A Reflection on Ignorance, Privilege, and Allyship; from a privileged perspective

With this post, I am attempting to speak on a topic that is often difficult to speak on — so please let me apologize in advance if I unintentionally alienate or offend anyone with inappropriate diction and/or incomplete perspectives.

The purpose of writing this piece is specifically to shed light on the process of thinking open-mindedly, which is something I have been surprised to find myself struggling with this year. When I say “struggling,” I do not mean that it’s a violent or regrettable situation. What I do mean is that it has required a conscious effort — something that I and many others are not always used to.

I have always been very passionate about helping others and feel confident in my ability to create change. During my high school and so-far-college careers, much of my time has been dedicated to volunteering, fundraising, student government, tutoring, working, organizing events, and reaching out to those who need it. I’m empathetic and a great listener and I have learned so much from taking advantage of leadership opportunities and connecting with others from different backgrounds. I center much of my leadership and activist styles around education because I truly believe that is the best way to spread information and initiate positive changes.

However, with all of those self-inflating things said, I am still not a perfect social justice advocate. While I understand the dimensions of many issues, I do not face them all personally and therefore cannot relate. I have always known this to be true, but it has taken me until college to actually feel the true weight of that privilege.

At Lawrence University, where I attend school, students are typically the driving forces and voices on campus, which means there are a large number of culturally conscious activists here. In my one year there, I have witnessed several different types of demonstrations, calls to action, presentations, and events that have been sponsored by student-run advocacy groups in the hopes of improving the lives of marginalized students; survivors of sexual assault; students who have experienced mental illness, physical illness, physical and/or verbal abuse, tragedy, etc.

I have been incredibly impressed with the amount of work and passion that my peers have put into these projects, but I cannot honestly say that I have always been 100% supportive. There are the instances in which I’ve had to check my privilege and submit to the struggle of thinking open-mindedly.

For example, at the end of my fall term this past school year, a group of students of color created and published a list of demands that they wanted the administration to address. Among this list were demands to increase funding for our Diversity Center, create a committee that recruits and retains students of color, implement cultural sensitivity training for safety personnel and faculty and staff, and for the president of our university to issue a public apology to students and staff of color for not being proactive in addressing racial issues in the community. These were just a few of the demands to give you an idea, but, while many demands seemed quite necessary and feasible to many students, some others were not met with as much support. There was criticism over some of the demands that called for increased spending and the hiring of additional faulty and staff of color because Lawrence doesn’t really have any extra money to throw around. Being a small private school, our main sources of money come from tuition, which is already quite high and, unfortunately, is increasing for next year.

Another piece of criticism was directed at the fact that the original list of demands had named professors whom students of color felt had demonstrated discrimination or prejudice in the classroom. One of the factors in this backlash were that these professors had not been consulted or confronted previously to the publication of these demands, so it was a surprise accusation. The fact that the demands had been published via Facebook also meant that many of the professors who were named were not even able to see the list since accessibility was limited. However, the list of demands was revised a few days after publication to delete the section of named professors as a result of it being inconsistent with our university’s grievance procedure (and probably because of the backlash).

Towards the end of the school year, our LGBT+ club on campus created their own list of demands, calling for gender neutral bathrooms in academic facilities, all student leaders and faculty to be trained in creating safe spaces, a more streamlined process for students to change their name and gender pronouns in university online programs and directories, and more. The reaction to these demands were somewhat similar to the demands proposed by the group of students of color in the sense that some initiatives were supported while others were not. There was the argument that it would cost a lot of money to convert gender specific bathrooms and locker rooms into gender neutral facilities or that adding more resources, such as counseling programs and support groups, that are designed to include non gender specific students would require more funding than Lawrence has to offer. In addition, it shouldn’t be overlooked that some students on this campus simply are not comfortable with the idea of having such inclusive facilities and programs, despite the need for them, and didn’t have favorable reactions to the demands due to their own insecurities.

I hate to admit it, but when I first initially read these lists of demands, there was a part of me that disagreed. There was a part of me that said, “No. You could have done this better. I agree with this, but not that. You should have done this instead.” However, while this part of me was being “rational” or simply reflecting on the execution and how it could have been improved to make the message better received, I was ultimately ignoring the fact that I have no credibility in criticizing these students and what they had done. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the fact that these groups did what they did for a reason: they weren’t being heard. I realized that for me to come in and begin to point out all the things that they could have done better or what is feasible and what isn’t is to diminish their feelings and their efforts to improve their own environment. What it comes down to is that these groups of marginalized students were attempting to inch their way out of the margins but were instead pushed back by their own peers. That’s pretty awful, though likely somewhat unintentional.

Like I said, I initially was not fully supportive of these actions, but it wasn’t because of prejudice or hate. It was because of ignorance and because I was letting my privilege go unchecked. In that state, I was only able to recognize the needs of these groups, but not appreciate what they could bring to the table themselves. For example, when I speak, people generally listen. I’m involved in organizations that give me access to resources and audiences that not everyone on this campus has. So by critiquing these groups, I am being self-centered because I am holding them to a standard under the assumption that they have the same tools, information, or beliefs that I do, which they do not necessarily have. Also, my identifying as a white and straight female limit my ability to even understand these causes to their fullest capacity, so why is my feedback so authoritative? Why is my feedback so necessary? It’s not. This is where being open-minded comes into play.

I hadn’t ever really considered myself to be “ignorant” and that’s something I definitely had to be open-minded about. I had to welcome the idea that my thinking was flawed and accept it, then change it.

I don’t think anyone wants to think of themselves as ignorant or prejudice or negative, but it happens and we need to be open to the fact that sometimes we’re just flat out wrong. Defending our criticisms and beliefs under the pretenses that we’re just trying to help is unhealthy for two reasons: 1) we are lying to ourselves and 2) we are taking the spotlight off those who are oppressed and are putting it back on ourselves. This greatly harms the mission of helping marginalized communities and undermines their efforts as well as their successes, which is inherently against the role of an ally.

In order to consider yourself an ally, you need to be able to listen and immediately accept what is being said, right off-the-bat. That is how you can validate and support people.

You may not always agree with what is being said — trust me, I get that — but if you truly are interested in being helpful, then make sure you’re checking yourself before you offer your services because they may be unwanted and/or subversive to the cause.

Anyway, those are just some of my thoughts.

Until next time,

Madi

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