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The Role of ‘Privileged’ Allies in the Struggle for Social Justice

This essay was written as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action John Lewis Fellowship at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.


From my point of view, one of the most effective ways to bring about social change is direct involvement with communities facing oppression and injustices. However, my major concern in relation to this opinion has to do with my identity as an ‘outsider’ to these communities, and often as a ‘privileged’ member of society in comparison to those communities’ members. In other words, I have often been preoccupied with questions concerning how I could be accepted by these groups, and how it would be possible for me to constructively contribute to their social struggles, despite being ‘other’ to them. In alignment with the above mentioned principle concerning activism, the Action Project proposal which I submitted as part of my application process for the John Lewis Fellowship Program was inspired by a method called ‘participatory action research’ (PAR).

According to this research method, the researcher engages with a community, taking on the role of the mentor and delegating the same role to some of the community’s members. Researcher and participants, both mentors and mentees, discuss the issues facing the group, and come up with and realise activities with the purpose of combatting these issues. In this way, the researcher becomes an ally to the group by sharing his or her knowledge with its members and by attempting to facilitate action against inequality.

Throughout the Fellowship Program, the issue of ‘White allyship’ has been extensively discussed. Thinking about this issue in a broader sense and changing the term ‘White’ to ‘privileged’, in the present essay I intend to reflect on the role of ‘privileged’ allies in social movements. In order to do so, I shall first explain what the notion ‘allies’ signifies. Then, I will elaborate briefly on the concept of privilege. Finally, I will talk about the ‘toolkit’ that a ‘privileged’ ally should be equipped with, with in order to contribute to a social struggle’s progress.

With the purpose of adducing my argument concerning ‘privileged’ allies, I shall first state that, from my standpoint, it is the people facing injustice that have to lead social movements, that is, take the situation in their hands, assert their needs, and demand those needs’ fulfillment. Nevertheless, what should not be overlooked is that these groups might lack the resources required to initiate, or even participate in this kind of struggle; it is possible that they do not fully know or comprehend their history, the sources of their oppression, their rights, and their responsibilities. On a much simpler note, it might be merely financial reasons that prevent oppressed individuals from resisting the inequalities they face. In these cases, the contribution of allies to movements could be crucial. However, the same holds true if a minority group has already organized, launched, and developed its movement; an ‘outsider’s’ willingness to support the group’s efforts might be equally valuable and thus, welcome.

Before I move on to explore the role of allies, it is important to define what this term actually means. In our discussions with the speakers, the Fellows, and the staff, we have often used the concept of ‘allies’ to refer to people that do not belong to the group undertaking action, but rather to that of the oppressor, to the dominant class, or at least to a more privileged part of society. Taking the Civil Rights Movement as an example, in her book Refusing Racism: White Allies and the Struggle for Civil Rights, Cynthia Stokes Brown (2002) describes ‘how some of those considered white were able to join unequivocably in the fight for the liberation of those considered other “races”, as well as for their own freedom from racism’. One of these ‘white allies’ was Stanley Levison, a close adviser of Martin Luther King, Jr., who contributed significantly to the expansion of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) influence beyond the South to the North, and helped in the momentum required by the movement for its March on Washington (LaFauci, 2016).

Nonetheless, allyship cannot be defined merely on the basis of binaries such as Black and White, oppressed and oppressor, less and more privileged. For, privilege itself cannot be determined only through the variables of race and class. Rather, it is multidimensional, shaped by intersectionalities, that is, by the combination of each individual’s multiple identities and lived experiences. Thus, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, education, and many other factors can make a person privileged among a group of people and less privileged among another. Consequently, it is an individual’s willingness to contribute to and actively participate in a community’s struggle for justice and equality that renders them allies, partners, comrades of this community, despite the fact that this person is not originally a part of it.

Having made my opinion concerning allyship clear, I cannot help but acknowledge the difficulties that emerge in relation to this concept in the case of ‘privileged’ allies. When it comes to scholars in specific, the privilege resulting from their education is undeniable. What is more, this privilege can be either further enforced or mediated by each scholar’s other identities. In both cases, allies should ask themselves what their position in any movement, protest, or research should be, if they are to constructively contribute to a community’s efforts towards social justice.

This kind of self-reflection is key for the useful participation of ‘privileged’ comrades in social struggles. First, it allows them not only to control, but also to take advantage of their privilege and skills to the fullest, thereby maximizing their contribution to the minorities’ efforts for liberation and equality. Second, such considerations on behalf of ‘privileged’ partners encourage the exchange of knowledge and the cultivation of new skills for both parties. Third, such self-reflection promotes understanding and trust between oppressed groups and their allies, both of whom are then able to constructively collaborate and develop effective action. Fourth, these thoughts can help ‘privileged’ partners make connections between their own communities and the oppressed ones they are involved with. Finally, comrades’ constant and thorough reflection on their positionality helps them avoid suspicion and accusations concerning selfish motives and tendency to act like ‘saviors’.

Notwithstanding their importance for a movement’s development and potentially the whole society’s progress, considerations of ‘privileged’ partners’ position in any form of action against injustice are also pertinent to our future work as Humanity in Action Fellows. For, the Fellowship Program will be followed by our return to national or local communities, in which we will hopefully bring change. The means which we shall utilize for our purposes are going to be central to the outcomes of our attempts. Therefore, as was repeatedly pointed out by numerous speakers, Fellows, and members of the staff, developing a useful ‘ally toolkit’ is vital for our future action as scholars, activists, and advocates.

What would, then, such a toolkit contain? First, allies should constantly check and use their privilege, whichever form it takes. Comrades shall first realise their positionality, namely both their ‘privileged’ and their other identities. Then, before taking any action with the purpose of organizing or supporting a movement, they should make sure that their positionality does not interfere with their ability to express a useful opinion and act according to it. It is predominantly at this point that allies as ‘others’ can not only teach the oppressed groups’ members, but also learn from them. Finally, after ‘checking their privilege’, comrades should learn to use it effectively; as Dr. Jacqueline Rouse encouraged us, ‘we should use our privileges and our experiences to make a change’.

Nonetheless, it is not only privilege that potential allies should acknowledge and utilize; their intellectual and hard skills could also be of great value to minority groups’ struggle for social justice. For, as Dr. Young pointed out, ‘privileged’ comrades can educate people who do not have access to it otherwise. More importantly, through the realization of their abilities, allies have the opportunity to get to know themselves and to choose the most suitable role in a social movement, an outcome which was often emphasized in our group discussions as highly beneficial.

When it comes to another necessary ‘ally tool’, I shall utilise Becker’s concept of the ‘outsiders’ (1) in a more general sense, and argue that it is not only members of minorities-both in numbers and/or in power- that should be described as ‘outsiders’ or as ‘others’. Rather, allies, as members of the majority, are equally ‘others’ to minority communities; they often have limited understanding of the latter’s culture, everyday experiences, and needs. Thus, ‘privileged’ partners should be willing to constantly exchange knowledge with their oppressed partners; they should be ready to not only offer their resources, but also learn. In Adelina Nicholls’ words, activists should ‘learn to listen and listen to learn’. This kind of exchange ultimately leads to the bridging of the parties’ differences, enhances their collaboration, and advances progress towards social change.

At the same time, it is not only differences between oppressed groups and ‘privileged’ partners that allyship can bridge. Rather, allies can connect wider communities and build coalitions between them by teaching minorities, and by simultaneously learning about their culture and listening to their needs. Comrades can, thus, work towards the elimination of ‘the titles of “them against us” which have made us lethargic in our development’, as Derreck Kayongo mentioned in his speech. After all, according to La’Neice Littleton, if all communities realise their own ways of oppression, they will possibly become able to fight collectively against everyone’s oppression’.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, it is vital for allies to abandon any selfish motives or ambitions to stand out as leaders before going to the field. This was also the advice of Craig McPherson, who encouraged us to follow the example of Fred Hampton in terms of selflessness and lack of vanity. It is crucial for an ally to understand that, a movement belongs to those that are directly harmed from inequality and that, as Adazadeh Shashahani pointed out, ‘change has to come from the bottom up’. In other words, it is the oppressed that should speak and act for themselves in their pursuit of justice and liberation.

Thus, the role of an ally ought to be strictly supportive, with his or her intellectual capacities and hard skills remaining in the background rather than appearing on the front line. By acknowledging and taking on such position in movements, protests, or research, ‘privileged’ allies can avoid patronizing minority groups and acting as their ‘saviors’. After all, in Ufuk Kahya’s words, ‘following can be a form of leadership too- albeit an underestimated one in our society’.

The thorough consideration of the above remarks made by the Fellows, the speakers, and the staff, but also reflection on my own thoughts throughout the Fellowship Program, shall allow me to re-evaluate my initial Action Project proposal and implement an enhanced version of it. More specifically, I still intend to undertake a Participatory Action Research with communities facing oppression and inequalities in Greece; this type of study is, I contend, in alliance with the allyship principles as they are discussed in the present essay. Nonetheless, while I cooperate with members of these communities in order to explore the injustices they face, come up with a suitable collaborative action, organise it, and finally realise it, I will be significantly more confident about my own role in this process. For, my overall experience as a John Lewis Fellow, and especially my daily interaction with people from highly diverse and particularly interesting backgrounds equipped me with both the intellectual and practical tools to utilize myself to the fullest in my efforts to make a difference in the Greek, as well as the global society.

References

1. In his book Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Howard S. Becker (1963) elaborated on the notion of ‘outsiders’ referring to offenders in comparison to the rest of society. More specifically, he argued that even though the term ‘outsiders’ has been traditionally used to describe outlaws, this characterization is equally suitable for non-deviants.

Works Cited

Brown, C.S. (2002) Refusing Racism: White Allies and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Teachers College Press.

LaFauci, T. (2016) Taking it Out: The Role of White Privilege in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Available at: http://www.thepeoplesview.net/main/2016/1/22/talking- it-out-the-role-of-white-privilege-in-the-black-lives-matter-movement (Last accessed: 27/07/2016).

Becker, H.S. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press.

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