"BEING MORE THAN AN ALLY".
The invisible vampire
This spring 2019 semester I decided to ignore the advice of my department chair (me) and teach an additional course--POLI/AFAM 364, African American Politics. It is a course that is one of my main areas of research. In this course, I have 35 very engaged students--most predominantly African American but a handful of students who I believe self-identify as White, Hispanic, and/or Asian American. The first day of class--this past Tuesday--I decided to do an icebreaker activity that I have devised called the "Invisible Vampire" exercise. The point of this exercise is to have the students process the relationships and tensions between identity and empathy before we engage in a range of difficult conversations and debates. This semester, our conversations will include African American politics topics as wide-ranging as the "Case for Reparations to African Americans" due to Jim Crow segregation and slavery as presented by the brilliant essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates to the view that President Barack Obama and his administration demonstrated a "politics of recognition" but did not advance policy specifically targeted at African American women as presented by my fellow political scientist Wendy Smooth.
In this icebreaker, I assigned the students to play four roles in groups of four--Role A (Victim), Role B (Ally), Role C (Critic), and Role D (Opponent). I give them the "simple" task of role-playing the following scenario: the first person or role A--"the victim"--was bitten by an invisible vampire or a vampire that is at least invisible to everyone except the person it attacks. Her task is to convince her fellow players that this has occurred. The ally cannot see the vampire and has never been bitten by one, but inherently believes the victim. The critics cannot see the vampire and know she has not been bitten by one, thus she is skeptical although willing to be convinced. The opponent cannot see the vampire and has never been bitten by one and is certainly not willing to be convinced. The students were quite ingenious in the dramatic license they took in arguing whether the victim was bitten. (I thought I had to give out a few Oscars prior to the official ceremony...) When we processed the exercise, I asked my students the following questions (or they provided amazing observations prior to my questions) including: (1) "How did you, the victim, try to convince your fellow role players you were bitten?" (They talked about the bite marks on their arms although the critics and opponents stated they could come up with dozens of entirely more plausible reasons for such marks.) (2) "How did you, the victim, feel when you were not believed?" (Their answers ranged from militant to slightly despondent.) (3) "Instead of 'invisible vampires', what are the concepts I am really talking about?" (The students immediately answered "racism, sexism, classism, homophobia or heterosexism or any other system of oppression.") (4) "What does it feel like playing the role of and being labeled a 'victim', an 'ally', a 'critic', or a "opponent? What does it mean for those roles to be imposed upon you?" (Some of the students either in their words or body language stated they felt slightly uncomfortable); (5) "When you already know or presume you know the role other individuals are playing does it feel pointless to try to convince them?" (In some cases, the students answered "yes.") (6) "In real-life, isn't it possible for individuals to be at the intersections of these roles or to play multiple roles at once?" (Actually, this is an observation several students offered even before I asked them.); (7) "Is it a disservice to use 'invisible vampires' as the scenario, when racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other oppressions are real but for most people 'invisible vampires' do not exist?" (The students answered, "Wow, that's true."); (8) And the final point I made was, "But the reason I used 'invisible vampires' is because to convince some people that certain oppressions exist is akin to trying to convince them that vampires exist. (At least one of the students whispered, 'Wow, that's deep'.)"
More than an Ally
The reason I shared this in-class exercise with you is because I want to highlight the role of the ally. What does it mean to be an ally? Is it possible to truly stand in solidarity with another if you are merely accepting a victim's story that she or he was bitten, but you do not have to worry about any bite marks in your flesh? The term "ally" is frequently defined --"someone who sides with or supports another." But is this definition sufficient, strong enough, to stir transformative social change? Is it strong enough if we know that we will maintain the privilege of not having to be horrified about being personally attacked--not being personally affected--while others frequently crouch in fear?
For example, can you fully be an ally if you merely click the "angry emoji button" on the Facebook post that African Americans in Missouri, since the shooting of the Black teen Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests, are still eighty-five more likely than their White counterparts to be stopped by the police if you have the privilege of often assuming the police car that is right behind you is merely going in the same direction? (1) What does it mean to be an ally to transgender citizens if you attend a "Transgender Day of Remembrance" event but remain secure in the knowledge that you are not a transgender women and/or transgender person of color who confronts extraordinary levels of violence and discrimination in your daily life? (2) For example, in the summer of 2018, ProPublica reported that in Jacksonville, Florida, four black transwomen were shot in the span of four months. "Celine Walker, 36, was shot to death in her room at an Extended Stay America hotel near the University of North Florida on the night of the Super Bowl, Feb. 4. On June 1, Antonia Antashia' English, 38, was killed outside an abandoned home north of downtown. And on June 24, Cathalina James, 24, was gunned down in a room at a Quality Inn on the city's south side." (3) Furthermore, ProPublica reports, "The cases have left...Jacksonville's transgender community rattled but it's been the handling of the investigations by authorities that's stirred outrage. In public statements and official documents, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has repeatedly identified the victims as men, refusing to call them by the names they chose to use in their lives." Do you have the fear of being misnamed, misidentified, and have justice delayed or denied because those in authority refuse to label a crime against you by its proper name? Can we be meaningful allies to citizens living on public assistance or living within public housing if we have the luxury to write letters to the Columbia, South Carolina Housing Authority about the conditions confronting our fellow citizens but are not among the families gravely affected by the recent gas leak in Allen-Benedict Court, Columbia, SC, where two persons were found dead, and now 411 residents are displaced? (4)
Let us revisit the words, I offered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Ring, Jr. and his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." King spoke of "White Moderates" but he could have just as easily been referring to "lukewarm allies" when he said, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." I am asking all of us to heed King's implied admonition. Unless we dig deeper and not simply tolerate, accept, or even "coexist" with other sisters and brothers, who confront marginalization in its various forms, then being a lukewarm ally will not, in King's words, excavate the barrier stones to creating the "great wells of democracy." In this Trump era of a revived anti-immigrant, xenophobic, White supremacist-nationalist, misogynist, homophobic governing ideology, we need something much stronger than social media sympathies to permanently dislodge him and his co-conspirators from the halls of government.
So, I now come back to the refrain of my song. How can you be more than an ally? You must link your fate with those for whom you seek solidarity. We all must deeply have a common fate with others even if, and especially if, they belong to communities to which we do not. As I am sure you are aware, last spring on the University South Carolina campus an "anonymous individual" (captured on camera) posted racist flyers in a few campus locations including a bulletin board right outside the African American Studies Program's office. A group of African American students began a counter-protest where they posted portraits of themselves around campus that brandished the words of James Baldwin, "I am Not Your Negro." Although this was confused by some in administration as also racist, I and other Black faculty members had to clarify it was actually anti-racist. In the spring of 2018, there was a "Unity Day" rally where I and a number of others joined University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides in front of the Russell House student union. I shared that we all must get beyond mere tolerance of each other and our differences and instead think of each other in terms of linked or common fate. Allow me to argue as to how this social psychology concept of linked fate can be a useful starting point for deeper and more meaningful or more impactful alliances.
Starting with linked fate
Linked or common fate is defined as "an individual's perception that her well-being is tied to the perceived well-being of a group." Over the last forty or so years, a number of social psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists have developed this concept, most specifically as a measure of racial, ethnic, or gender identity. For the last several decades, they have been asking a variant of the following question on surveys such as the 1980s Surveys of Black Americans as well as the multi-decade American National Election Study or the General Social Survey: "Generally speaking, do you think what happens to your [x] group will affect what happens in your life?" Since the early work on African American group identity in the 1970s, a number of social scientists, particularly social scientists of color, have developed this linked fate concept in their scholarship including Patricia and Gerald Gurin, James Jackson, Michael Dawson, Larry Bobo, Cathy Cohen, Robert Sellers, Katherine Tate, and later Evelyn Simien and Claudine Gay. As you can imagine, Black linked fate has been found to be strongly associated with higher rates of African American civic and political participation even though it is qualified by or intersected with other in-group identities such as ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and ideology. There is now a variant of research that not only asks about in-group linked fate but so-called out-group linked fates. For example, the 2016 Comparative Multi-Racial Post-Election Study found that self-defined heterosexual, cis-gender persons of all ethnicities who had fairly strongly linked fates with LGBTQ communities were much more likely to accept same-sex marriage than those did not have these linkages. Whites who expressed fairly strong linked fates with African Americans or other minorities logically were less likely to vote for Donald Trump. Thinking back to examples I previously provided, if you think as a seventy-year-old white motorist you have a linked fate with a 20-something young African American woman who is stopped by the police, you may struggle to figure out how to video record an interaction you see when she is stopped by an officer. If you are a cis-gender, young white male who has a linked fate with a transgender Latina, you may struggle to figure out how you can come between her and a group of MAGA-hat wearing thugs in Five Points who late one Saturday are being overly inspired by their leader and are harassing her. If I, as a middle-class African American, cis-gender, gay man who is a professor have a linked fate with women, I must recognize and call out my own masculine privilege (despite other forms of discrimination I may face). I must think as to how I can, and must, consistently advocate for gender non-discrimination and equity in my department and my often male-dominated discipline of Political Science. As a native citizen of the United States, even though I am a descendant of once enslaved people, I must feel compelled to ask what can I do to stand in the gap of the immigrant--the refugee--whose family is being separated and who is being threatened to be deported? Political scientist Cathy Cohen and social theorist bell hooks have both argued that all have varying degrees of power within the power structure; no one is utterly powerless--all can have some degree of agency--even though there are of course enormous disparities and inequities to the power assigned to various identifies and intersections. They instead speak of the concept of marginalization--how close or far one is to the centers of power.
Linked fate is not easy
Linked fate as a basis for alliance or solidarity does not entail easy or convenient courage. It does not permit us to merely write a check to check the box of social justice. It requires so-called "real skin in the game." It requires a real commitment to do the right thing without wanting to be given liberal credit for doing the right thing. It requires us to interrogate our privilege and not think we know better or just as well as those who clearly are at the ground-zero of the oppression in question. To go back to my vampire example, we should look for the bite marks in our arms, but there are those who do not have to look for them. They are present, clear, and increasing with each day. Linked fate under the circumstances I am offering is a real challenge because we are being asked to identify with a community, link our interests with a community, even when we cannot claim membership in that community. It is not the role that society has assigned us. In a 2016 research article in the journal Urban Education entitled "More Than an Ally; A Successful White Teacher Who Builds Solidarity with His African American Students," Michael Lee Boucher of the Indiana School of Education examines "how a teacher interrogated his own whiteness and worked to create relationships of solidarity with students. Solidarity in multicultural and multiracial classrooms is difficult to build and a deeper concept than many theorists have acknowledged. The success of this teacher suggests that the creation of relationships of solidarity may be an effective framework to describe successful White teachers." (5)
Willing to see the invisible
So, yes, the dominant society has already assigned us certain roles. There are privileges and penalties we already carry by virtue of space, zip code, or birth. But we must be willing to recognize or constantly recall that these roles are merely and randomly assigned due to our positions in the classroom; where are we sitting relative to who hands out the labels? And without doing any disservice to understand structural and institutional power and inequalities, we can recall that the great author and human rights activist James Baldwin once stated "From my point of view, no label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being." (6) This is certainly one strong starting point we can use as we figure out our linked fates.
So in summary, to be real allies and to link fates with others we must begin by doing the three difficult things of (1) be willing to break out of or at least interrogate roles we have been assigned while we question the entire game; (2) be willing to see the real harm and oppression being done to others even when scores of other so-called allies are actually critics; and (3) to do the hard work of understanding what monsters the dominant society labels nonexistent and/or invisible even if we have the privilege of not being in the vicinity of these monsters. In Where Do We Go from Here, Dr. King's 1967 posthumously published book of essays, he fumed, "Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn." We know that it is extremely likely for the foreseeable future that too many people (of various backgrounds) will willfully remain ignorant or blind--critics or opponents--of various forms of social justice. But the question I leave you with is how will you and I open our eyes, link our fates with others, and serve as true allies?
(2.) Slater, Jim. "Missouri Report: Blacks 85 Percent More Likely to Be Stopped." AP, June 1 2018.
(3.) Waldon, Lucas, and Ken Schwencke. "Deadnamed: The Way Cops in Jacksonville and Other Jurisdictions Investigate the Murders of Transgender Women Adds Insult to Injury and May Be Delaying Justice." ProPublica, https://www.propublica.org/article/deadnamed-transgender-black-women-murders-jacksonville-police-investigation.
(4.) Stewart, Ian. "2 People Dead in S.C. Public Housing Complex, 411 Evacuated after Gas Leaks " NPR, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/18/686682223/2-people-dead-in-s-c-public-housing-complex-411-evacuated-after-gas-leaks.
(5.) Lee Boucher, Michael, 2014, "More Than an Ally: A Successful White Teacher Who Builds Solidarity With His African American Students," Urban Education, Sage Publishing July 27.
(6.) Baldwin, James, 1963 statement in the documentary, The Price of the Ticket, filmmaker Karen Thorsen, California Newsreel, 1990.
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|Title Annotation:||engaging the work of community across line of race, class or gender|
|Author:||Shaw, Todd C.|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
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