My Journey To Becoming A Better Ally
A few years ago, I took a Buzzfeed quiz on privilege. I don’t recall the exact questions, but I remember pouring my heart out to an imaginary person behind a screen about my struggles with mental health. Coupled with family members with health and disability issues, the quiz triggered some painful memories – which was perhaps not the best way I could have spent my day.
I opened myself up, revealing intimate and personal things, only to be told I’m privileged. What a ridiculous thing to say! Had it not counted all of the awful statements that applied to me? Yes, I am a young, middle class, white, cisgender woman in a heterosexual relationship but I answered yes to having mental health struggles, yes to facing sexism and yes to having my accent made fun of. Deciding this was a just a stupid Buzzfeed quiz, I chose to ignore the results and continue my life as normal.
Growing up, I thought I was not racist. I never treated people badly because of their skin colour, and was never around people who did so, I was taught to be kind to everyone. I had friends who were People of Colour (POC) and treated them with a colour-blind mentality, as if we were all the same. I was shocked and appalled at acts of blatant racism, but to me, they were sparse and I had never really been aware of them.
Today I question whether passively not being racist and seeing everyone through a colour-blind filter was enough. I am lucky enough to have attended University and studied a history programme with a large focus on intersectionality, shifting from the white Western perspective of history. My studies have contributed to me re-evaluating my perspective of the world, from questioning the narratives taught to me in history class, to reading books such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge and actually understanding what white privilege was for the first time.
Even as I came to the end of my degree, the racial inequalities brought to the surface by the pandemic and the protests, sparked by the heinous deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, made me further examine my privilege and what I was actually doing to help.
Something in particular I think about a lot is my relationship with my friends. One of my close friends from Secondary school is a South Asian Muslim woman whom I have always got on well with due to our similar interests. My colour-blind attitude extended to our friendship. Obviously, I was aware that we were of different ethnicities and religions but I don’t recall actually engaging with this fact that much. She fasts during Ramadan and celebrates Eid instead of Christmas but we never discussed those differences. We had more similarities than differences which was why we have always been friends.
Now that we are older, we have many more frank discussions about politics, racism and health which I do not recall us ever talking about at school. We have been more honest with each other and have come to see some of the hardships each other faced. Whilst mental health issues and sexism at school was always blatantly obvious to me, cultural differences and the fact she was an ethnic minority at school was much more obvious to her. When we recently discussed this topic, she revealed how discussing her cultural heritage made her feel more different to everyone else at our predominantly white school.
These conversations have led me to take another look at some of our interactions. I used to love going to her house, especially to have some of her Mum’s cooking. Hosting is really important in South Asian culture and I used to find it hilarious it didn’t always come naturally to her. I now know how self-conscious she was by my jokes when she was trying really hard to make me feel welcome, and I’m embarrassed my ignorance caused her upset. Things like this may seem trivial to some, but I was making our differences glaringly obvious and then making fun of it.
I believe white British people, and maybe white Americans, need to be more mindful of how our culture has been fed as the so called ‘norm’. Many POC may try and adapt to our ‘norms’ by working harder to avoid discussing and acting on their cultural heritage, so we should think about how we can be more supportive. Hopefully karma came back around when I invited her to my new home for the first time and realised how hard hosting really was!
So how can I be better? I’m not very active on social media but I do use it to source information. I try to follow different types of accounts and listen to what they say so I can gain a better understanding of different people and cultures. I watch video essays on YouTube and listen to podcasts such as iWeigh which has introduced me to lots of new activists and shown a side of different celebrities I would not normally see. I have already learnt so much about people with different experiences than mine and even about people who have similar experiences but with a different perspective to me.
If you follow lots of different voices on social media, you will become more aware of different issues that affect marginalised people. Instead of rushing to speak on an issue or just staying silent, listen to them and let them guide you on what is or is not racist. Remember these communities are not a monolith. Not everyone thinks the same and by taking the time to listen, you can be sensitive to different issues and opinions within a community and act accordingly.
Luckily, I’m in a position to donate to charities, which is a great way of directly helping organisations fighting racism and supporting people of colour. Yet, I know not everyone can do this. What I try to do (and what I think everyone can try to do) is to consider their interactions with real people. Be mindful of different experiences and how it impacts the space you’re in. Not everyone has to be an activist, you can make a difference day to day.
If you’re white and friends with POC, be aware of the privilege you have and mindful of the barriers your friends face. Take time to learn about different cultures so you’re prepared to be sensitive and less ignorant. It shouldn’t always fall on POC to educate others, and it can be intimidating to point out something that makes you feel uncomfortable. I think white people should create a safe space for their POC friends to speak up when they feel uncomfortable about comments regarding culture or race. Then make sure you listen to what they say and take on board that advice to be better next time! Effective communication is a really important tool to fight microaggressions and casual racism.
So, the Buzzfeed quiz was right, as a young, middle class, white, cisgender women in a heterosexual relationship I have a lot of privilege. I now recognise this, and I strive to be a better ally to those without the same privilege as me. This does not mean I’ve had an easy life or I will not face hardships in the future. The fact I am a woman may be a barrier in some instances, but there are many more barriers others face and it’s necessary to recognise this uncomfortable truth. From now on, I will embrace and attempt to understand the people around me, how I can support them and become the ally they need and deserve during these tumultuous times.