Effective Allyship, Part Two
The following article is the second 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 Two: Has your definition or view of what allyship means changed since the events of summer 2020?
“Being a Black man in America, I don't think summer 2020
In asking our interviewees this question, we found that their answers can be generally grouped into three different perspectives: those whose definition of allyship has not changed since the summer of 2020; those whose definition of allyship changed due to personal developments in education and understanding; and those whose perspective of allyship changed by recognizing that many people’s understanding of allyship is superficial.
Perspective: My understanding of allyship has not changed
For some, their view of allyship has not changed because their knowledge of the issues, understanding of their surroundings, and honesty with their identity were not spurred by the events of summer 2020. Their role—as an ally to others or their need for allyship themselves—has been constant throughout their lives, even though in some cases their needs are only now being realized by others. For many of our interviewees, summer 2020 did not reveal systemic racism and police brutality because that is a reality they have lived with their entire lives. While self-identifying white allies were forced to reckon with the reality of racism in the United States through social media and other media, people in affected communities have experienced these issues directly for generations.
The social media response to the racial justice movement, especially among white Americans who now consider themselves allies, was not a meaningful sign of change to many of our interviewees.
“Being an ally is this new, cool thing that almost has remnants of an interest convergence of white folks now somehow having an interest in being an ally because it boosts their position in society and in their communities,” said Penn State Law alumna Vanessa Miller (J.D. 2020).
Others echoed that sentiment.
“If I’m just now seeing you be vocal about [racism], I don’t consider you an ally,” said Penn State Law alumna Yanna Banks (J.D. 2020). “I consider you part of a trending topic. I consider you someone who fell victim to the trend that is Black Lives Matter.”
And while many of our interviewees were skeptical of these “newcomers” to racial justice allyship, they reiterated the need for new allies to do the necessary educational work.
“I’m not saying that because you’re late to the party, you shouldn’t come to the party,” said Penn State Law alumna Alice Gyamfi (J.D. 2020). “I’m just saying that you should not expect me to applaud for you, you should not expect me to publicly give you praise for what you’re doing. What you are doing is the bare minimum.”
Perspective: My understanding of allyship has changed
Some of our interviewees changed their perspective on allyship by realizing that their previous understanding was too broad and not focused enough on local, personal support and commitment. Allyship begins with those who are close to you, and requires individual accountability. This accountability leads you to help others and provide the kind of support that communities in need actually want.
Another way that definitions and understanding of allyship changed is through a realization that what some allies previously considered authentic is actually performative. Some people learned for the first time what performative allyship is; they didn’t realize just how much knowledge they were lacking regarding issues of racism and the need for meaningful allyship. One way that people have changed their behavior in light of the events of 2020 is to listen more: to listen to Black and Brown voices, whether on social media or in real life, and pay attention to what they say they need.
Taking responsibility to educate yourself in this way is a necessary step toward authentic allyship.
As a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, Ava Ibanez (J.D. 2020) had to learn not only about U.S. history, but about her role in that history and current events.
“As a new citizen and as a somewhat new member of the U.S. community, I have always tried to be an ally but, admittedly, I had not grasped the full extent of my responsibility and influence,” Ibanez said. “The events of the summer [of 2020], as well as my continuing education on U.S. history, confronted me with that question and I realized I had greatly underestimate my role, influence, and responsibility.”
The need for informed allies, then, is not just a matter for society at large but also for individuals. These elements of introspection and self-actualization were new to some interviewees’ view of allyship. This internal work leads to more effective advocacy through a better understanding of your own identity and place in a community.
Perspective: Other people’s understanding of allyship is worse than I previously thought
The past year has revealed that some people who considered themselves allies were not living up to that representation. Some interviewees said that they were sadly mistaken in believing that their friends and colleagues were educating themselves to become better allies. If you are not willing to learn something new, or unlearn something old, you are not an ally to communities in need, they said. In this way, the reality of allyship has fallen well short of expectations; what some consider effective allyship, for others is just basic empathy and humanity.
“I thought people knew how to be an ally, but some people just genuinely don’t know where to start,” said Alexis Thackurdin, a 2021 juris doctor candidate at Penn State Law. “And that’s concerning for me. […] Maybe because I’m in a community that needs allyship, I guess I’ve always kind of known that I’m supposed to do the research, I’m supposed to show up for people where I have a seat at the table. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
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.