allyship a social responsibility

How to be a good ally

Allyship is a social responsibility that requires constant expansion of the mind, and warrants values like integrity, empathy, commitment, and courage.
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“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” – Charles Darwin.

We often witness a lot of injustice in the world. Even though every human being is entitled to fundamental rights, social hierarchies and cultural prejudices keep some people from exercising these rights. Sections of society—often minorities—spend their whole lives struggling for bare necessities, while some others might be lucky enough to live with relative ease and comfort.

Let’s face it. Life can be unfair, and sometimes downright brutal. People of the lower strata of society struggle to get quality education and employment. Women, even in this day and age, fear abuse at the workplace, on the streets, and even at home. Individuals who don’t conform to socio-cultural gender norms face hostility, even as they strive for acceptance in society.

So, what can we do to address this problem? To begin with, we can acknowledge the injustice of it all and work towards changing it. We can empathise with those who are enduring such unfair treatment and help them lead dignified lives. We can become their allies, offer support and solidarity in the fight to create a fairer world.

So, who is an ally? A man who actively challenges sexism at his home and workplace, and also within his friends’ circle, is an ally. A straight person who participates in pride marches organised by the LGBTQ community and publicly vouches for their rights is an ally. An ‘upper caste’ individual who fights for ‘lower caste’ candidates’ right to education and jobs is an ally. A business owner who hires indigenous artisans for a fair salary and benefits is an ally. A city-based activist fighting for farmers’ rights is an ally.

Allies are those who recognise the privileges they themselves enjoy. They proactively work towards dismantling oppressive social norms and prejudices that harm certain communities of the society.

So, who is an ally? A man who actively challenges sexism at his home and workplace, and also within his friend circle, is an ally. A straight person who participates in pride marches organised by the LGBTQ community and publicly vouches for their rights is an ally. An ‘upper caste’ individual who fights for ‘lower caste’ candidates’ right to education and jobs is an ally. A business owner who hires indigenous artisans for a fair salary and benefits is an ally. A city-based activist fighting for farmers’ rights is an ally.

Allies are those who recognise the privileges they themselves enjoy. They proactively work towards dismantling oppressive social norms and prejudices that harm certain communities of the society. In the article titled Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression: The Role of Allies as Agents of Change, University of Massachusetts lecturer and social activist Dr. Andrea Ayvazian writes: “Allied behavior is intentional, overt, a consistent activity that challenges prevailing patterns of oppression, makes privileges that are so often invisible visible, and facilitates the empowerment of persons targeted by oppression.”

Evidently, being an ally involves a lot of responsibilities. To truly contribute to social justice movements, we need to put in quite a bit of work. We can begin by listening and not interrupting, says Anita Shyam, a US-based blogger and feminist. “Often, those in marginalised groups will have different experiences, and many of those experiences may seem implausible to those outside these groups. Do not invalidate those feelings or experiences because they sound different from your version of reality,” she advises.

Anita has a point. For example, when certain sections of the society speak up about the discrimination they face, some others might dismiss it. Active listening, at such times, can help empathise and gain new perspectives. It can also help acknowledge privilege. It is human nature to take the resources, freedom, and opportunities that one enjoys for granted. It’s easy to forget that not every member of the society enjoys the same luxuries. Hence, at times, an honest evaluation of one’s life and position in society is necessary. Some of us may realise that we have it easier than many others. This realisation helps us shed our sense of ego and entitlement. It compels us to work towards making these privileges accessible to everyone.

Once we begin to understand the plight of those who constantly suffer injustice, we can start creating safe spaces for individuals to share their experiences and grievances.

The next step of being a good ally is to capitalise on the social privilege that one enjoys and jump into action. Says Dolly Koshy, a queer woman, and activist, “When you’re witness to an act of injustice, speak up. Maintaining neutrality only means you are taking the side of the oppressor. Take a stand. But do not appropriate our spaces. Know when to stand down and let us do the talking.”

What Dolly speaks of may sound like a hard balance to maintain. Perhaps, the key is to work for a cause while knowing that it is not about you. The voice of an ally is supposed to add to the voices of the oppressed, but not overpower them. Graphic artist Niranjan Raghu, who calls himself a feminist ally, gives an analogy to explain the concept. “Being a good ally is like being a soccer mom or dad. You help around quite a lot, but you aren’t a player,” he observes.

One of the most important responsibilities as an ally is to proactively educate oneself. There are several ways of doing this: one can read extensively, interact with activists and common people who speak out about injustice, and be part of activities and events that create awareness. Anita explains, “Whatever be the cause you support, do your homework. Also, remember that all the research will not turn you into an expert overnight.”

Once we begin to understand the plight of those who constantly suffer injustice, we can start creating safe spaces for individuals to share their experiences and grievances. Says financial analyst Andy, who identifies as a trans person, “Being a good ally involves more than just basic human decency. It involves going out of your way to make sure that members of oppressed communities feel safe expressing themselves.”

Indeed, allyship is a social responsibility that requires constant expansion of the mind. It warrants values like integrity, empathy, commitment, and courage. As Anita points out, change comes, but gradually and with effort. By constantly educating oneself, taking a stand against the many forms of injustice, and working proactively to dismantle the power structures that cause them, one can gradually make a difference.

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