You might be thinking, But what else should they do? Tweeting a hashtag is spreading awareness! Sure. You’re right. While I much prefer that a celebrity tweets a hashtag dedicated to a social cause rather than staying completely silent about social issues and just promoting their new oatmeal recipe all day, their power and influence could be used beneficially in tons of other places, too. Tweeting a hashtag is just the first stage! There are many other components to social activism, and it doesn’t stop there. Raising money for social movements and signing petitions are other vital components of public activism. I’d also suggest encouraging their fans to protest and donate to causes funding movements. And them themselves protesting and donating, so their interest in promoting popular social movements online isn’t in vain. (This goes for us normal citizens, too.)
As an ally to anyone, your wording and behavior during protests, online, and everywhere else is important. Of course you don’t want to step on any toes when voicing your views and opinions! And it’s totally fine to be passionate and angry when sociopolitical situations more than warrant those feelings! Just don’t let it drown out the passion and anger of those directly affected by the oppression you’re protesting against. Don’t expect your feelings to be accommodated—that’s not what you’re there for, and tone-policing about feeling “excluded” isn’t OK. At many protests about police brutality against black people, I’ve witnessed non-black allies complaining about the deliverance of messages while completely ignoring the messages themselves. Once, I was watching a black woman speak during a rally, and a white man asked, “Wait, but why is she saying white people? Doesn’t she mean police officers?” Instead of feeling insulted, he would have done better to hear her message: What if she meant white people? It’s not just some police officers who participate and benefit from systematic racism. White people on the whole do, too, and that’s worthy of examination! Listen to what your allies have to say, keep an open mind, and remember that you’re not the enemy.
I won’t deny that I am among those regularly wondering, How do I act and speak as a useful force, instead of a neutral or disrespectful one? How do I use my emotions usefully to provoke change?? I find it extremely difficult not to be consumed by frustration in the wake of racially motivated murders or attacks. My biggest hurdle is not allowing history and my personal experiences of racism to cloud my judgement when socializing and working with people of other races. It can be hard, but I try not to let past experiences hinder my future or let one person’s comments shape my view of a million people. Yeah, people suck and they can be mean. But believe it or not, not all of them are like that. It’s important to weigh your emotional responses against how they affect the greater good. Ask yourself: Is this anger and frustration beneficial? Will it help or hinder my message? I have made the mistake of generalizing because of my own feelings—a time comes to mind when I brought up the painful effects of colonization in Africa when a friend was particularly speaking about the way it affected her specific culture and community, and it was dismissive and wrong. Something similar will likely happen to you at some point, too, if it hasn’t already: We all make mistakes! What’s most important is how you recognize, change, and hold yourself accountable for them.
Some strategies on that front (Jamia covered some of this in her piece on being a good ally, and offers more strategies, too):
- It is incredibly important that marginalized people who live the experience are finally listened to. It’s fine to make suggestions or give advice, but don’t be surprised if they aren’t accepted. You could be wrong. If you are, listen if the person you’ve offended offers an explanation as to why (which they aren’t obligated to!), then apologize.
- Don’t expect to be accepted into the safe spaces of people of color. Your allyship doesn’t entitle you to an all-access free pass.
- Speak up when witnessing ignorance and bigotry within your own community. Don’t sit back and ignore it. Do your part and try to educate those who hold bigoted views! (Politically conservative uncles included. It’s worth trying, at least.)
- Amplify and promote voices that are often dismissed by spreading awareness and providing them with a larger platform. Instead of writing about or publicizing YOUR feelings about an issue, promote the work of those to whom you’re trying to be an ally.
- Don’t question the frustration and anger of people who are marginalized. It’s not a good look: It comes across as apathetic and arrogant. No one wants to be that person asking someone crying if what they’re in pain about is truly worth crying over.
- Keep your mind focused and keep calm! It’s always great to remember that you’re a helping hand, not the leading voice. Not everything will necessarily have to speak to your personal experience—nor should it.
- Don’t give up. Whenever it feels like fighting generational bigotry or prejudice feels overwhelming, remind yourself what it’d be like to experience it firsthand.
Allies are needed and appreciated, but they’re most needed and appreciated in the back seat. Take a step back from the center of attention, and give the people with direct experience with the issue at hand the platform to express themselves while supporting them from the sidelines. Make use of your energy and anger and relay important information from people who know firsthand to your community. Always remember that your frustration is justified! Just…not when it’s your frustration leading the conversation and diluting the real topic at hand. I like to think as human beings we have particular duties to each other, like making sure we all live fulfilling lives and have equal opportunities. If we’re able to present a united front against oppression of any kind while maintaining mutual respect and understanding, when we’re united, we’re unstoppable. ♦