The following is the fourth and final article of a four-part series examining how white Americans can be effective allies to marginalized groups, specifically Black, Latinx, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities. It was written by Penn State Law in University Park alumna Anna Fosberg (J.D. 2020), in collaboration with fellow 2020 alumnae Amber Bynum and Heidi Tripp, based on interviews with 19 Penn State Law students and recent graduates. All interviewees were asked the same four questions; each article in this series will revolve around one of those questions.
Part Four: Is allyship really the goal? If not, what is?
“In an ideal world, we would not [have to] fight for something as basic as respect and dignity.”
In discussing and dissecting their thoughts on what true allyship is, the consensus among interviewees was that allyship is not the end goal. Allyship is the bare minimum; a responsibility to care about others. For some, allyship is a means to an end, or a starting point that will eventually lead to better legislation and systemic change. In a similar vein, others argued that we need allies in all spaces, but especially in positions of power—legislators, police officers, judges, teachers, doctors—in order to effect change and improve people’s lives. Some of the goals discussed by our interviewees include justice, equality, equity, dignity, solidarity, and liberation from systemic oppression. Understandably, it is difficult to conceptualize a formula for how to achieve a society free of prejudices and oppression, but allyship—and, taking it a step further, advocacy—was seen by many as necessary steps to move us in the right direction.
As discussed in the previous articles in this series, allyship is not always a positive force; the negative implications of allyship often arise when actions or words are centered on the ally rather than the person or community in need of support. For Yanna Banks (J.D. 2020), the term allyship sometimes reminds her of the quote by Audre Lord, who said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In this sense, allyship may be seen as one of the master’s tools and therefore incapable of dismantling systems of oppression. Others noted that some organizations highlight allyship but fail to include Black (or other underrepresented) voices in the process, effectively saying that they (allies) get to decide what underrepresented groups need from them.
“I don’t need you to speak for me. I’ll never need you to speak for me,” Banks said. “I just need you to let me speak and let my community speak.”
Steps Toward Meaningful Change
Authentic allyship finds a way to not take up space in the name of being an ally. Realizing that being an ally means working on yourself, privately (and preferably quietly), is difficult to come to terms with. But allyship is not comfortable, nor is it fun, nor is it something to take pride in for the sake of your own ego. When we get to this point, we can begin to take the next steps.
Several interviewees said that, as a society, we should be reflecting on what we are willing to lose to support Black lives; to support queer lives; to support immigrant lives; to support the lives of all marginalized communities. Asking yourself what you are willing to lose and making that sacrifice in an effort to enact change turns allyship into transformative solidarity and advocacy.
The distinction between being an ally and being an advocate is that advocacy takes things a step further; if being an ally means educating yourself and listening to communities in need, then being an advocate means doing something tangible outside of yourself with that new knowledge.
“If I’m in a position where I need help, or I am asking for help, or I can’t change something, or I don’t have the power to change something, but somebody else does, then I would rather that person be an advocate [not just an ally],” said Penn State Law alumna Vanessa Miller (J.D. 2020).
Similarly, an ally might be someone who understands the importance of publicly listing their preferred pronouns in order to help normalize the existence of nonbinary individuals. But an advocate might be someone who fights for legislation that allows nonbinary identification on official government documents or who stands up to anti-trans*, anti-nonbinary, and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
“It doesn’t do anything for me if you put your pronouns in your bio just because you want to be perceived as woke,” said Emory Robertson, a 2021 juris doctor candidate.
In this way, allyship is an internal task that requires education, and that education can become an important tool in an advocate’s toolbox.
In a perfect world, we would not need allies or advocates because there would be no opposing force. But the reality is we do find ourselves in a world that needs allies and advocates who will listen and learn from communities and individuals in need, provide support that is wanted, and amplify their voices without speaking on their behalf.
Many interviewees agreed that allyship alone is not sufficient to achieve the systemic change we need in this country. But while allyship may not be enough, it may be a practical first step toward meaningful change: listening to people’s experiences and the way the world has shaped them; learning from as many people as you can; reading books and acquiring knowledge about specific communities in need; and looking within yourself for ways to improve.
It is crucial to recognize the places where we can make the biggest impact and the places where we have long-term sustainability. These spaces include where we work and where we interact with family, friends, and peers.
“If every person created a safe space, free of judgment and ridicule, then there would be no need for allyship in order to fight for those in marginalized communities,” said Penn State Law alumna Kathryn Dutton (J.D. 2020). “Every day, be a better version of yourself, and the world can become a better place.”
This article is based on interviews with Penn State Law Class of 2019 graduate Melissa Blanco; Class of 2020 graduates Yanna Banks, Kathryn Dutton, Christina Gottfried, Alice Gyamfi, Marcus Hobson, Ava Ibanez, Shamsiddin “Pop” Little, and Vanessa Miller; and 2021 juris doctor candidates Graham Ball, Kaitlin Briggs, Bianca Gutierrez, Rebecca Heisner, Ryan Morrison, Emory Robertson, Kelsi Robinson, Tyla Swinton, and Alexis Thackurdin.
Addendum: View a list of resources recommended by the interviewees for people seeking to be better allies.