Authentic Allyship Can Achieve What Rachel Dolezal Cannot

Rachel DolezalNews about Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who says she identified as black from a young age and has portrayed herself publicly as a black woman for years, has flooded social media. Dolezal enjoyed a leadership position with the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP prior to her recent resignation, as well as other honors during the period she presented as black. Since her parents outed Dolezal as having a white identity, Dolezal has been criticized for being deceptive, making a mockery of the African-American female identity, and using race for professional gain. There has also been support for Dolezal, as some have noted her achievements and advocacy work within the African-American community.

The Dolezal situation, covered in greater detail in the video below, raises many questions regarding race, ethnicity, and identity, including this important question: Could Dolezal have accomplished what she did had she openly identified as white? Arguably, Dolezal could have effectively advocated for the African-American community as a white ally rather than taking on a black identity.

There are various definitions as to what constitutes an ally; however, some commonalities in definitions include someone who is social justice-oriented and believes in civil rights, has self-awareness, is able to use his or her position to advocate and support others, and recognizes the needs and strengths of the community for which he or she is an ally. People can be an ally within and outside their communities. For example, African-Americans can be allies for other African-Americans while also being allies for Asian Americans or sexual orientation minorities.

Furthermore, all groups benefit from having allies. The civil rights movement would have been hampered without the support of white allies, women’s suffrage was aided by the support of male allies, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was well-supported by able-bodied allies. In considering both major social advancements and daily occurrences of advocacy, rarely, if ever, are there accounts of the necessity of someone having to morph into the identity of the community for which they are an ally.

Allies are important, needed, and essential in bringing change and correcting social injustice. Consider the following for advancing your ability to be an authentic ally for others:

1. Exercise Cultural Self-Awareness

Before we consider effectively helping others, particularly those who experience some sort of social oppression, we must first recognize who we are as cultural beings. We do not have to deny our identity and run from parts of our identity that have been historically hurtful to others. We can own who we are and take into consideration how our different identity statuses can positively and negatively impact those we come in contact with. It is affirming to marginalized groups when allies feel secure within their identities and can make genuine connections without having to over-identify.

2. Work within Your Sphere of Influence

Organized advocacy and policy work are necessities for making societal change. However, allies should not be dissuaded if they never imagine themselves lobbying before the Senate. Everyday allies are important. Everyday allies work within their spheres of influence to create change and educate others within their families, work environments, friendships, and social groups. Education and information are helpful when encouraging others to be culturally sensitive. But education and information are not always enough. Sometimes, the quality of a relationship is what is important in making a change. A difficult message may be better received from a partner or friend versus a pamphlet or blog post.

A white person cannot own the racial reality of African-Americans or other ethnic minority groups. Fortunately, this is not the goal or a stipulation of being an ally.

3. Respect the Cultural and Racial Realities of Others

As an ally, we may never fully get the experience of the group we are aligning with. For example, a heterosexual person can never truly know what it is like to live in the shoes of a gay or lesbian person. A man cannot fully comprehend the everyday experiences of being a woman. A white person cannot own the racial reality of African-Americans or other ethnic minority groups. Fortunately, this is not the goal or a stipulation of being an ally. We do not have to live the reality of others to respect and accept that their realities exist. Despite never spending one day as a woman, a man can recognize a culture of sexualizing women and stand up against sexual assault. Without having to braid her hair or darken her skin, a white mother can be aware of a social system that criminalizes and dehumanizes black boys and men and join black women in fighting disparities in the criminal justice system. The first step is accepting that a racial or cultural reality exists—even if it is not our own reality.

4. Advocate within Your Own Culture

At times, we can hear and understand a perspective when it is presented by someone who appears similar to us. When it comes to diversity work, white, heterosexual, cisgender men can have a hard time finding their fit considering all their privileged identities. The idea that white men have no place in diversity work is far from accurate. White male allies hold a unique position that allows them to confront and challenge biases and discriminatory beliefs held by other white men, as a shared cultural background may provide a venue for white men to hear cultural messages in a manner that may be missed if expressed by someone with a different identity. For example, people tend to feel more comfortable sharing with others that they feel similar to. Biased views a white man may hold may never be expressed around a woman or ethnic minority; thus, those views are never challenged. Biased views may be expressed to another white man due to assumed commonality, which then allows a white ally to confront biases that would otherwise be hidden.

5. Allies Need Allies

Being an ally can be hard work. We can feel disappointed in the snail-like pace of change, emotionally drained by the frequency in which we engage in difficult dialogues, and hold anger toward systems of oppression. Because of this, allies need other allies to support and encourage their work, while also providing space to express the frustrations associated with being an ally. Being able to develop relationships of trust and support requires authenticity in allyship.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kimber Shelton, PhD, Multicultural Concerns Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lizayda

    June 18th, 2015 at 4:03 PM

    If she thought that she could get more done to further the African American cause by posing as a black woman isn’t there a part of you that sort of thinks that this is admirable? I can see where people are upset because of the deception, but you have to admit that at the same time she has one much good for that community and I don’t think that this should be discounted or dismissed.

  • Timothyq

    June 19th, 2015 at 7:27 AM

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find some way to take race out of the equation and look at this as a human issue and not simply a race issue?
    If we had more of that sort of thinking then we wouldn’t have probably had the lies and deceit in this case.
    She would have simply been able to do what she wanted to do to help what was near and dear to her without a fear of doing it as a member of the Caucasian race.

  • Raegan

    June 19th, 2015 at 2:37 PM

    I am surprised that you would say to advocate within your own culture? can’t you do meaningful things for others even if you do not share the same cultural or racial background?

  • Creighton

    June 20th, 2015 at 5:42 AM

    The more I continue to hear about this Rachel Dolezal story the more I can’t help but think that the black cause was not her motive for all of this. It was all about self promotion and how far she could get in life while living this kind of huge lie. It seems that her best motivation was getting ahead and if this was how she was to get her name out there and be seen as doing something good for someone, then so be it, this was the life and the lie that she was going to choose to live. I do not say this lightly but I think that this woman has a great deal of confusion in her life and that she should probably consider talking with someone about all of that. I do think that she cares about her cause and her work, but it starts to strike me that she cares about herself and her own motives even more.

  • Tiffani

    June 21st, 2015 at 5:10 AM

    She would have never been accepted as a white woman in this realm trying to do this work and I am sure that she understood that.

    It is not an excuse for what she did because I know and I think that a lot of other people know that what she did was wrong, but for her it must have felt like it was the only way.

  • Forrest

    June 22nd, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    To me this is a woman who has struggled with her identity for a long time and she finally found a place where she felt safe and comfortable. Maybe it was or was not the right thing for her to do, I don’t know, but who am I to judge when someone simply wants to find a way to feel safe? This is how she lived and felt comfortable with that and happened to do a whole lot of good in her state along the way. I am sure that there are those who feel hurt but I think that if we can get past that we can also see that there were some good things that were accomplished too with her actions.

  • aepryl

    June 23rd, 2015 at 12:58 PM

    why turn away any ally? if you are all fighting for the same exact thing then what is that going to hurt?

  • Felice

    June 24th, 2015 at 2:57 PM

    I think that in her case it is just the self righteous like she was doing something good and that people should just appreciate all of that and not bring up what she did to deceive other people.
    Well the reality is that she has let a whole loot of people down by the deception and I think that this is why we have seen so much of a backlash against her.

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