S03 E08: Allyship 101: Listening, Learning, and Loving Others in the Age of Black Lives Matter
Allyn: Welcome to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Allyn Brooks-LaSure, coming to you from Washington, D.C.
And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad, where we discuss pop culture, social justice, and just about everything in between. We’ve got some amazing folks on the Pod Squad today, starting off with Schuyler Bailar, athlete, activist, life coach, and the first NCAA Division I men’s trans athlete. Joining him is Sam White, social impact strategist and advocate. In this episode, we’re talking all about allyship and the Black Lives Matter movement.
So, Sam, let’s start with you. How do you define allyship and what makes someone a good, productive ally?
Sam: Sure. So, I think allyship if we take a step back from a slightly more academic definition, allyship is living your belief that the struggles of other people matter just as much as if they were happening to you. And I think in a modern context, what that means is it means actually using the resources at your disposal so that that truth claim that you made is backed up by your actions and the way that you live.
Allyn: Schuyler, what do you think?
Schuyler: I think allyship is about action. I think a lot of people claim to be allies, but don’t act. And I think the biggest thing that I hold close to me in my sort of experience is that activeness. And I think that, you know, there’s no such thing as an innocent bystander, and allyship means standing up for other folks and standing in for other folks and calling people into the conversation.
Allyn: What does that mean in real life as we’re going day to day, what does it mean to stand in for others or to stand up for others?
Schuyler: It has to change contextually. First of all, I think that when people think allyship is rigid like “we always say this one thing, we always do this one thing,” that’s incorrect. I think it’s about listening. I think it’s about learning. I think it’s about incorporating. It’s not about being perfect. I think people think that in order to be a good ally, you have to do everything right always, like never be racist, never be transphobic, never say anything wrong. If people could do that, wonderful, great. But I think if you were to actually do that constantly, you would not speak, that’s how you’d succeed in doing that. So, I think that it’s about incorporating mistakes and learning from your mistakes, and stepping forward from that. And I think the number one thing about being an ally is consistent learning and radical learning.
Sam: I would add to that that I think the first step of allyship is recognizing that you are no less capable of the isms that you want to fight against. So, for example, I, as a white person, am no less capable of racism than anyone else. I am no less capable of sexism than any other man. And that assertion is not something to be ashamed of. It’s a simple truth of white supremacy and the way that it operates in our society. And so, I think to Schuyler’s point, you can then take that step forward, and based on the context, use your resources, use your privilege to help people. I think that’s what sometimes gets lost in the conversation about allyship is that at the end of the day, it’s designed to help people. It’s to make people’s lives better than they would have been if it was not for allyship. And that as a goal, I think is a really important frame of mind to have, because it’s not about me as an ally and making my life easier or my life better, it’s about doing that for somebody else. And if we lose sight of that at any point, I think that’s where people start to veer off the rails.
Allyn: Now, it sounds like showing up as an ally requires a little bit of self-awareness. What do you need to know about yourself in order to show up as a proper ally? We’ll start with you Schuyler.
Schuyler: I always start when I do my work in diversity and inclusion with other folks by asking them the same questions they asked me. So, when people start to ask me like, “Oh, well, how do you define your gender as a transgender man?” I’m like, “Well, how do you define your gender as a cisgender? How do you define your gender as a cisgender woman?” Right? Like I want you to investigate your own gender, race, sexuality, ability. I want you to investigate those things first before you come to me and ask me to prove myself to you. And I think that’s what a lot of folks who don’t hold marginalized identities don’t do. They don’t think about their race, gender, sexuality ability, because they haven’t had to, because it hasn’t been an issue. And so, if you start there, I think you’ll learn a lot about yourself that will allow you to have conversations with other people and then be better able to help the other people.
Allyn: What’s the best way then to explore self-awareness in a 2020 context? What do you think people should do? Is this education? Is it communion with other people? How do you learn about yourself in order to show up as a proper ally? What do you think, Sam?
Sam: Well, I think you can’t limit yourself to one of these avenues. I think the whole point is that, oftentimes, the conversation around allyship be criticized because it’s saying, well, you know, if you just say that everything is depending on context, then you’re not really saying anything at all, but this is relativism and it’s not concrete enough. But, of course, the whole point of that context is you need all of it. So, you need to read, there is no substitute for reading books. Just like there is no substitute for coming in communion with other people – there is no one-size-fits-all scenario and there’s also no pre-prescribed percentage of like, well, you need to do 10% reading, and that gets your reading component of allyship handled. And then you need to actually spend time with people of this marginalized identity 10% of the time. It doesn’t work like that, particularly, because people have different access to resources, and allyship, like anything else, should not be limited to those who have access to JSTOR just as an example.
So, I think it’s about doing all of these things and being honest with yourself about how and why you make the decisions to split it up the way that you do. So, for example, for argument’s sake, we talk about those percentages. If Schuyler spends 50% of his time reading and 50% of his time in communion with others, and I am more of an aesthetic and I spend 75% of my time reading and 25% of my time in communion with others, it’s not necessarily a problem either way, but both of us need to be able to understand that we made the decision to do one thing instead of the other. And we need to be able to defend that decision and be honest with ourselves about what factors went into that, and then we can be effective and perhaps in different ways.
Schuyler: Well, I think also like it’s about adjusting. It’s about being able to pivot. It’s about being able to be adaptive. So, let’s say for example, like my 50/50, like Sam was just saying, wasn’t effective and I was in a social situation or I was in an academic situation where I didn’t have enough information because I hadn’t done enough reading or I hadn’t done enough sort of in-communion work with people, and I need to be able to recognize that, oh crap, I didn’t know what I needed to know in that moment or I made a mistake because I had never had a conversation like that before and I didn’t know what to say. And I think that’s when pivoting is so important. And I think people get really stuck in their ways and like, “Well, I’ve done this and I’ve done this and therefore it should work.” And the answer is like, okay, great, maybe it worked in one scenario, but life is chaotic and people change and conversations change and language changes the more we learn about it and the more you learn how people are marginalized. So, I think we have to be able to pivot. We have to be able to be adaptive.
Allyn: One of the things that we recognize about allyship is that it’s not fixed, it’s dynamic, right? So, it does change with a certain social context or it changes with events in the world. So, for instance, when we look at public opinion polls about support for the Movement for Black Lives, that number was very different a year ago than it was in June or July versus even now, we’re starting to see some decrease in the number of support for the Movement for Black Lives. What changes this allyship? Why is allyship so dynamic? Why isn’t it fixed? Why don’t you have allies for life? What do you think?
Sam: Well, I’m laughing only because it reminds me of how everybody goes to the gym in January and February, and by March and April people start to fall off, and by no means is that a perfect analogy. But I mean, if these things were easy to do, then it’d be like signing up for a newsletter, right, and all you got to do is read your email newsletter and then you’ve got your allyship for the week or something like that. So, I think it’s difficult. And I think it requires the kind of self-reflection that we as a society, whether it’s in the context of race or anything else, we’re not very good at. We don’t practice this. So, I think those skills, there is a learning curve and it’s one that is very personal and can be very harrowing at times. But, of course, I think the other component here is that if it was something that people could turn on and off, then we would’ve solved a lot more problems by now. It’s not something that can be measured on a small scale on a short-term basis because, you know, I understand people have good intentions over the past few months in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, but if all you do is get active for two months and then you disappear, well, we didn’t need you for those two months – it wasn’t worth it, in my opinion.
Schuyler: I think it’s also the dynamicness of it is there’s definitely that factor of people sort of petering out, but it also think that all of progress is progress, and we have to remember that like people change, societies change, cultures change, and humanity doesn’t necessarily change, but language does and the way we understand struggle does. And I think that this idea that anything is fixed, like something so personal and so human as allyship is fixed and that would be the same looking like it did, you know, 20 years ago and how it does now, I think is ridiculous because that completely avoids or ignores the fact that like society has shifted. And I think we have to shift as society doesn’t right now in such a globalized society that has the internet, we are shifting so rapidly. And, of course, then, allyship looks different.
Allyn: So, what do we do to avoid fatigue, if it is fatigue, that happens when it decreases over time, over the course of several months where we see a peak, a support, and then it starts to decline, how do we avoid that fatigue?
Schuyler: I think self-care is really important and I think it looks different for everybody, but I think that making sure that we make time for ourselves, whatever that means, is incredibly important. And I think that doesn’t mean sharing with folks who are marginalized that we are tired. I think that’s actually something that we need to be careful about. My BIPOC friends don’t need me to tell them that I’m tired of learning anti-racism, like that’s ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be drained or have emotional difficulty working through that. And I think that being mindful of that space and mindful of my own energy is incredibly important. And that’s where sharing space with people like me, so my roommate is Asian American as well, and us sharing space in understanding how difficult this work is and learning about our own place and how we’ve been pawns in white supremacy is so important for us to be able to share that space together and being mindful of where we put it and where we talk about it, I think is also really, really important. So, I’d encourage other folks working through this to like have that space for self-care and have those internal conversations, but be super-mindful about who they have those conversations with because it might be demanding emotional labor of other people, again, if we have it in the wrong place.
B; Yeah. And I think following up on the self-care component of that, self-care is not an excuse to stop doing the work. Self-care is a way to do it in a sustainable fashion so that you can continue to do it. I think this concept of allyship fatigue, which sort of went viral on Twitter like a month or so ago, and it’s laughable, right, it’s absurd. The idea that it’s somehow tiring for me to learn about what I haven’t had to go through is not a pleasant concept. And so, I think that when it comes to doing it sustainably and being able to do it over time, what you have to be ready for is for people to not entirely understand what it’s like. That’s fine. I think it’s important for someone like me to be open and honest about what it’s like to interrogate the ways in which I’ve been a part of white supremacy since the day I was born. I also don’t need to be given a pat on the back or a cookie for being open and honest about that.
And I think a lot of this open and honesty in these kinds of conversations is about framing. If you frame it in the way of, “Poor pitiful me, I’m working so hard. Like can I get a high five?” It’s not productive. And it’s actually quite harmful I think to the communities that someone might be claiming to advocate for. If instead though it’s framed in the context of like, hey, I want to be open and honest about X, Y, and Z so that I can make it easier and set the expectations properly for white people come after me who want to be anti-racist, that’s an entirely different conversation, and 9 times out of 10, it’s going to be received differently as well.
Schuyler: And I think also there’s another part of that, which is like the pain that we experienced in learning about these things is our humanity itself. And we have been numb to that pain in many ways. And that numbing is part of white supremacy where that pain is part of how you are walking into your humanity, and if you don’t, you are ignoring all of this. That is the center of the work is accepting that pain and being like, “Wow, I have been ignoring the pain, I’ve been causing pain that BIPOC are experiencing.” So, I think that self-care might also be grief and allowing the grief and allowing that space for that pain. because if you don’t, you’re destroying the work.
Allyn: Well, let’s talk about that a little bit because we are as a society averse to painful experiences, we don’t like pain. And we particularly don’t like finding out that we’ve caused pain. So, how do people work through that? What is the roadmap for them recognizing that it’s different for every person?
Sam: Shrink it down and give people examples in their personal life with their loved ones, the people that they’re already closest with, already the most open and honest with, and already have the longest history of making mistakes. And so, in the same way that you can recognize that you can hurt someone’s feelings who you care about very much and that you can still love them and they can still love you and you can process through that you did hurt their feelings, even if you didn’t mean to, you did, it happened. It’s over, there’s nothing you can do about it. What does that relationship look like if you and your sibling get into a serious argument and people’s feelings get hurt? Well, how do you handle that? Put the onus on them. People know how to answer those questions. And then I think from there, you can slowly extrapolate it and say, okay, well, now this is what it looks like for you to do that in the workplace with your black colleagues who you have been putting all this pressure on. Or now is the time that you can feel more comfortable speaking up in a classroom environment when a professor says something that you know is wrong, but it’s not directed at you. Because people have the ability to do it. It’s just not a very practiced ability, I don’t think.
Allyn: One of the things that I think about a lot of times in talking about public opinion polls is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, while he’s a lionized and somewhat romanticized individual now. When you look at the Gallup opinion polls of the public support that he had around the time of his death, he was somewhere in the 30th percentile. But now, he’s, I think up in the 90s, he’s one of the most revered individuals in American history. What happens where those who are seen as being agitators, those who are seen as holding a mirror up to society or holding a mirror up to certain individuals that are living with privilege when they’re no longer around. Why do we love them all of a sudden?
Sam: Because they’re not agitating anymore. You bring up such an important point and the reclaiming of Martin Luther King as the real human person, active living figure that he was is so important because, you know, I don’t know who likes to quote Martin Luther King more, is it liberals or is it conservatives who trounce upon his memory? I’m practically convinced that Republicans know more Martin Luther King quotes than I do. And I think the reason why we don’t appreciate it in the moment is because coalition building is not sexy. It’s a slow-burning candle. It is not something that shows results in 12 hours. And we have since the 1960s only gotten more accustomed. The answer to your question is very simple in the sense that it’s a very simple but dramatic problem. Martin Luther King became loved as soon as he was dead and no longer causing people the problems that he was causing them when he was alive, and doing the work that people now claim that they want to emulate but actually don’t.
Schuyler: Well, it’s also because they assume that he’s a pawn of the past. It’s not only that he’s no longer here to agitate, it’s also that because he “did the work,” it’s done. And one of the biggest problems of our current time is that people think racism is a problem of the past when it is absolutely a problem with the present and currently going to be a problem of the future. So, I think that there’s a way in which we idealize him and almost “idea”-fy him, if that makes sense. Like, he’s just an idea at this point of what we think was in the past and a romanticization, as you said, Allyn of the fact that it’s over. That the civil rights movement has happened and somehow it’s not present anymore. When in reality, like this is a pivotal time in the civil rights movement and it is by no means over, we’re in the thick of it.
Sam: And, of course, this is deliberate. I think it’s also important to note this sort of false lionization and creating this moderate out of Martin Luther King did not happen by accident. This is a decision made by people on the policy level, as well as on the political leadership level. When you look at high school textbooks and middle school textbooks, and you read the way that they talked about the civil rights movement, it’s no wonder that people think it’s over, because it’s described in the past tense, it is described as if the buses were segregated and then Rosa sat down and then the buses were fixed and then racism was bad and people got hurt and marched, and then it was over. I mean, like it literally says this stuff. And so, I think as much as this stuff is socio-cultural, it’s also policy-based, and education-based. If you teach a seven-year-old about the civil rights movement in a responsible way, they are much less likely to grow up and turn Martin Luther King into someone that he never was.
Allyn: I was amazed over the past couple of months, the businesses that claimed the mantle of Black Lives Matter. I mean, I was shopping online and going by major hotels in downtown Washington, D.C., and seeing Black Lives Matter on places that I would have never eight months ago thought anybody had even uttered the words inside those businesses. What changed? What changed for a movement that has existed for a number of years, you know, that grew out of pain, grew out of black pain and black suffering as a form of resistance, that all of a sudden corporations are putting out statements saying Black Lives Matter, what changed in our society for that to happen?
Schuyler: It became a tactical business decision. I think there’s so much consumerism that has come from this. And I think as somebody from the queer community, this is not strange to me because people have been using rainbows for pride year after year to make profit. And I think that this is the very ugly truth is that it became very clear that the American public in the polls, as we were talking about, were in support of Black Lives Matter. And they said, “Okay, look, we have to support this.” I think that’s not every case, of course, but I do think that there’s a huge amount of capitalist-consumerist business-related sort of corporate decision-making that went into it.
Sam: I think there’s two things that really stick out to me. Number one is that companies have always known the financial power that Black America wields – always. This is not a new conversation behind the scenes or behind closed doors. This is a new conversation to be out front for sure. But these companies have always tried to market themselves and pivot themselves so that they can simultaneously not have to do anything substantive for the black community and yet be able to cash the black community dollars in. And so, I think that’s part of it to Schuyler’s point. And then I think the other part of it is that it would be dishonest to look at the past 6 months and not recognize that a huge reason why it has been covered the way that it has been covered differently from let’s say 2016, 2015, or 2014 is because white people started getting beaten up on TV in numbers that was not happening in Ferguson, that was not happening in Baltimore.
So, that in and of itself is a privilege that once the police violence started to manifest on white bodies on national television, businesses started caring differently right away and not necessarily genuinely to Schuyler’s point. I think that the most honest thing a company could say is, “We’ve always believed black lives matter, but until now we were too cowardly to say so. And so, now, we’re stepping up and we’re going to say it, and we do mean it. And the only way that you should believe us is that you got to give us time to prove it. And until then, we’re not going to fault you for not believing us.” That is the only honest truth that any business could give about Black Lives Matter. And it’s why the NFL is full of malarkey, as Joe Biden would say, it’s absurd.
Allyn: You mentioned what businesses need to do to prove that they’re really in it, to prove that they’re really changing, and to be honest and to approach this with a certain sense of integrity. What does society need to do to bring that same amount of integrity to this conversation?
Schuyler: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Individuals make up society. And so, we need every single person to be engaging in anti-racist work, which means it needs to be administrative. It needs to be logistical. It needs to be in schools. It needs to be everywhere. Wherever people are learning things and being told what to do, anti-racism work needs to be there. And it needs to be institutional. So, I think like that’s how this work changes and how “society proves” that black lives matter is that every single individual needs to be engaging in anti-racist work from an institutional standpoint.
Sam: And I think part of that, particular example of that is telling the truth in public whether it’s popular or not, whether you are a journalist or company executive or a politician, whoever you may be, people lie all the time. It’s so common that we just sort of forget about it, but you know, you look at what The 1619 Project has done in terms of really more than anything, riling up all kinds of people who know damn well that the country is founded on racist ideas and principles and practices. And that’s why they’re so angry that it’s being called out. I think that’s part of how society changes. I think part of our society changes is recognizing to Schuyler’s point – this is like the plastic conversation, the recycling conversation – the three of us can recycle every possible thing for the rest of our lives. But if ExxonMobil is not doing their part as a multinational corporation, well, then the three of our life’s sustainability efforts are for naught.
And so, to that end, every individual has to be doing their work in their own private lives and recognize that part of the responsibility there is naming the truth that the system’s larger than us, that we cannot control on a daily basis are fundamentally racist, are fundamentally homophobic, are fundamentally problematic, because no one’s willing to do that because then it implies guilt. And once you remove the shame from that guilt, “I cannot control the United States prison system, therefore I have no shame in analyzing it and critiquing it and naming it for every wrong that it is.”
Schuyler: A lot of people think that if you are attacking the system of white supremacy, you’re attacking white people. The similar ways like if you attack a system of colonialism, and that’s bred queerphobia, transphobia, homophobia, you’re attacking anybody who’s not queer or trans. And the reality is like, that’s not the case, attacking the systems and wanting to dismantle those systems. And I think once people can, like you said, recognize that this isn’t a personal attack and we don’t have a stake in that, we can’t control like the prison system as a whole. We can’t control what happened 400 years ago when people started slavery and all that kind of stuff, right? We can’t control them. There’s no personal stake there. It’s a system we all need to learn how to dismantle going forwards, not going backwards. Then I think that we can kind of remove that guilt, that shame, and actually, have productivity there.
Sam: There was a speaker at the Barclay Center during one of the rallies, and she looked out into the crowd, she was a black woman speaking. And she said, “There’s a lot of white people in this crowd. There’s more white people here than I’ve ever seen at a Black Lives Matter rally before. Just a reminder, your guilt and your shame don’t do [expletive] for me.” And I think that’s really important because I think there is a real personal stake. I have a real personal stake in white supremacy. It benefits me in very tangible ways, financial ways, societal ways. I think the point is that recognizing that my personal stake in that and forfeiting that personal stake and working to make sure that I eliminate the areas in which I cannot forfeit by myself – like I can’t change the way that police treat me – what I can do is work against the system that makes it so that police treat me differently than other people. And I think recognizing that personal stake and realizing that if you do feel the guilt, if you do feel the shame, which you will, whether it’s with respect to race or gender or sexuality, whatever the case may be, that is not productive. So, you need to push through that guilt, push through that shame, because on the other side of that, you can actually be productive and get something done. But if you never pushed through it, then all it is is this self-deprecating puritanical nonsense.
Schuyler: Well, then you’re making it about you. That’s sort of the whole conversation about white fragility, people making all of this conversation about their own guilt and their own shame, their own pain, instead of centering this whole conversation around black folks and black pain and the horrible system of white supremacy and all the things that come from that
Allyn: Final question for both of you. And that is if we were to take a public opinion poll of the people who know you and we were to ask them, what type of ally is Sam? What type of ally is Schuyler? What do you want them to say?
Schuyler: The first word that comes to mind is attentive. I guess, attentive and adaptive. I’m consistently pivoting when I need to. I’m attentive in that I’m listening to what’s going on in society. With people around me, I’m attentive to the pain that I know my BIPOC friends experience and adaptive in how I deal with it because everybody’s different. So, yeah, I want to be attentive and adaptive.
Sam: I think I would go with genuine and purposeful. I think that as we talked about, especially on the brand side, there’s so much inauthenticity that is performing as authentic. That is naming itself as authentic. There’s this fraudulent authenticity all around us. And I would hope that the way that I conduct myself and my work is genuine and comes off that way and is able to, I think, transcend that fraudulent dynamic that is existing right now. And I think purposeful, I’m not doing this for me. I’m not doing this to go to brunch and talk about it. I’m doing it to help people. I’m doing it because it matters and because people’s lives are at stake, not just in terms of life or death, but in terms of making someone’s life better tomorrow than it was today. But I think without that purpose, a lot of this loses its meaning and veers into all of the problematic faults of allyship that can come out. So, I would go with purposeful and genuine.
Allyn: Sam and Schuyler, this was an amazingly rich conversation. Thanks to both of you for joining me on “Pod for the Cause.”
Schuyler: Thanks for having us.
Sam: Thanks so much for having us.
Vanessa: I’ll take it from here, Allyn. Thanks again to Schuyler and Sam. Hey, everyone! This is Vanessa Gonzalez from The Leadership Conference. Coming up, I’ll hit you with some real talk during my hot takes where I get a few things off my chest in three minutes or less.
Vanessa: Welcome back to “Pod for the Cause” where we’ve been talking allyship in the Black Lives Matter movement. And between Allyn, Schuyler, and Sam, I have few things to say.
Allyship is painful. Allyship is not perfection. Allyship is something that you have to keep striving for. So, as many of us, including myself, are putting away your t-shirts, your hoodies, and your buttons, if you feel a sense of pride and like you’ve accomplished something, you haven’t. Just because Election Day is over, just because we have moved on into a new phase of America, it doesn’t mean all of our problems went away. It’s time now to really buckle down and hold people accountable. We don’t just need people to show up who are not impacted when it’s time for a rally or when it’s time to take your picture. When it’s time to post something on social media. We need allies to show up when they really have something to risk for someone else’s livelihood. Allyship is not perfection. I myself have dedicated my life to this work and I will never be a perfect ally, but I will continue to strive. So, in between these high movement moments, we need you to keep reading, keep researching, keep asking yourself questions, keep asking others questions, and really continue to strive to become an ally.
Allyn: Thank you for listening to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org, and to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter at “Pod for the Cause.” Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Until then, I’m Allyn Brooks-LaSure. Stay strong and keep hope alive.