How to Be an Ally Beyond a Safety Pin

This election forced many Americans to confront the racial issues that divide our country. Some of us are unaccustomed to talking about race, and that’s understandable. Systemic racism is a multilayered, nuanced system of oppression that most of us struggle to comprehend, especially those who do not encounter it on a daily basis.

The level of hatred exposed by the election was not a surprise to many people of color, but if you haven’t been spending the last decades navigating America as part of a marginalized community, this could be your first time delving into understanding these issues.

Be okay with being uncomfortable. Embrace the discomfort — that’s how you know you’re doing it right.

What will count most now is your intention to be an effective ally and how you take your newfound ‘wokeness’ from thoughts to tangible action.

Fighting the normalization of hatred

By now most of us know about the simple act of solidarity of wearing a safety pin, and have probably heard about the controversy surrounding it. Now there are reports that some white supremacists might even be co-opting the safety pin.

Since the U.S. election, online trolls have been emboldened to come out from behind their screens to commit hateful attacks against marginalized communities across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center is reporting a surge of over 400 attacks since election day.

Below is a list of ways you can move beyond the safety pin to demonstrate solidarity with the communities most under attack from Trump’s vitriol.

Start by calling it white supremacy instead of white nationalism or the alt-right.

When we use the term “white nationalism”, we unknowingly permit the rebranding of white supremacy. White nationalism sounds like the kinder, gentler version of its more hateful cousin white supremacy. By allowing the relabeling of white supremacy, we permit them to control the narrative and make it that much easier to lose sight of their organizing efforts.

It also gives them access to spaces like universities. “White nationalists” and members of the “alt-right” are touring campuses across the country during an election year, and getting paid for it. Days before the election, David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan and senatorial candidate, actually spoke at a historically black college, much to the dismay of the student population. It’s not surprising that many of the campuses hosting white supremacists have also become breeding grounds for hate crimes.

Get out of your filter bubble. Become familiar with prominent voices on race and identity.

Lack of diversity in our social networks may mean we’re not as attuned to nuanced and complex views on identity. It might just be time to add some new voices on social media. Shaun King’s twitter feed highlights the experiences of communities under attack since the election. Linda Sarsour is a Brooklynite and prominent Muslim-American voice. Some other suggestions include: Kumail Nanjiani, Maysoon Zayid, Jose Antonio Vargas, Parker Molloy, Jessica Valenti, Jeff Chang, Tiq Milan, Saeed Jones, Moustafa Bayoumi. That’s only a partial list; feel free to suggest others by writing a response below.

Don’t accept one voice as representative of an entire community.

This election demonstrated the intersectionality of issues like race, privilege, and identity. How can we consider racism and Islamophobia without acknowledging the experience of black Muslims? How do we combat homophobia and transphobia without addressing sexism? Even within a single issue, there are a diversity of opinions regarding messaging and tactics. No one can claim to represent an entire community so be wary of any voices that claim to do just that.

Avoid the ‘savior complex.’ Don’t lead, follow.

Chances are you may be feeling some guilt after the election results. There’s a lot of blame going around right now, particularly within progressive circles. While it is important to acknowledge our mistakes, it becomes dangerous when we begin by apologizing on behalf of a population or community.

Walking up to a member of a marginalized community as a white person and apologizing isn’t the way to go. Even the most well-intentioned among us risk falling into the savior trap, and suggestions such as going to a black church and declaring that you’re here to support them won’t likely be well-received. Instead, focus on listening to requests for support. Hundreds of allies at the University of Michigan responded to the Muslim Students’ Association call for support and formed a powerful circle of protection during group prayers. These allies didn’t lead or dominate the space; they showed up and they followed.

Students protecting ishaa prayer at the University of Michigan. Photo by Benji Bear.

Add an intersectional lens to your work and understanding.

Once your Twitter feed includes leaders from marginalized communities, it’s likely you’ll find that the causes you’re most passionate about also heavily impact those communities. Adding a racial or intersectional lens to your understanding of various issues will support your activism and strengthen your allyship. For example, if you care about environmental causes, you can find guidance from Dr. Robert Bullard, who writes about how communities of color suffer considerably under environmental policies impacting local communities. Finding credible voices that speak on the intersection of race with various causes can help guide how to stomp out the root causes.

Photo by Alisdare Hickson via flickr

Urge schools to be inclusive environments. Talk to your children about discrimination and what to do if they witness it.

Following the election, school officials reported the appearance of swastikas and hateful slurs in schools, making schools a terrifying battleground. While donning a safety pin on your child’s jacket or backpack can actually be a positive way to engage children, there’s more you can do to protect youth while also introducing the concept of solidarity.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely solely on teachers to educate our children about race, though there’s incredible curriculum available through the Southern Poverty Law Center if any want to do just that. The rise in attacks of hate at schools provides us with a unique opportunity to not only address complex issues of race and privilege with our youth, but to also equip them will tools on how to combat the growing trend of bullying and cyberbullying.

Contact school officials and urge them to build a strategy on how to protect their students. Educators need to not only ensure that their political beliefs do not threaten or disempower students, but must also be equipped to intervene when witnessing acts of discrimination.

If you are looking for additional guidance, my organization just launched a #RejectHate campaign open to all who want to combat discrimination in schools.

Talk to your family and friends. Fight your own trolls.

Now isn’t the time to unfriend your racist uncle or your sexist high school friend. That’s partially what got us into this mess. Instead of replicating the policing and shaming that’s prevalent on social media, focus on having conversations with the goal of long-term engagement. Question their views to understand because any insight you glean will help you in future conversations. In conversations, label words and actions as racist instead of the person.

Thanksgiving just might be the perfect opportunity to begin having tough conversations with our loved ones. You may not move your grandmother to support ‘Black Lives Matter’ in one sitting, but you probably can engage her by connecting your family history with a current issue. Speaking in the first-person about how you feel is much more impactful and less likely to disengage others.

If you do have a relative or friend who trolls, be the one to respond to their hate when they comment on posts. It’s not your friend’s responsibility to address it, especially if they happen to be part of a community under attack. If you’re a white ally, you’ll actually be more effective so consider these the perfect conversations for you to lead.

I’ll never be able to engage certain people because of my identity, but you just might.

Check your spaces.

Has your employer discussed how to address instances of discrimination in the workplace? Would your co-workers benefit from going through an anti-oppression training? If your workplace environment is already inclusive, there’s even more you can do as a community of allies.

If you are part of a professional association or network, this may also be an opportunity to combat discrimination professionally, or at least provide resources to those who do. A friend just organized a strategy meeting with other academics in her field about how to support students and conduct research that helps address the growing tide of hate.

If you happen to be a doctor, lawyer, or other professional, more members of your local community will need pro-bono services very soon. Doctors willing to help uninsured patients navigate the healthcare system can definitely benefit from legal support. Consider offering your professional services and creating a network of colleagues willing to do the same.

Show up. Take action.

The best and often most ignored way to show solidarity is to take both personal and civic action. Multiple actions are currently circulating online asking us to call our members of congress in order to block the appointment of known xenophobic, anti-semitic, and Islamophobic white supremacists to key cabinet positions. There are even call-in sheets with step-by-step procedures, making it a simple task.

If you’re looking to take more actions, you can look into other organized efforts. The Movement for Black Lives has a detailed policy outline that include local strategies. Others are boycotting brands and products as part of ‘The DJT Resistance.’

Those seeking to act as allies in their local communities should follow Kayla Santosuosso’s example, who created an online form for New Yorkers to accompany individuals feeling threatened on their commute. Santosuosso, much like allies at the University of Michigan, responded to someone’s request for support. Other organizers suggest that non-Muslims register if a national Muslim registry does take effect. Similar actions likely will emerge in the coming weeks and months. Taking such actions as part of a broader strategy led by targeted communities is critical to combatting hate.

Photos by Arash Azizzada/@87films

Don’t become complacent once you’ve developed ‘good politics.’

Our understanding of race, privilege, and identity continues to evolve and shift, particularly with younger and emerging leaders adding their voices. Schools of thought change and views become increasingly more nuanced. You may have good politics now, but if you don’t continue to learn and grow, you might begin to sound out-of-touch and outdated. Even a respected leader like Gloria Steinem can get it wrong. You should never expect to reach a point at which you have it all figured out — there’s always a new idea to complicate your views.

We all have much work to do. Those of us who are part of ‘model minority’ communities grapple with simultaneously feeling targeted and benefiting from certain privileges. We must have these conversations within our communities in order to understand how interconnected the issues we face and our experiences truly are. Lilla Watson, an activist and academic, once said:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

We’re long overdue.

Photo by Arash Azizzada/@87films