How Washington College students can practice genuine allyship

By Anastasia Bekker

Elm Staff Writer

On and off the Washington College campus, there are many ways to support and uplift marginalized groups, no matter who you are or how you identify.

The term “ally” is often used to describe someone who works to support communities at a disadvantage — however, the word “ally” is not perfect. It’s often been used performatively or in a self-congratulatory manner.

According to WC Director of Intercultural Affairs Carese Bates, the word “ally” has lost some of its meaning, used to boost one’s own reputation, rather than signifying genuine support for a marginalized community.

“Allies are sometimes self-named,” Bates said. “And then when it’s time to really … do the social justice work, or to really … advocate for change to happen, those self-described or self-proclaimed allies are nowhere to be found.”

According to Bates, a more preferred term is “abolitionist,” as it brings to mind more of an activist, “someone who will lay down with and take that [issue] to heart with you.”

While others accept the word ally, many believe we should be more selective with applying it.

“An unnamed Indigenous author once wrote ‘Where struggle is a commodity, allyship is currency’, and it has changed the way I identify people as allies,” Vice President of Muslim Student Association and sophomore Eniya Jaber said. “Honestly, the work that makes you an ally is the work that you should already be doing.”

Here are a few practices you can implement into your life to benefit the marginalized communities around you. 

Educate yourself

In order to best help oppressed communities, know as much as you can about the issues they face and the systems that cause them. You can be well-intentioned and still make mistakes; the more you educate yourself, the better you can avoid accidentally doing harm.

According to Jaber, allies should “seek out books, articles, and other reliable sources to research the current issues that minorities endure and the history behind them.”

When trying to inform yourself, avoid relying on only one source and make sure that the sources you do use are accredited — use resources created by those within the marginalized community rather than asking for answers by those around you.

According to freshman Shannel Fraser, a College’s Intercultural Affairs ambassador, only relying on your friends in marginalized communities to educate you can cause them additional emotional stress.

“If [voices within the community are] coming out with books, read them, watch movies on these topics, instead of [asking] your friends. Like, ‘Hey, like, is this wrong? Am I doing this right?’” Fraser said. “That is just putting a lot more labor on them, emotional labor.”

And if someone does open up to you, be sure to make them feel heard rather than just brushing them off — and do not assume that you know everything about each struggle faced by each marginalized group; instead, allow those who do choose to open up the chance to speak and make their voices heard.

“Recognizing that disabilities are visible and invisible, and not making assumptions is important to remember. Just because you can’t see a disability doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Elizabeth Shirk, the College’s Disability Access Specialist, said.

Spread awareness

Once you start to learn about the issues faced by marginalized groups, the next step is to help others learn about these issues as well. 

Any privilege or platform you have, such as social media or positions of authority, can be a tool for spreading awareness. Although we live in an age of information, there is a lot of injustice that can still fly under the radar.

For example, according to Jaber, the Muslim community still faces Islamophobia around the world, including internment camps in China and attempts to ban minors from wearing the hijab in France.

“The fact that many people do not even know that this is happening is unacceptable,” Jaber said. “Allyship would help bring awareness to injustices like these, which is the first step in creating real change.”

Use your privilege

Because an ally is not a part of the disadvantaged community they support and doesn’t face the same challenges, they have certain privileges that the community doesn’t. This privilege can take many forms.

According to senior Samantha Robinson, president of Encouraging Respect of Sexuality, allies can still help the LGBTQIA+ community by using their privilege.

“Being an ally means choosing to support the LGBTQ[IA+] community in whatever way you’re able to, even if you’re not a member of the … community yourself,” Robinson said. “Allies commit to using their positions of privilege to support and uplift the LGBTQ[IA+] community.”

Having a platform or influence is also a privilege, and it can be used to reduce stigmas surrounding certain communities. 

“In terms of students feeling accepted, [and] there being stigmas in terms of mental health … those still exist,” Shirk said. “So … there’s definitely room to improve.”

Connect with the community

On the College campus, there are a variety of clubs and organizations that uplift marginalized communities, and you do not have to be a member of that community to join the club and show support.

The MSA, for example, hosts meetings for both Muslim and non-Muslim students alike to connect with each other and educate themselves.

“Our meetings are a safe space for Muslims and a great way to learn about Islam,” Jaber said.

According to Robinson, EROS is also open to everyone, and you can join other groups off-campus as well to support the community.

If you’re interested in supporting individuals with disabilities on campus, and making WC more inclusive and accessible, you can also become involved with Disability Rights, Education Activism, and Mentoring Program.

Don’t focus on your own reputation

Instead of supporting marginalized communities in a beneficial way, people may give performative and empty words of encouragement on social media and apply the word “ally” to themselves as a reward.

“You should not expect praise for doing the right thing. Just remain focused on advocating for marginalized groups without seeking their validation,” Jaber said. “As a Muslim, I would much rather see someone demonstrate their allyship than tell me.”

According to Bates, while posting on social media is a start, be sure to do only more from there that creates permanent, lasting change rather than merely for the sake of following a trend.

“[If] you have a platform, what can you do outside of posting a black box [saying] that you support?” Bates said. “Where are your dollars?”

While spreading awareness is important, it should come from a place of authenticity rather than a fear of being called out. 

Through these actions and behaviors, called “performative activism,” individuals become more motivated by being perceived as an ally, rather than actually helping others.

“You don’t have to be this perfect person. You just have to be real,” Bates said. “Show up and see yourself as a person who just wants to help.”

Though no one is a perfect ally, one of the most important skills a person can have is learning from their mistakes and using them to improve themselves and the world around them, rather than ruminating on them or becoming defensive.

“Whenever someone that’s a part of a marginalized community speaks up about something, instead of being defensive, or feeling like they’re [being attacked], or anything of the sort, just take a step back, and reflect,” Fraser said.

Although many issues faced by marginalized communities may feel removed from your life, they do exist. The more support marginalized groups have in combating these injustices, the more likely they are to be improved upon — that’s why genuine allyship is important. 

If you’re interested in supporting some of the issues mentioned above, reach out to their organizations on campus through Campus Groups for more resources and advice.

With more education, connection, and advocacy, students can create a more socially conscious and inclusive campus so that every student can enjoy the sense of community that makes the College unique.

Featured Photo caption: In the wake of the verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial on April 20, as well as other recent attacks against Black Americans before, during, and after, here are ways in which students on and off the Washington College campus can demonstrate active allyship. Photo Courtesy of Clay Banks.

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