What does it mean to be “Woke”? This was the topic of discussion at the “Get Woke” panel, organized by the Diversity Working Group, with the goal to examine the concept of allyship and formulate several conversations around what it means to be an ally. Multiple thought-provoking discussions took place, with some highlights being the dos and don’ts of allyship, how to utilize platforms as a person with privilege, and how to navigate neutrality in the classroom.
To be able to discuss allyship, we must first be able to define it. Omotayo Segun-Omosehin, a member of the Diversity Working Group, defines allyship as “a continuous process of learning and engaging.” She believes that allies should “make the effort to learn about minority groups through their own means and research, and then actively engage with what they have learned.”
So why is it important to discuss allyship on campus? According to Segun-Omosehin, one of the main goals of this panel was to address the neutral stance taken by some professors when sensitive topics, often regarding race, gender and sexuality, are discussed in class. Often students will make insensitive or offensive comments under the guise of a discussion, which can be very emotionally draining to minority students, who are usually singled out in class during these instances. Segun-Omosehin recalled an incident during her first year at Augustana, “A student made a comment in class about how black men would not be brutalized by the police or incarcerated at an alarming rate if they just stopped sagging their pants and wearing durags.” She recalled expecting the professor to speak up, but she brushed it off and moved on.
How can this be combatted? If you have authority over a space, as a professor does in a classroom, it is important to be aware of the responsibilities that come with that authority. Do not allow hate speech disguised as a discussion to take place in your classroom. During discussions if you see a marginalized person being ignored or spoken over, especially in conversations concerning them and their issues, speak up for them. Do not allow their silencing to happen in your classroom.
As an ally to a marginalized group, it is also important to be aware of the power of your voice. Are you a person of privilege, sometimes in more ways than one? If yes, use your privilege(s) to amplify the voices of marginalized people. Support marginalized activists, writers, artists, etc., but do not tokenize them. Follow them, read and listen to their work, learn from them and magnify their voices. Do you have access to a platform and therefore an audience? Utilize it to bring awareness to issues your audience might not have learned about otherwise. Alternatively, you can offer your platform to a marginalized person so that they can speak about their own issues. Remember that no one knows our stories, and therefore our struggles, better than us.
Recently, a professor at Augustana gave fellow Diversity Working Group member, Hannan Mohamud, and I an opportunity to speak to her class about religious racism and colonization. This was not only a great opportunity for us, but also for the students of colour who came up to us after class to tell us that the talk resonated with them. However, do not always burden marginalized people with the task to be your educators. If you have questions, the internet is a great place to look for answers. Before you ask someone something, consider that they have probably answered it many times before. Use Google and educate yourself! There are hundreds of people online sharing their experiences.
Finally, it is important to be conscious of one’s boundaries as an ally. Do not argue with marginalized people about the oppressive systems that cause their marginalization. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. function systemically. An incident of racism at work or a homophobic comment made during class are not isolated incidents. They are products of an active system that is alive and needs to be combatted. You do not get to decide what is and is not hate speech or a microaggression. Remember that while these concepts might be new to you, they are things we have lifelong experience with. Keeping that in mind, do not tell people they are victims, but do believe people when they tell you about something that they went through. Quoting our professor Feisal Kirumira, “To be an ally is to care with people, not to care for them.”