Allyship, perfectionism, and humility

Recent social justice advocacy at Mount Allison has focused heavily on “allyship” in activism. In the Argosy last month, Tina Oh delivered an astute critique of the Mt. A Feminist Leadership Conference’s approach to this topic. She examined the role of allyship in challenging oppressive norms and argued that discussions of allyship are missing the mark by neglecting minority representation.

My interest was piqued further when a friend of mine attacked the article on social media for its “racism against white people,” an objection levied most often due to unfamiliarity with sociological jargon. Like my friend, my upbringing was very sheltered, and I have known the helpless feeling of speaking the same words as someone else in a completely different language. After a couple hours of conversation, we agreed firmly on most of the questions that had been raised. The backlash he received condemning his post was not oppression, but his experience ironically illustrates the point he had initially failed to see in Oh’s article: if we react superficially to others’ expressions of their experience instead of seeking to legitimately understand their perspective, we will separate ourselves from all perspectives but those most similar to our own.

This anecdote would most often be used as a moralizing piece about “free speech” and “echo chambers,” but the more interesting observation is the pragmatic failure of so many presumably well-meaning people to address the issue at the root of the conversation raised by Oh’s critique. Responding with criticism alone must be acceptable, but not preferable. To create meaningful change is to embrace a deep humility: to accept things as they are, not as we would like them to be, and to seek others whose experiences provide new insights.

On this campus, anti-perfectionism posters were hanging for months in study areas just a few metres from the massive banners emblazoned with our title of “No. 1 Undergraduate University in Canada.” The exceptionalism is insidious. We spend years learning to approach complex and myriad problems within an environment that qualifies progress with a single score, determined more often by what we fail to replicate than what we ourselves produce.

I have fallen into this trap repeatedly, even when critiquing others for doing much the same. I criticized Divest MTA, even though I agreed with its goals and made no constructive contribution. I’ve joked about the Argosy, but this piece is my first submission. This tendency is true of all of us, activists and critics alike.

If to be an ally is to be engaged in a process of finding better ways to challenge oppression, then the process of becoming a good ally should involve constant re-examination of that process itself. That’s not going to be easy, but it will certainly be rewarding.

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