity, don't accuse them of "conflating" different forms of oppression. Instead, recognize the synergy between various movements of liberation, and work on educating other people with privilege on these connections. Here's an example to get you started: Maybe you encounter a white person who is fighting for a living wage, but who doesn't understand that the systems in place that are preventing the implementation of such a wage are the same ones that are preventing transgender women of color from being able to get jobs. Their struggles are not the same, but oppressive systems and concepts like capitalism and neoliberalism impact everyone, even if that impact manifests itself differently.

A friend of mine, Alessandra C. Rios, explained to me that intersectionality is a very real depiction of people who are fighting for liberation in different ways. Rios spoke to the importance of accommodating everyone in movements for justice, and making sure to create space — for example, for the demands of women of color in protests against tuition hikes. Furthermore, Rios explained the role of allies specifically in discussions of how struggles are connected:

An ally understands the relationship between our seemingly different types of oppression, therefore understanding the importance of working in solidarity. That doesn't mean drop the current organizing work you're doing, but incorporate others' needs and use whatever privileges you have to the benefit of the group you claim to be an ally to — not speak for them but open the space that was given to you for them to speak for themselves.

If you support Black Lives Matter but don't stand in solidarity with undocumented immigrants; if you want to see greater media representation for people of color but don't amplify their voices in spaces that combat climate change; if you don't see the links between various forms of resistance, then make sure you're paying close to attention to the systems at play that are trying to prevent you from making those connections. Once we realize that our struggles are linked, we stand a much greater chance at being able to be in true solidarity with one another.

8. Avoid "Playing Devil's Advocate" Or Underestimating The Impact Of Structural Violence

This should be fairly self-explanatory. If, for example, you see white people on social media who feel the need to "play devil's advocate" in order to criticize the actions of people of color, you should "play justice's advocate" and point out the ridiculousness of allying oneself with the devil. See #9 on this list for an explanation of how abstract discussions and assertions about free speech are actually reinforcing the status quo and misunderstanding just how drastic structural violence is.

9. Complicate Your Understanding Of "Free Speech"

When thinking about free speech, consider the following:

  • Free speech for whom? Firm defenses of free speech in the context of anti-racist discourse are often nothing more than privileged people acting as though they are entitled to be offensive. If people of color actually had access to freedom of speech, our narratives would not be constantly erased.
  • It's not censorship, it's a survival mechanism. "Free speech" might give someone license to say or do terrible things, but it also gives everyone else the right to not listen to or provide a platform for them. The "national trend" of disinviting speakers to college campuses is necessary; believe it or not, college students can make up their own minds about who they want to hear speaking on their campuses, and speech can definitely be an act of violence. Dismissing the creation of safe spaces, the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms, and the rescinding of invitations to speakers as "oversensitive" or as manifestations of "hurt feelings" is in fact symptomatic of power and privilege. "Thinking critically" about racism and sexism and "not being afraid" to criticize marginalized students is a major power play; marginalized folks don't actually have the time or patience to "think critically" about these things because we're too busy living them. Acting as though dialogue is the ultimate goal, rather than a process, also fails to recognize that dialogue is often used as a tactic to delay implementing tangible measures that would empower people of color.

As an ally, engage with people who use free speech as a defense of their offensive or violent behavior so that people of color don't have to. Issues like free speech and academic freedom have been at play on college campuses for a long time. None of this is new, and college students are not being "coddled" by calling for spaces in which they can heal, thrive, and grow without having their identities questioned. A person who is marginalized and is asking for a safe space isn't "coddled"; they are asking for safe spaces because they've always been subject to violence — quite the opposite of coddling — and now they need a space that is designed for their well-being.

It is your obligation as someone who wants to be a better ally to help students of color create spaces on your campus where they can exist without being attacked or suppressed. Help them create ethnic studies programs on campus. Help them circulate petitions to the administration. And, above all, make mistakes and learn from them, and constantly educate yourself so that your solidarity extends far beyond the creation of a Facebook status.

Marginalized people know that being an ally isn't easy, but we're constantly evaluating the roles that allies play in our movements. We also know that we make mistakes, too — as an Asian American woman, for instance, I recognize that the protests at Mizzou are not about me, and that Asian America has a history of simultaneously erasing black narratives and perpetuating anti-blackness. It is not enough for me to say these things — I need to actively combat them. A willingness to do this work is only part of the battle; showing up for people of color and doing the work is what being an ally is all about.

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