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Column by Emma Bjornsrud

An ally is generally understood to be an individual with the resources to support those who are oppressed or discriminated against. In this sense, the word is often used as a noun.

However, calling yourself an ally does not inspire the actual construction of social justice.

Having the resources to support others creates a good foundation, but foundations are created to be built upon. To reach equality, we have to create allyships.

And as with all relationships, allyships take work. We must recognize and acknowledge the value of differences, and actively make an effort to be inclusive.

Joanne DeMark, Western’s leadership development specialist, said she prefers the phrase “aspiring ally” rather than “ally.”

“It determines that I’m a work in progress,” DeMark said. “Aspiring means that I will never be perfect on identities that I don’t belong in.”

Karen Deysher, the AS Student Advocacy & Identity Resource Center coordinator, said they don’t use the word ally either. They reinforced DeMark’s sentiment that it requires constant effort to be in solidarity with those who have been historically marginalized.

Instead, Deysher said they agree with the mentality established by “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex,” a zine created by Indigenous Action, an indigenous advocacy organization.

The use of “accomplice” is intentional because of its connotation of helping someone with a crime.

“Marginalized folks are subjected to a lot of unfair, unethical laws,” Deysher said. “So, those of us who may have privilege in whatever regard should be willing to commit a crime in order to do what’s right and be in solidarity with them.”

Privilege is an advantage that a group or individual has over others. But when someone has privilege over another just because of their identity, that advantage is a social construct that needs to be broken. Look at it this way: social justice means an equal distribution of privilege.

Leti Romo, the coordinator for Equity and Inclusion Resource Centers, emphasized the significance of performative support on an individual level. She noted that the action which might be safe for one person may not be safe for another. Certain means of activism, like protesting or striking, can be very dangerous for people who identify as part of marginalized communities. For others, their privilege might be the only “get out of jail free” card they need.

“One of the things that are important to keep in mind is that you don’t get to identify yourself as an ally, you don’t get to identify yourself as an accomplice,” Romo said. “It’s recognizing that it’s not a title that we bestow on ourselves. We really have to show that to the individual.”

A study about queer communities by Michael R. Woodford et al. examined the effectiveness of Ally Training Programs (ATPs) on higher education campuses.

They found that almost none of the programs prepared the participants to engage in advocacy and intervention, despite raising awareness about instances of oppression and personal biases.

DeMark likened an instance of oppression to a car accident: an emergency. Anyone can stand by and watch engines smoke, but the only effective way to help is to call 911 and show support to survivors.

While there are many individual strategies to show support, the bottom line is that all efforts are valuable when it comes to advocacy.

“When we talk about identities, we always default to the identities we feel most comfortable talking about, but we never stop to challenge ourselves to think about the identities that we’re not comfortable talking about,” Romo said.

She said there is a cultural deficit lens that impacts our ability to view an individual as separate from a group that shares their same identity. Essentially, the cultural deficit theory is a racial bias that is often accepted by institutions to excuse oppression.

This deficit exists on Western’s campus, too. According to Western’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion webpage, 26% of total students enrolled by fall 2019 were students of color.

“There are resources on campus,” Romo said. “Yes, students might have a difficult time engaging on this, and that’s okay, but there are faculty and staff here who are more than happy to engage in these types of conversations in a very developmental, versus judgemental, way.”

Having these conversations may be the right place to start. Then, work towards being an aspiring ally and doing what it takes to be an accomplice. The relationships we form won’t be perfect, but they will be the beginning of inclusive equality.

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