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Recent acts of police brutality leading to the murders of Black men and women across the country have raised the collective social consciousness about race in America on a global scale. For the first time in a long time, people seem to be genuinely concerned about how to eradicate racism and anti-blackness. Moreover, heightened levels of unrest and the desire to do the right something is not only coming from the Black community but also from the broader society. We recognize that the desire to do the right something is met with the need for deeper awareness, knowledge, and skills to help us face the truth about racism in our society.
We write this article as an African American woman and a white, queer-identified woman who are both searching for answers to the question, “What will you do to create an anti-racist society?” In our conversations, we have talked about identity and what it looks like for white people who hold both privileged and marginalized identities to answer this question. Also, we’ve faced the reality that much of the work to eradicate racism must be done by white people who continue to benefit from unearned privilege and influence in society. The misinformation, attitudes and assumptions that white people possess concerning Black and marginalized people come out in microaggressive and discriminatory behaviors that are dehumanizing — some of these negative behaviors are subtle/covert, while others are overt and blatant. White people must recognize when this happens, take responsibility for their actions, and commit to change. All people, but especially white people, must step up and disrupt subtle, blatant and structural racism when it happens. That takes a lot of courage, vulnerability, and the willingness to be seen and to be uncomfortable.
The strategies we share in this article come from a study designed to better understand how college students developed a commitment to fight discrimination and oppression within their own marginalized groups, and alongside other marginalized groups for which they don’t hold identity membership. By focusing on the intertwined processes of both advocacy and allyship, a substantive theory emerged that explains how individuals who hold marginalized identities advocate for themselves and practice allyship and activism for others who hold marginalized identities outside of their own. Many activists find themselves in the position of figuring out how to navigate their intersecting identities while also trying to do the right something within a socio-political movement that centers one aspect of identity — in this case Black Lives — and rightly so. Below we share key findings from a study on the experiences of college students engaged in advocacy and allyship work that can be helpful to all of us who are trying to figure out and navigate doing the right something.
Doing the right something
Anyone genuinely interested in advocacy and allyship work must understand that it is a continual, evolving, and messy process. Individuals who demonstrate a commitment toward advocacy for their own communities and allyship for other communities face unique challenges because they must grapple with power that marginalizes them in some ways and yet privileges them in other ways. Students in the study who participated in both advocacy and allyship found themselves simultaneously fighting for more power in society while also using the power afforded to them by their privileged status to change systems of oppression affecting other marginalized groups. In doing so, we share six interconnected phases that describe and have implications for what people can expect when engaging in advocacy and allyship work.
- Becoming Aware. As students engaged in activism work they simultaneously began to notice oppression and become conscious about injustices in society.
- Educating Self. In many ways, becoming more aware led to the process of self-educating and re-educating oneself though intentionally seeking out resources and opportunities to learn about how to effectively eradicate systemic oppression.
- Exploring Beliefs About Advocacy and Allyship. Engaging in activist work afforded students the opportunity to examine and develop their own beliefs and ideas for how to fight oppression. This included finding their voice, creating a vision for change, and developing the capacity to relate to marginalized identities for which they do not share identity membership.
- Navigating Different Viewpoints. Engagement in activist work revealed for students what happens and how people choose to act (or not act) when they encounter beliefs and perspectives about oppression that conflict with their own.
- Feeling Connected. Identifying activist role models, experiencing trust, and developing friendships ultimately worked together to deepen relationships with peers, friends, family, and mentors. Engagement in advocacy and allyship work helped students feel connected and grapple with the dissonance from their past experiences and current realities.
- Experiencing Affirmation. Through sustained engagement in fighting oppression, activists and allies felt a sense that their choices were having an impact and were morally just, which encouraged and empowered them to keep working towards doing the right something.
In cycling through the phases of advocacy and allyship, people can expect to return to, wrestle with, and reflect on how to act in ways perceived to be both morally right and as the effectively right way to fight oppression. There is an atmospheric reality to advocacy and allyship in which both the sociopolitical climate and individual identity are always present but are also constantly changing. Regardless, three consistent concepts emerged from participants' journeys — action, compassion, and congruency — that act as a compass to help activists navigate their return to the notion of doing the right something.
Action is central to the experience of advocacy and allyship. In order to advocate effectively and be a true ally, simply having an interest in social justice issues falls short of actually doing something to affect change. Every participant in our study used the language of doing something to describe their advocacy and allyship.
For example, one participant explained that in her opinion, “Anybody who is showing interest through doing something is better than the people that aren't [...]. I actually want to do something to make a change.”
Being a compassionate, good person is also inextricably connected to doing the right something. Without compassion, it is difficult for people to connect socially to one another in meaningful ways.
Also, lack of compassion makes it easier to dehumanize people who are different from ourselves because we have not taken time or interest in another person’s experience. Lack of compassion makes it easier to do nothing when we know in our hearts that something needs to be done.
For example, one participant stated, “If there's action that can be taken, I'm doing a moral wrong if I don't. It's like if you become aware of something and you don't do something about it. Then you're doing a moral wrong.”
The last property of doing the right something is congruency, which we define as matching one’s skill set and personality traits to their actions.
For example, one participant explained, “I’ve learned through my own experiences — for me at least — being a social media activist doesn't work for me because I'm not gonna be constructive ... I just think that there's things that are gonna work for me and things that are gonna work for other people by matching one’s skills and personality traits to actions.”
Kamala Harris, democratic vice-president candidate, made a profound statement in her historic speech at the 2020 National Democratic Convention that applies here. In years from now when this particular moment of racial injustice and turmoil in our nation has passed, our children and grandchildren will ask us, where were you in those times of racial injustice? What was it like? My hope is that we will be able to tell them not only what it was like but what we did -- that we had the courage to do the right something.
Gray, A. M. (2018). Doing the Right Something: A Grounded Theory Approach to Understanding Advocacy and Allyship among College Students (Order No. 11007102). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ North Carolina State University @ Raleigh; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2133044607). https://proxying.lib.ncsu.edu/index.php/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/docview/2133044607?accountid=12725
Joy Gaston Gayles, Ph.D. is a professor of higher education and senior advisor for the advancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the college of education at North Carolina State University
Ashley M. Gray, Ph.D. is associate director for assessment and strategic initiatives for Carolina Housing at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill