What Should an Ally Do Today?
Amidst the pain of the marginalized students leading this movement and those who have shared their stories, a lot of people are feeling uncomfortable and confused. It is important to know that many marginalized people have felt uncomfortable and out of place for their entire lives. In the spirit of such empathy, please accept that you should feel uncomfortable. This might be jarring because you are not accustomed to being on the sidelines of change. But you should care. You should care from the bottom of your heart. I hope this piece provides a rudimentary explanation of why you, and better yet, how you, should care. So let us take the first step to consider how to be an ally.
Number one is you must listen. You must actively listen to what people are saying, specifically marginalized students. Along with this you need to make sure that you do not take up space — this means that when something like a protest at the Hub happens you should stand silently on the sidelines and support. It is crucial that you stand silently in order to listen, understand, and self-reflect. The people who have been forced to stay silent are, and should, be the people getting a chance to express their anguish. They should be at the center of this movement — not you. Many marginalized students are experiencing an emotional exhaustion that you can scarcely comprehend; please be mindful that they are expressing things they have been forced to keep bottled up for years.
Right now, even as an ally, do not expect to be educated — not even by your friends in marginalized groups. CMC is a school with an underwhelming minority of marginalized students; so few marginalized students are here that they often are the only marginalized person in any given space. This paints a label of expectation on them that they should be the de facto educators of everyone in those spaces. But being an educator to every curious person is a colossal burden. It is mentally exhausting, and for students who have constantly been cultural ambassadors during their time in Claremont frequently, not healthy.
No one should be expected to constantly explicate something on behalf of their whole race. In order to effectively educate non-marginalized people, a marginalized person must revisit traumatic experiences, an excruciating history, and do this in full view of the public eye. Further, a marginalized person does not have the luxury to remove their emotions from their dialogue because this is their life. Sometimes navigating these conversations is overwhelming, even for those trying to help people understand. That does not mean they do not want allies to understand or support them, but allies need to understand that marginalized students do not have the mental and emotional capacity to support their allies right now.
Discussions will come, but as they develop, every word is difficult. That said, there are ways to ask questions — none of which is through Yik Yak. If you want to ask a marginalized person who you think might be inclined to speak with you, you must be respectful. The first thing you should say is: “Do you have the energy or want to talk me through a few questions I have about what’s been happening? I totally understand if you don’t want to do that right now.” This moves the choice to engage in this conversation into the hands of the marginalized person.
As an ally you should never feel entitled to an explanation immediately. If the marginalized person declines your invitation to talk about what has been going on, remember that they are your friend and peer and that you should help them know you still care and support them. If the person you have asked wants to speak with you about the movement, then you should preface the conversation by acknowledging your own ignorance, privilege, and being clear that while your heart is in the right place, some things you might say may be offensive. At Occidental College, students have used the term “first draft” to describe statements or questions they have, especially those that might come off as offensive. Being up-front in this manner makes clear that you are trying to learn, and that you have good intentions. Patience and compassion are necessary now, more than ever.
If you care enough to be asking a marginalized person what is going on and why it is happening, then knowledge is significant enough a priority that you should spend some time reading. A few useful places to get started are linked at the bottom of this piece. It is crucial to carefully read the first link in order to understand the demands that are presented. But as an ally you must recognize that there is not going to be a moment in which you can suddenly understand centuries of oppression and perfectly empathize. It’s like an asymptote, you can get closer to understanding, but you can never actually expect to feel it.
As a non-marginalized person, realizing what it means to be a non-marginalized person in America and at CMC is a pivotal moment of awareness. What it means to be a non-marginalized person means you are not the “other.” You are part of the default setting, the norm, and with that comes so much power and privilege. Through years of historical systemic discrimination, being a marginalized person has meant that your statements and beliefs have the capacity to be dismissed as less valuable, rather than be considered as the opinions of a human being. As a non-marginalized person, you do not have to worry about people not taking you seriously because they think you are overly emotional or are making something trivial a “big deal”. Marginalized people’s thoughts are widely disregarded or deemed an overreaction merely by the fact of their existence. If nothing else, the events of the past few days should enunciate that nothing that a human being says is, or has ever been, trivial.
Some people are blind to see how marginalized students feel on campus, and in the world. Many non-marginalized students barely knew there was an issue before this week. That is not because they are bad people or because they failed in the past — but now they have no excuse. A lot of the pain and conversations that have been behind closed doors are being exposed this week. Because of recent events the whole CMC student body is becoming aware of the struggle of marginalized students and the failures of administration and our community. While marginalized voices are being so vocal right now, the role of an ally is to stay respectfully silent and actively supportive, absorbing what you cannot have known, and ensuring the marginalized voices resound.
As far as that goes, you are part of the movement. By showing your support and approval you are contributing to the truth that every decent human being — regardless of any qualification — wants marginalized students to feel safe and equally part of this community. Not every CMC student must be on the front lines of this battle, nor can they be. Non-marginalized students are simply not leaders in this instance — they must be supporters. They cannot be on the front lines because they have never been directly touched by this. Almost certainly they can feel empathy and want to soothe the agony of those about which they care, but they have not been oppressed. In simple words: none of this is centered on non-marginalized people, so non-marginalized people should not be in the center.
But this is not to say that non-marginalized students have absolutely no place in this fight. Being present as a supporter, both within your personal relationships and in public, will allow you to be receptive to education and constructive conversation. Shifting the conversations that you hear and helping other non-marginalized people understand the movement will take the burden of the already taxed hearts of marginalized people. Asking conscientious questions in an appropriate manner to marginalized students will allow you to better understand something you are a part of, but that you do not get.
Your support and patience will help in changing the culture of our community. But remember, “Real solidarity doesn’t require an audience or a pat on the back.”
Letter from Marginalized Groups at Claremont McKenna College
Claremont McKenna College Has a Race Problem — This is Also On Us
5 Ways to Use White Privilege as an Ally
Do U.S. colleges have a race problem?