In May of 2020 the country was rocked when the death of George Floyd streamed all over Facebook. Even though Black men have died at rates disproportionate to their White peers throughout the history of the police force, this incident was in our faces and undeniable. The response of the country, mixed in with the unrest from months of Covid shutdowns, perhaps contributed to an atmosphere which allowed for the birth of a new group of activists.
Overnight, social media posts were flooding people’s feeds. Black squares of solidarity. The hashtag #ICan’tBreathe and #blacklivesmatter were used over one million times on Instagram. It seemed as if things were finally going to change in America. Yet, as soon as these seemingly antiracist sentiments trended, they were replaced with the next new thing. Black squares were replaced with cute profile pictures and silly Tik Toks. Was the previous allyship simply performative? Had it only been a way to appear to care about real issues without doing the difficult work that leads to change?
For the month of March NAFC is focusing on allyship and what it looks like to be an anti-racist and how to best support our BIPOC community. So often we think that by avoiding racial slurs, not joining in with racist jokes and not saying, “I’m not racist but…” and then launching into something super racist, we are okay. However, it goes so much deeper than this and there is always more work to do in order to continue down the path of allyship.
At Newtown High School, Social Studies teacher Rachel Torres began a Student Advocating for Diversity and Equity (SADE) club to help support BIPOC students in the community and help promote anti-racism in the school. Recently, NAFC sent out an anonymous questionnaire to ask our young allies what they thought they were doing right in their journeys, as well as asking the BIPOC students for their perspectives. The results were eye opening.
The first questions asked were aimed at the white students involved in the group. We were curious what motivated them to join the group. Most of the responses pointed to 2020 and George Floyd as the jumping off point. One student wrote, “After the resurgence of the BLM movement in the summer of 2020, I realized I needed to take more steps to actively involve myself in combatting racism. Whether it be consuming more informative and representative media or joining groups like S.A.D.E., it was important to me that I was putting forth a conscious effort to advocate for people of color in my community.”
We also asked the question about what white students felt like they were getting right and what they needed to work on to become better allies. The consensus was unanimous; continual education and listening to their BIPOC peers was essential to becoming a better ally. A few students agreed that in the past they had relied too heavily on their Black friends to educate them on what it means to be an ally. These students have realized that by listening, reading and then speaking up when issues arise, that is what will help them grow in their ability to be better allies.
One major concern about a group like this in a High School setting, where many students are doing whatever they can to pad their college resumes, is that this is just another performative action. That after their high school years are over this will simply be another fad like the black squares on Instagram. We asked students how they are attempting to be antiracist in actions, not just through lip service. One student spoke very candidly about her failures and how she is trying to grow and learn. She wrote, “I think I need to realize that people who do not support equity and diversity are not people I want to be around. So in the case that they say something I feel insults or threatens DEI I should stand up more readily to be a more active ally.” It was clear that she is on a journey of realizing whose opinions are important and what is simply noise.
We ended the survey by asking the BIPOC members of the group their take on things. Just as we asked white students what they think they have gotten right in their journeys towards allyship, we asked BIPOC members what they have seen their white peers do well and what they would like their peers to do better. It was encouraging to read that many BIPOC students involved in SADE can see that some of their white peers are trying to become more educated. “My white friends have gotten it right by acknowledging that they are trying to learn and better themselves.”
However, we also saw that BIPOC students would like to see their peers step into action more. “They shy away when they feel they have to advocate, many believe that their voices don’t matter, that those of color’s voices need to be heard. Which is true, however hearing the voices of all people, [regardless of race] is important. It shows we are all united as one; we all believe in the same goal, the same change, and the same fight.”
One senior in particular had some very important observations to add. Jordyn Maddox, a former member of SADE, was able to speak directly to some of the ways in which her white peers needed to step into action and move past performative allyship. She states, “When I was in SADE most of the white students didn’t participate in conversations or events. It seemed like they were just there to put in on a college application and appear to be an ally…Anytime an event or idea was brought up they were always concerned with making people uncomfortable or making a scene. [They] may think they are doing a good job, but in reality I couldn’t name a single thing they’ve done.” While Jordyn acknowledges that she did not see these students as mean or bad or uncaring, it simply felt as if they had other motives aside from supporting their BIPOC peers.
While Jordyn’s view may sound critical and harsh (and if that is what resonates with you, I highly suggest re-reading our post on White Fragility), this is the reality of what she experienced. While her white peers were not mean or bad, Jordyn believes that if the stakes were high her peers who claimed allyship would not actually be in her corner.
As we continue our journeys as allies, we can take away a lot from what the younger generation is doing. Keep on reading. Keep on learning. Keep on listening. But, in all these things, we need to make sure that we are speaking up for our BIPOC friends as well. We cannot call ourselves allies if our BIPOC peers are not going to label us as such.
Let them SEE our actions.
Let them FEEL that they are supported.
Let them KNOW they are not alone in their fight for equality.