Thank you Gwen Jones, our talented member of the ‘Educating Matters’ team for her passionate article on a vital topic.
As an American expat living in the UK, I am looking at my country right now and feeling a myriad of emotions. I am angry that a man’s life was taken so callously. I feel fear for my family and friends living in the larger cities in the USA. I feel frustrated with those privileged people that are blindsided by the response from people who are fed up with trying to protest peacefully only to be ignored. I feel sympathy for a younger generation of adults who believe you have to break the system in order to fix it. I feel a visceral disappointment and betrayal by the lack of good leadership from the White House. Most importantly, I feel a responsibility to educate my children.
As a cis-gendered white woman, I acknowledge my privilege. I know the power of my tears. When I am emotive, it is respected, endearing and often a tool to get what I want or get my point across. I have the privilege to emote. Growing up in Mississippi as the daughter of a civil right’s activist gave me the most unique perspective. I saw how much harder it was for my black friends to get credit, how much harder they had to work to be seen as competitive. My father was always sure we were aware of our privilege so that we could use it to do our best to balance the scales rather than stack them against others. I have the privilege of being raised by educated and socially aware parents. From an early age, I knew that my privilege allowed me to have a voice to speak up against injustice. I understood diversity was something to be acknowledged and celebrated. I learned that it was a responsibility, it was a value to be an ally to ally.
As I sit with my children watching the news and answering questions, I realise that passing this value on to the next generation cannot be passive. It is mindful and active. It involves checking their own privilege so that they can try to understand what it is to walk around in someone else’s skin, even though they will never truly be able to understand. It involves teaching them that their story line is valuable, but it is also unique to them and their experience. I realise that there are rules to living a life as an ally with integrity, do what you know is right regardless of popular opinion or social pressure. So, here is the beginning of a list that has permission to grow and develop.
An Ally Is Consistent
Keyboard warriors are great for soundbites. You choose your words carefully so that you can put your best face forward. For me, writing is the face I wear with my hair done and my make-up on. The face that really matters is what happens when I close the laptop. What happens when I am in a room and someone makes an ignorant comment? What jokes am I willing to laugh at despite being made to feel uncomfortable? What does my face look like when the makeup comes off and my words and choices flow freely without a filter?
Children need to learn to be firm in their convictions, even in the face of poor leadership. If an adult, older child or influential group member is doing or saying something that feels discriminatory, a child needs to know that they do not have to cosign this. Parents must teach children to respectfully, appropriately and confidently challenge people in charge who are either blindly or blatantly using discriminatory words and practices.
An Ally Acknowledges Their Privilege
I have never been followed at a grocery store. I have never been afraid of a police officer. I am able and willing to ask for help from strangers. If I see a lost child, I am comfortable walking up to him to help him find his mother. I feel safe and comfortable when I need to challenge authority. I have a long history that I am able to trace within my ancestry, none of which involves being a slave. I can hold my partner’s hand in public without fear of attack. I can stand as an ally to those oppressed without having experienced that same oppression. All of this is a manifestation of my privilege.
Many people of privilege are challenged when their privilege is pointed out. They feel that they are being asked to feel guilty or that the work that they put in is somehow invalidated. “I work hard for what I have!” is a common response. Noone is challenging the work ethic of privileged people. However, privileged people need to ask themselves why they were able to be in a position to work that hard. People have been passed over for jobs because they “just weren’t the right fit”. Was this code for the unconscious bias of not being white enough or male enough or wealthy enough? This is not true of every time. It may be true at any time.
Privilege can be used or abused. My privilege as a heterosexual woman has allowed me the opportunity to stand up for LGBTQA+ rights in a way that does not threaten my employment, my place in my family or my physical safety. I can use my privilege as someone who is not dismissed or hated to stand up for those that are. I can also abuse my privilege by stepping on other people to find my way up. I can dismiss another’s experience because it makes me feel bad. I can expect the rules to not apply to me in the same way. Children need to be taught that their privilege exists. They also need to be taught that with that privilege comes the responsibility of checking it and correcting the harm it may have directly or indirectly caused others.
An Ally Learns to Be Comfortable in Discomfort
As a white woman, I have, to no one’s surprise, often found myself in a room without any racial diversity. It is in this space, amongst friends, family and colleagues, this is the space where an ally is challenged. Are you willing to tell your aunt or mother in law that she is being offensive? Are you willing to tell your friends that you don’t want to hear those jokes or those descriptive slang terms? When people get called out, there is a feeling of discomfort that is palpable. As an ally, a child needs to learn to sit in this discomfort and stand their ground. They need to learn that the discomfort comes from the process of having unconscious bias challenged and not from standing up for what is right.
I’ll never forget the first time I was able to bear witness to my child challenging authority. He was doing home education in a live streamed setting and the PSHE subject was Autism. He is an Autistic person and has learned to advocate for his place as a neuro-divergent individual. The teacher was talking about the list of Autistic traits and then made the comment, “It sounds like we are all a little autistic!” It was a throw away comment made to make autism feel more relatable to neuro-typical children. Drake raised his hand and said, “Miss, I know that you didn’t intend to offend, but you did. You are making Autism sound like a character flaw. My divergence is not a flaw. It is how I am made and see the world. It is not a weakness. It is not an over sensitivity. It is a way of being.” I was so proud on so many levels. He did not shout, hate or call names. He did not accuse her of intended harm. He simply checked her bias. There was an audible and very present pause. It felt uncomfortable. Then, the teacher apologised and thanked him for his feedback. Now, will it always look like a learning moment? No. However, it will always be a learning moment.
An Ally Checks Their Bias…Constantly
Understanding bias requires a growth mindset. As such, my learning and checking have become a mindful, intentional process. There was a time in the 80’s when the word “retard” was thrown around as a common insult amongst children. Then, a time came when society realised that this was insensitive and offensive. We had 2 choices: become defensive whilst standing our ground and defiantly continue using the word or apologise and change. Most chose the latter. This was not the first nor the last time society evolved in favour of inclusion and holding itself to a higher standard. Think of other terms and phrases that are starting to become unacceptable: calling a sexually active woman a slut, using gay as a derogatory adjective, the n word, the f word, many other racially or sexually charged slang terms.
There are television shows and music and movies from my past that look different with the eyes of a person from 2020. Why is this? Because we are becoming aware of our unconscious bias. Children need to learn that it is a part of life to have an unconscious bias. Are we bad people for consuming this media in our pasts? No. The trick is to acknowledge it when it becomes conscious. To be able to review our choices and preferences without judgement or guilt, to understand why we think what we think, to know why we make friends with some and not others, to see if we are putting value on anything other than the content of a person’s character. Then, a true ally takes the most important step to make a change.
An Ally Accepts Responsibility For Their Education
This is a hard one for many to understand and a hard one for me to explain. I’ve seen and heard people of privilege in many circumstances ask people of diverse backgrounds (race, gender, nationality, neuro, sexual, religious etc) to explain their perspective. There is a fine line between having a discussion and asking a person to act as an educator and ambassador for an entire group of people. It is an abuse of privilege to assume that every black person who is angry about what is going on has some sort of responsibility to the people who are benefitting from their oppression to educate them.
An ally is a consumer of information and perspective. In order to stand with and speak to the needs of someone, you need to understand what feeds the issues. Why is the American CIvil War, a war that happened 150 years ago still an influence on politics today? How does the 400 year history of slavery and oppression feed the narative of today. Why is The Stonewall Inn a significant place? Why do people appear to be angry with me when I haven’t done anything? What does my culture represent to someone else?
Children can be taught from an early age to try to appreciate the diversity of our world. Books, food and celebrations are a great place to start. An ally knows that it is also important to look at the ugly bits. To acknowledge history’s influence on today is what gives power to make the history of tomorrow different.
An Ally Sees Colour and Difference
To say, “I don’t see colour. We are all the same.” whilst often well intended, is at best naive and condescending. Colour signifies so much. My colour is my history, my family, my culture, my experience. Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu said on Good Morning Britain, “If you don’t see colour, you don’t see me.”. You do not know exactly what it means to that particular person, but you have an understanding of the way society has treated them. As a white woman, I do not fear police. I do not feel my children should fear police. I have the privilege of telling my son that if he is in danger, he can run to any police officer for help. If I had a black son, there would be a different narrative.
The key that an ally understands is that seeing colour, noticing and naming difference does not come with a qualification. It just is. It is neither to be weaponized or fetishised. It is simply a piece of information, a descriptor or an existence. Children get this a lot easier than many adults. People are people. Their history, family, culture are simply part of what feeds their experience of life. Children can take this further when they begin to understand that their history defines their level of privilege in this world.
An Ally Does Not Seek Credit or Validation
An ally does not need those they are standing up for to give them credit for being a good person. You stand up for equality because it is the right thing to do. This is a faux pas I see many people make. “I’m not one of those people. Look what I have done to help you.” Noone needs your CV unless you are applying for a job. An ally does not act as an ally so that others can know they are a good person. Other people may or may not notice what you have done or are doing. Whilst it may feel nice to be acknowledged, this is in no way a driving force in standing up for equality for all humans.
Our children need to understand that they do not have to prove to anyone that they are being good people. Likewise, the people that they are standing beside and standing up for owe them nothing. Being an ally is a life choice, a state of being. It is a personal value. The only credit or validation the need to seek for it is internal in knowing they are being true to themselves and their beliefs.
An Ally Knows When the Real Change Happens
Right now, diversity is all over the news. It’s the hot button, in your face topic of the moment due to riots and protests. A giant spotlight is being shined on a gaping wound in society. This is true even outside of the current political climate. Think of how many rainbow posts you see in Pride month. Think of how the troops are valued on VE day. Think of all the puzzle pieces you see during Autism Awareness month. These are wonderful expressions of solidarity during the time the light is bright on a subject.
Children need to learn that real change happens when it’s not in your face, when the light is shining somewhere else, when nobody is really noticing. Change in society happens when the majority of people within it collectively decide to make a change. Do racism and sexism and every other ism still exist? Absolutely. The change did not happen when a law was signed or a speech was made. An ally knows that this is simply the beginning of a constant and consistent process. The change happens in the words we use every day, in the conversations we have at the dinner table, in the car or at the pub. It happens when we stand our ground and don’t let the little things slide. The change does not happen in the moment. Change happens in the ripples that come from the moment. Change happens when we do what is right even when we think no one’s looking. An ally knows that the most important part of all is that change happens.