While visiting my family over winter break, two of my younger siblings brought out some old things of mine they found while cleaning out a closet. As I looked through one of my middle school yearbooks, I was struck by the frequency with which my friends jokingly addressed me as a “dirty Mexican” in their end-of-year messages. My friends likely had no idea how much mental and emotional energy I had spent throughout my childhood feeling embarrassed of and trying to minimize my Latino identity. Admittedly, I always felt too uncomfortable to do anything other than laugh along with the jokes and say that they were no big deal, that they didn’t bother me. I don’t claim victimhood; I have to recognize the immense amount of privilege that I grew up with and still carry with me. But millions of people experience far worse instances of subtle or not-so-subtle oppression every single day. Regardless of our identity or background, we can all become better allies towards groups who are marginalized or oppressed.
Marginalized groups face several levels of oppression. According to the Icarus Project, oppression is “the systemic and institutional abuse of power by one group at the expense of others [that] is built around the ideology of superiority of some groups and inferiority of others” . While the “old-fashioned racism or sexism” that considers certain groups of people to be inherently inferior is certainly less prevalent than it used to be , it has in many cases been replaced by two subtler but potentially even more harmful forms of oppression.
The first of these is institutional oppression in which official policies or customs disadvantage certain social groups, either intentionally or unintentionally . These practices are often explained in “colorblind” terms, cloaking their discriminatory nature , but their consequences include the bafflingly low numbers of women CEOs  and the poor accessibility of “good debt” for black people .
Microaggressions are the second of the two reincarnations of oppression. According to the American Psychological Association, microaggressions are the commonplace speech or acts that communicate slights and insults in a way “so subtle that neither victim nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is going on” . Telling racist jokes like the ones I read in my middle school yearbook, saying phrases like “That’s so gay!”, or men speaking over women are all examples of microaggressions . Microaggressions do more than just hurt people’s feelings; a growing body of research finds that they have serious physical effects, contributing to higher rates of depression and mortality . Additionally, unaddressed microaggressions can reinforce unconscious biases and perpetuate oppressive power structures . Together, institutional oppression and personal microaggressions compound to preserve the structural oppression that often seems to pervade every aspect of marginalized people’s lives.
Many of us have never had to deal with some of these compounding layers of oppression. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can or should do about it. Watching on the sidelines is complicity in oppression. By contrast, allyship is amplifying the voices of and acting in solidarity with marginalized groups; this means standing up against all forms of oppression mentioned above, even if it comes at significant personal cost. Michelle Kim, an activist and the CEO of Awaken, writes that we can all use our “unique set of privileges [to leverage] special access and immunity that others may not have” . For example, Kim notes that when advocating for equity, women and people of color often face repercussions that people in more privileged positions do not face. By acting as allies and taking the responsibility of challenging the status quo, we can work together to achieve equity and inclusion.
Many resources exist to help people who are trying to be better allies. I’ve compiled below some of the most commonly recommended strategies for allyship. Educating ourselves and seeking to understand should always be our first step, so the list begins with ways we can become educated and ends with active strategies to use in our day-to-day lives. Links to several helpful resources that I have referenced can be found at the online version of this article for further detail. In order to be better allies, we should:
- Take an Implicit Association Test from Harvard’s “Project Implicit” . Becoming aware of our own implicit biases is the first step to becoming an ally .
- Take the time to learn about the historical roots and effects of oppression . We shouldn’t expect oppressed groups to teach us; there are many resources to assist anyone sincerely looking to learn. One good place to start is checkyourblindspot.org. This project is a window into the experiences unique to black students here at BYU .
- Take special note of our privileges as we learn . When conversations about oppression arise, set the stage by vocalizing that privilege. Openly acknowledging privilege prepares us to actively listen and learn about others’ experiences.
- Be willing to listen and open to feedback and criticism about our efforts . We will not be perfect, but what’s important is to be humble and willing to get back up and try again.
- Seek out a diverse and inclusive network with which we can act in solidarity. “Without a diverse community to engage with and without other activists to hold you accountable, your understanding of ‘solidarity’ can very quickly become paternalism” .
- Speak up when we witness a microaggression or any other form of oppression . We should remember, however, to speak only for ourselves, and not for others. For example, instead of saying, “You hurt their feelings,” we can say, “Here’s why I’m offended.” We should also not assume that every member of a marginalized group feels oppressed .
- Not try to be in the spotlight . We should seek out and promote content on social media and in our personal networks from marginalized voices. Allyship shouldn’t be about advancing our own image, but rather elevating and enhancing the voices of the oppressed.
- Not shy away from talking about identity and oppression. “Colorblindness” is usually not helpful . Instead, we should actively acknowledge the impacts of identity in our daily interactions, both in person and on social media.
These and other simple, everyday actions will take us on a journey of learning about oppression, understanding our contributions to it, and making a change to join the fight against it. We all have a special responsibility to be allies to those who do not share the privileges we do. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
Latest posts by Helaman Sanchez (see all)
- Allyship: How We Can All Take a Stand Against Oppression - April 6, 2020
- Why Expecting Professionalism in the Workplace Might Be Linguistic Discrimination - March 12, 2020
- How Should We Deal With Kobe’s Complicated Legacy? - March 6, 2020
- Understanding the Healthcare Debate - February 4, 2020