The careful balancing act of allyship
Diversity Council | Monday, February 13, 2017
For any of you readers who have seen the ‘Daily Show’ segment ‘Helper Whitey,’ you understand the reference. If you’re not as familiar with the term, let me satisfy your burning curiosity. Throughout the two-part skit, African-American correspondent Jessica Williams is repeatedly ignored and pushed around by the relatively oblivious white individuals she encounters. Fortunately, a benevolent white friend accompanies her and intervenes on her behalf each time, in the nick of time, when, for example, a random woman decides to pet her hair, or a police officer aggressively overreacts when she drops her ice cream cone. The segment concludes with an overly enthusiastic, rather sardonic Jessica exclaiming, “Thanks, Helper Whitey!”
You may be wondering at this point, what on earth am I talking about? Hang in there.
While the ‘Daily Show’ skit focuses on Jessica and how she is consistently misread and subsequently mistreated based on her race, I want to focus on her accompaniment, the aptly named “Helper Whitey.” Who are these ever-so-mysterious, ever-so-helpful … whiteys? They are allies: People who tactfully read potentially explosive situations and uses his or her position of privilege to advocate on behalf of someone who lacks that same privilege.
As a white, middle-class Notre Dame student, I will never experience systematic racism. As a caring friend to many students of color, a loving partner to a Latino and a living, breathing human being with a heart, I realize that I cannot choose to ignore, or conveniently “not see,” racism on this campus and beyond. I, myself, am responsible for becoming the best ally I can be for all the people of color both in and not in my life, but I’ll be honest, it can be a tricky job. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering how to best go about allyship, so here’s me, passing on what I’ve learned to you.
My first pro tip is that, in order to be a great ally (or even just a half-way decent ally), you must be present. To be present is to, well, show up. Show up to that lecture about race and gender. Sign up for that book club about intersectionality and poverty. Go to “Show Some Skin.” Stand in solidarity at that social justice event. Just go. Be present.
Now, just because you’ve shown up to a conversation on race, intersectionality, gender and the like does not mean that you’re off the hook and OK to check out mentally. The second super important pro tip is to really, seriously listen. Especially if you do not identify as a person of color, or someone affected by racism, sexism, poverty or whatever kind of marginalization it is that’s being discussed, this is your time to sit back and absorb what is being said, to really do your best to hear and understand experiences that are not your own, and to hone in on why these kinds of painful experiences happen in the first place. That’s the second tip: listen, absorb and reflect.
My third and final tip is probably the most difficult of all the ally skills. It is striking the ever-elusive balance between speaking up and stepping down. What I mean by this is that, as allies, our task is to rise to the occasion and to call out when we see acts of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. This is your time to shine with all that newfound knowledge you’ve just gained through tips one and two. Raise a discussion about how race operates in that text you just read for your University seminar. Have a heart-to-heart with your friends about that not-so-cool joke they just told about “being ghetto.” Report instances of discrimination to the school administration. Write to The Observer.
At the same time as you speak up, the key is knowing when it’s time to step down. As allies, we are constantly shifting roles according to context, between sitting back to listen to our peers and standing up when they need our support. As allies, we are constantly looking to learn and grow from people whose experiences may be vastly different from our own, so that we may be all the more effective when it is time to speak up.
I challenge you, aspiring allies of ND. #ItsTime to step it up by being present, truly listening and speaking out when duty calls.
Aniela Tyksinski is one of the organizers of We Stand For, a recently formed student activist group that mobilizes to promote the human dignity of those marginalized by our current political, cultural and social institutions. When she’s not instigating political conversations, Aniela enjoys hanging out with her beloved hermit crab, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and playing the ukulele (badly).
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.