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Exploring the Role of Allies: Step Up, Step Back, and Listen

Friday, October 18, 2019  
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By: Erica Ledesma - Diversity Abroad

Today’s current political climate is rife with conflict, finger-pointing, and suspicion as discussions related to race, diversity, social justice, equity, and inclusion dominate our newsfeeds. Throughout the education sector, this tone is equally as present as we critically examine the opportunity gap & institutional demographics, campus climate (especially at PWI’s), and balancing free speech while ensuring all students feel a sense of belonging where they can thrive both academically and personally. Within this context, prioritizing diversity & inclusion at the core of our education structures -- including global education -- is more important than ever and requires commitment from all of us, not just those who identify personally with marginalized communities. As allies who work in diversity & inclusion, how can we maximize our contributions within this complicated landscape where  “political-correctness” often impedes honest interactions? For someone like me, a white woman, what should we be thinking about in order to effectively engage in diversity and inclusion work? I’ve given this some thought and have articulated my reflections below.




Know when to “step up” and when to “step back”


The first question that might come up is whether or not a heterosexual, middle class white woman should even be engaged in diversity and inclusion work. This is a fair question and worth considering (some thoughts here and here). In short, my answer is “yes”....but, not always. Working as an ally alongside colleagues from marginalized communities to advance equity and social justice requires a degree of self-awareness and humility. In truth, I’ve spent most of my life working within systems and structures that elevate my voice and experiences at the expense of others. To counteract this pattern, it is essential to acknowledge its existence, look for opportunities to take a step back and simply listen in order to center diverse voices in these discussions. At the same time, diversity and inclusion is all of our responsibility and should not be delegated to members of marginalized communities, an oft-employed tactic that usually ends in exhaustion and burnout. So, how do we balance our responsibility to provide leadership and advocacy as allies with the need to take a step back and listen? There is no formula; however, I would argue that as allies the core of our work to support and lead diversity and inclusion efforts is an awareness of positionality. In order to understand our positionality (and the associated power dynamic) within certain structures, conversations, groups, etc, we need to take time on a regular basis to reflect on our own identities and areas of unconscious bias (these exist for all of us). Distinct from the tacit notion of “checking one’s privilege”, this exercise requires both introspection and action in order to have lasting impact.


Be Authentic


This can’t be overstated. In our quest to “relate” to others, it may be tempting to over-emphasize our points of connection with marginalized communities; however, this approach will serve only to erode credibility. My identities as a white middle class heterosexual woman, raised in the midwestern region of the United States, have provided me with innumerable “unearned” societal advantages over the years. At the same time, I’ve also had significant personal and professional experiences engaging with diverse domestic and global communities that have contributed to my current worldview and perspectives. These experiences, in many ways, reinforce my commitment to equity, social justice, confronting structural oppression, and cultivating empathy. They do not, however, allow me to understand from the perspective of individuals who belong to marginalized communities, like people of color or LGBTQI+ individuals, etc. For me, this is an essential distinction.


All of us embody multiple intersecting identities that locate us within or without institutional power structures (read here for more on intersectionality). As a female professional raising 2 daughters, I am in-tuned on a personal level with the patriarchal hierarchies that impact persistent realities like the gender wage gapdisproportionate expectations for men & women in the academe, and the prevalence of rape culture on our college campuses. When I was younger, I was one of only two girls who played on our middle school’s boys soccer team because there wasn’t a team available for the female athletes. While a lot has changed in this regard due to Title IX and other efforts, gender-based discrimination is still alive and well today as we regularly witness in the continued objectification of women through media & public discourse. And yet, despite my personal connection to gender discrimination, my experiences as a white woman are qualitatively different from the experiences of women belonging to other marginalized communities. For women of color and transgender individuals, for example, gender-based discrimination will undoubtedly intersect and overlap with other forms of oppression related to race, sexuality, and gender-identity. In our work with diversity & inclusion, it’s important to embrace our own backgrounds without making assumptions about how we can relate to or understand other experiences of oppression.


Mistakes Will Happen


Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, and it’s important to learn from them and incorporate these insights into our work. Being transparent about our own missteps can create space for others to learn and grow as well. In order to be an effective ally for diversity and inclusion, it’s not necessary to be an expert on all marginalized communities or to understand all of the relevant terminology right away. In fact, this approach may be perceived as disingenuous and arrogant, “If a white person comes to D&I with a purely intellectual mindset or a goal to change or help someone else, they might miss the mark” (more on this here). That said, expanding our perspectives is an important aspect of developing as an ally for diversity and inclusion. Accessing news sources, entertainment, books, etc that showcase a diversity of  perspectives is a starting point and will provide opportunities to deepen our understanding of the way our own backgrounds have shaped our perceptions. The options are endless, but here are just a few suggestions that I’ve enjoyed:


  • Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Banaji & Greenwald

  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

  • The Danger of a Single Story - Ted talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


In summary, there is an important role for allies to play in diversity and inclusion work. Within our sphere of influence as global educators, we can collaborate with colleagues from marginalized communities, learn to listen and to lead effectively, and acknowledge our own shortcomings as we support students from all backgrounds.