All over the world, people are coming together in support of the black community and in protest of oppression, racism and police brutality. For those of us who do not identify as black, this is a time to reflect on how we can be a better ally to this community.
At Distress Centre, we strive to engage in anti-oppressive practices and be allies to our service users. An ally is any person who supports, empowers or stands up for another person or group that they are not a part of.
There are a few simple, sometimes challenging ways, that you can become a better ally and help to end the oppression of marginalized groups. We have adapted these tips from the “Being an ally” session of our volunteer training curriculum, which all volunteers complete before answering crisis contacts.
1. Engage in critical self-reflection
The key to becoming an ally is to understand how our experiences shape our perception of the world and how we interact with others. You need to reflect on your life experiences and examine how these experiences have given you privilege. A person can have privilege and experience oppression, it is not always one or the other. A university educated man who is gay might experience privilege from being a man and university educated, but he might experience oppression for being gay, for example.
The challenge with privilege is that when we have it we generally don’t see it. This is because we have never had to encounter the struggles of someone experiencing the type of oppression we are exempt from. This can lead to problematic preconceived notions, judgements and assumptions, such as the assumption that no one needs to be wary of the police, because you’ve always had positive encounters with them.
On our crisis lines, our volunteers have their beliefs and assumptions challenged every shift, and recognizing their own privilege and working to be an ally is a key component to effectively supporting someone experiencing crisis.
Having privilege is not a bad thing, but it is something each person needs to be aware of in order to be an effective ally. Those who have privilege still experience hardship in life, but sometimes they have less barriers than a person who does not have the same privilege. Being aware of the privilege(s) you have is key to engaging in anti-oppressive practices so that we don’t unknowingly reinforce patterns of discrimination and oppression.
Active listening is one of the most valuable skills we teach our volunteers before they go on the lines. As you come to understand your privileges, you begin to learn about the experiences of people in marginalized groups and then learn what you can do to support them. This means listening even when they are challenging preconceived notions that you may have.
Be aware when you react defensively and challenge yourself to use these reactions as entry points for gaining deeper self-knowledge. Let go of any personal anecdotal evidence that you have and look instead at broader social patterns and informed knowledge.
Use the internet and social media to educate yourself. The internet can be an amazing resource for learning about the issues that are important to the communities that you want to support.
3. Support, empower and stand up for others
From your place of privilege you have a lot of power to stand up for and empower others experiencing oppression. You can stand up to someone when you hear them talking about a group or person in a discriminatory manner, support someone experiencing barriers and oppression with the tools that you are aware of, such as 211 or our 24 hour crisis line, and you can empower them to address and overcome the barriers they face.
Remember that as an ally you are a supporter, not a leader. Do not talk over the people you are trying to be an ally to. Always go back to listening first. You do not always need to be speaking to create change.
4. Remember that the process of being an ally never ends
The process of becoming an ally is continuous. It is important to remember that you are not an expert and there is always more to learn.
If you are challenged on a belief in your process of becoming an ally or feel you have made a mistake, simply apologize and examine how you can behave better next time. Making a mistake is okay as long as you are willing to learn from the experience. Saying you are an ally is not enough, it is your actions that truly define you as one.
Contact 211 to be connected to community resources in Calgary.