Home » Featured » Ally activism explored at WSRC

Ally activism explored at WSRC

Ally activism explored at WSRC

By Elianna Spitzer

Section: Featured, News

October 16, 2015

At Ally Activism: Process, Tensions and Possibilities, a panel at the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) on Tuesday, Oct. 13, panelists discussed the underlying issues regarding allyship and its usefulness within a social justice movement. The panel featured Brandeis students, members of the WSRC and other professors. Phoebe Schnitzer of the Brandeis WSRC acted as a moderator for the panel and defined allyship as “choosing to engage in a social cause regardless of personal identity or group membership.”

The panel members focused on different aspects of what it means to be an ally, such as identity, privilege and communication. Ari Keigan ’18, the panel’s first speaker, focused on the idea of “positionality.”

“I see positionality as an intangible space that one holds in relation to a social issue or injustice. Positionality is formed by identity markers such as race, class, gender, socioeconomic status … and one’s own lived experience.”

Keigan explained that positionality affects the way an ally innately responds to a situation within a cause. “It is imperative to understand your positionality before taking action as an ally. By thinking critically about your own identity you can hopefully get a sense of how everything you experience is a reflection of that space you occupy within [that] identity,” she said.

Allies working toward a cause may make the mistake of imposing their personal identity markers on the cause as a whole. “For me, understanding positionality means understanding that I can only speak for myself. As a self-identified female I can absolutely not speak for all women. I’ve run into problems before of trying to be inclusive of all women without taking into account the innumerable differences that exist among women.”

Keigan has gained her knowledge surrounding this idea through experience and believes it is important to learn from one’s mistakes. “I often ask myself, ‘Why are we so afraid to make mistakes in the context of social justice allyship?’ And one reason I find is that mistakes make us confront our individual privileges,” she said.

Max A. Greenberg of Boston University echoed this idea of confronting one’s own privileges through the lens of male activism in the feminist movement. “Men are working to undermine a system that fundamentally privileges them … because it privileges them. They are, to some extent, working against their interests, and that is a source of tension. They share a political stance with feminist women, but that the same time, they have a different field of power to negotiate,” he said.

Greenberg presented a dichotomy within the feminist movement. He noted that male activists possess the very privileges that they are fighting to end. “Men are frequently given more attention, more respect, unearned praise and sometimes rapid escalation to leadership status, [as well as] higher pay, within feminist anti-violence work,” he said. Though they may be subject to higher scrutiny regarding their reasons for wanting to work towards the feminist cause, the other inequalities remain.

Nicola Curtin of Clark University joined the WSRC in also addressing the problem of privileged allies. She looked at the issue in terms of “framing,” or the manner in which an ally communicates information about a cause. The information can often be framed in a manner that promotes outside help or fights against an injustice. “I became really interested in whether or not we could understand how privileged or marginalized group members might respond differently to these ‘helping’ [or] ‘injustice’ frames,” Curtin said. In her work, Curtin found that a “helping frame” appealed to the privileged audience and generated more allies for the cause. However, the same frame alienated the marginalized group members of the cause.

The event concluded with a chance for audience members to pose questions to the panel members. The consensus among the panel and audience members was that allyship and its surrounding issues must be continually studied and learned from. Curtin best explained this in a quote from author and blogger Mia McKenzie: “[Allyship] is not an identity. It is a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over and over again in the largest and smallest ways every day.”

At the next WSRC event, Kristen Waters will host a seminar titled Maria W. Stewart and Her Circle. It will explore the converging paths of black revolutionaries in the mid-1820s and their lasting effect on commerce, activism and intellectual production.

Menu Title