I received an interesting letter, responding to the Oscar article I wrote several weeks back. It wasn’t interesting because the author put up a great argument, or because he thought I was stupid. What caught my eyes, was that the person who wrote to me assumed I wasn’t white, but other some other ethnicity.
I shrugged it off at first. With the last name Barefoot, I am used to people thinking I am a dark skinned-Native American, rather than the scrawny white woman I am.
Once I looked the e-mail over again, I realized it wasn’t my name that made this guy think I was non-Caucasian, but the content I wrote. He assumed because I wrote about lack of racial diversity in the Academy Awards I couldn’t be white, because only minorities care about those things.
I understand that because of my privilege as a white American, I will never fully be able to understand the life of someone of another ethnicity or the struggles they had to live though, but it doesn’t mean I am blind to how we have yet to achieve full equality for all people. And it doesn’t mean I can’t be supportive and advocate change.
This issue of only thinking we only care about issues dealing with ourselves doesn’t apply to just race either, but a whole range of areas within social justice. If you are a member of the LGBT Alliance, people assume you must be one of those letters, forgetting the alliance part and the importance of allies within a movement. Just because a straight person doesn’t have to fight for the right to marry, doesn’t mean they all ignore challenges same-sex couples face when attempting marriage.
People assume if you are an advocate for social justice you have to be directly affected. Do we necessarily think everyone who raises money for breast cancer research has had breast cancer or has been affected by it? So why when we engage for social justice we assume you must be a minority in some way shape or form to be passionate about it?
I recently participated in the Social Justice Summit at Iowa State, and one of the things the participants brought up was that they were afraid to bring up certain issues or create dialogue with people. They were afraid of being told that they didn’t know what they were talking about because they were white and couldn’t understand. They were afraid they wouldn’t be taken seriously. They were afraid people would be offended if they wanted to help their cause. They were afraid they didn’t know enough to make a difference.
They were afraid of being allies, and in some respects, so was I.
We all learned being an ally is important, even if we didn’t know everything or weren’t completely able to understand LGBT’s life experiences, we could help.
One of the most important things you can do is have the ability to care for someone, regardless of if you are alike or not. It’s more than just letting someone know you have their back and they are not alone in their cause. It’s about standing up for what is right.
Just because it doesn’t directly impact you doesn’t mean you won’t help the movement, regardless if it is gender neutral bathrooms, gay marriage or whatever issue you feel passionate about.
Many movements were powerful because they featured a variety of people; strength is in numbers, the more people you have the more of a force you are to reckon with.
Take for instance the Martin Luther King Jr.-led March on Washington where 200,000 to 300,000 people participated. Records indicated while 75 percent of the people who marched were black, the rest were of other racial minorities or were white. This march helped pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act because such a large population of the United States felt so strongly about the issue.
This is not to discredit the countless decades of struggles black’s went through and tried to end, but shows that when groups of different people come together, things can get done. It helps show people that it’s not just a “black issue” or a “gay issue,” but it’s an issue of personal rights and freedom.
There are more than 500 affiliates for PFLAG, working to create a difference. The registered number of Gay-Straight Alliances in schools is more than 4,000 in the U.S. as of 2008.
People are standing up and saying that it’s time for a change, regardless of their sexual identity. Some want equal rights for their children, and others want their friends to experience the same rights they have.
By speaking up for others, we let people know their behavior is not OK. It doesn’t mean you have to start a protest on campus every day of the week, but little things speak in volumes. An ally can do little things everyday to make a big difference.
You can have conversations with classmates when they say something you find offensive; use it as a teaching moment to let them know it’s not OK to use hateful language or glittering generalities when it comes to race, gender, sexuality or whatever is important to you. Listen to people and be a friend. Watch your own language to avoid using phrases like “that’s gay” or “that’s ghetto.”
People may say it’s not your battle to fight. But just think of the suffragettes fighting for their right to vote, and for blacks who did the same, and the current fight for LGBT rights. These movements have allies, and those allies help make a difference in influencing public opinion and creating change.
It’s not always easy, and you might not always be welcome on either side of the battle, but creating social change doesn’t happen in just a day.
I am ally because I want equality for everyone, not just me.