"Had she been able to think, Jean Louise might have prevented events to come by considering the day’s occurrences in terms of a recurring story as old as time: the chapter which concerned her became two hundred years ago and was played out in a proud society the bloodiest war and harshest peace in modern history could not destroy, returning, to be played out again on private ground in the twilight of a civilization no wards and no peace could save. Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her."
-Go Set a Watchman
(Harper, 2015, p. 122).
A message that I see lately is that it is not enough to be against racism; we need to in fact be, anti-racist. I'd expand on that to be anti-oppressive in all our actions. We need to ally and position ourselves to become active participants in the fight for racial and social justice.
Becoming anti-racist and anti-oppressive involves a journey of reflection into our own role of oppression, unlearning it, and gaining critical insight into judgments and beliefs to work towards social justice, fairness, and equity (Bishop, 2002; Baines, 2011). This quest can be hard as we face head-on the pervasive results of colonization and oppression on our neighbors, friends, and global citizens. Despite this, Anne Bishop, an activist and author dedicated to social justice, encourages us to walk towards our fear to find our power (Bishop, 2002).
Learning to recognize oppression and our own role in it gives us a unique ability to ally with the oppressed to encourage change within our social systems to become anti-oppressive in its structures and politics. This includes us leaning into the discomfort of taking action. It will cause discomfort but it will be worth it. First, we must reflect, listen, and learn.
What is an Ally?
Bishop (2002) gives a sense of what characterizes allies. She writes that they:
Have a sense of connection with people;
Understand what the community is responsible for and the social structures that are in place;
Have a strong sense of self; yet, they take the ego and pride out of their allied stance;
Understand the process of change;
Understand their own power and process of learning;
Recognize that ‘power-over’ is ineffective and detrimental;
Are open and honest about their own limitations without shame;
Understand and know about history;
Accept the struggle without approving of it;
Recognize good intentions make no difference without action against oppression;
Know their own histories;
We can own up and take responsibility by acknowledging that there is an "unstable equilibrium of struggles between those who benefit from inequity and those to strive to eradicate or reduce it" (Baines, 2011, p. 17).
My family immigrated to Canada in the late 1800s fleeing oppression in Russia, yet the system that gave them land to start their farms was part of the systematic oppression of Canadian Indigenous peoples through colonization. I can (and do) feel guilty about that. At times, it brings up defensiveness or a paralysis toward action. Now after reflection and practice, I choose to own it and work toward change. This is the birthplace of being an ally for me, putting me in a position to LISTEN.
In Bishop’s article, she leaves us with a final call to action:
“Perhaps you really do want to be an ally. I’m glad, but you have some learning to do. First, you must sort out your own business—your pain at facing yourself as a member of an oppressor group, your confusion between individual and collective responsibility, your inability to distinguish between support and patronizing and, above all, your need to set aside your ego and LISTEN.” (p. 124).
Baines, D. (2011). An overview of anti-oppressive practice. In D. Baines (Ed.) Doing anti-oppressive practice. Social justice social work. Nova Scotia: Fernwood, pp. 1-24.
Bishop. A. (2002). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression in people. 2nd ed. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing. Chapter 8.
Harper, L. (2015). Go set a watchman. New York: Harper Collins Publishers