By Sarah Fullerton
Last Thursday, Oct. 28, members of the Willamette community gathered for a convocation on “White Allyship.” The event was set up to devote equal time to faculty speakers and student speakers, with a 20 minute Q&A at the end.
From the start, it was clear that many were uncomfortable with the language of “white ally” and its implications. Several speakers agreed that they prefered the term “solidarity,” and as the conversation evolved, they unpacked the ways in which “ally” is problematic. All of the following considered, for the purpose of this article I use the term not as an absolute, but as a way of referring to what English professor Omari Weekes called “A relevant kind of intentionality,” and what English and Women’s & Gender Studies professor Allison Hobgood conceptualized as, “A habitual ideal, an ongoing becoming of something.”
The term “ally” may encourage one to view it as an identity, and attempts at allyship that comes from a self-involved place are not genuine or helpful. A resounding message was that when it comes to the work of allyship, as Professor Hobgood suggested, “It’s not about you.” True allyship cannot come from “wanting to do the good thing,” as Weekes said.
Sophomore Bethel Eyasu talked about the irony of a white person expecting praise for showing up to a protest when people of color face criticism for doing the same sorts of activism in the same spaces. Understanding solidarity as a good deed fails to recognize it as something imperative for justice.
One of the earliest questions in the Q&A asked who is tasked with choosing who is and is not an ally if we decide that “allyship” exists, and what criteria would be involved. Weekes observed that the term invites the value judgments of “good ally” or “bad ally.” He agreed with Hobgood when she said that part of the work of allyship is messing up and being uncomfortable.
Hobgood said, “When you screw up as an ally, and you will, own it, open yourself up to being challenged . . . Fail, learn, move on.”
Sarah Kirk, the Faculty Associate Dean for Faculty Development and a chemistry professor, brought up the systemic side of solidarity, and how we must “interrogate existing structures” in order to redefine them and create realities that are in line with our values. In her professional life, she said she holds constant awareness of which tables she is sitting at, who is absent from these tables and why that might be so. She brought up the example of overrepresentation of white men in college professor roles, and talked about how it’s necessary to reshape methods of recruitment and faculty retention in order to create space for more diversity.
One call to action that was voiced again and again during the event was for self-education. As Eyasu said, looking to people of color as a resource should be a last resort. Professor Stephanie DeGooyer, also in the English department, approaches self-education as a matter of respect. Much of the work has already been done innumerable times to illustrate the realities that white people do not see in their lives, and so they “exert the effort” to absorb these teachings and apply them appropriately.
Hobgood also highlighted the importance of “owning your sources” when self educating. She often hears white people talking about ideas as though they came to them on their own, and it is necessary to give credit to radical, innovative thinkers like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mia Mingus and Audre Lorde, whose voices established the groundwork from which we can have these conversations.
Self-education is essential because, as exercise science professor Brandi Row Lazzarini pointed out, white people must constantly remind themselves that “just because it wasn’t your experience doesn’t mean it’s not a reality.”
Sophomore Stephanie Siqueiros said it’s about, “realizing that someone’s entire reality has been shaped by their lack of privilege.”
Sophomore Melissa Cisneros summed things up well when she said, “real solidarity doesn’t require an audience. . . It’s what you’re doing on the daily.”
Solidarity is about showing up again and again, through the failures. Whether that means taking classes that do work on race, attending protests or vigils or supporting in other ways, we can talk about terminology endlessly, but it really comes down to an intentional sort of presence.