BY Kevin Leichtman, Ph.D. @KevinLeichtman
I thought I was an ally. I really had it in my head that I was a genuinely good person. I wasn’t racist. I wasn’t sexist. I couldn’t be any of the bad “isms” because I was just full of empathy and compassion for everyone.
How wrong I was… How wrong many of us are, who enjoy saying that we are not racist and do not judge anyone else.
One of the most important lessons of my life came through volunteering at my university’s LGBTQA resource center. I had been looking for a research topic relevant to education as I began my journey through graduate school. With the help of knowledgeable professors, I landed on the topic of LGBTQA students and the many challenges they face at all levels of schooling.
At the start of my research, I found quickly how little I knew about the privileges cisgender people benefit from or how early and often people who do not fit society’s “gender norms” are marginalized and discriminated against in curriculum, pedagogy, and practice. I wanted to learn more so I went to the school’s Safe Zone training.
Sponsored by my university’s resource center, the training was an in-depth look at many of these issues that LGBTQA students face and what I as an ally could do to work against the oppressive structures that push against them. The training made me feel well-equipped as I dove further into research. I won’t lie… It also made me feel very good about myself. What a great ally I was, doing extra trainings just to help a group of people outside of my own experience as a straight, white male.
Following the high of learning and engaging in what I thought was advocacy, I decided to go one step further and volunteer at the center for a couple of semesters. It was a genuinely enjoyable time, sitting in the office to field phone calls and guide students to helpful resources. I was surrounded by a LGBTQA community who allowed me to fit in to their space. They respected me and helped me to grow, taking an interest in my research and openly providing their real-life experiences.
Then it happened. I had to put my money where my mouth had been from the start of my graduate schooling.
It was a simple task. The resource manager asked me to go by myself to pass out flyers for a Gay Pride event on campus.
I grabbed the flyers and began walking towards the busiest area of campus. I suddenly realized that I was about to pass out Gay Pride flyers to the student body. They would think I was gay!
In that moment, every negative thought raced through my mind. What if I saw a cute girl and she thought I was gay and that ruined my chances? What if somebody called me a really insulting name? What if people got offended by me?
That moment taught me more than any classroom had. Up until that moment, I was just performing. I was saying things that would get me recognized as an ally and a “good person.” But I never had to mean it or back it up before.
I faced my fear and the student body, passing out flyers for over an hour. I tried not to care what they thought. I tried to ignore the eyes rolling or the heads shaking as they pushed the flier away from themselves. I tried to pretend like I didn’t hear the words they muttered as they walked by.
Walking back into the LGBTQA Resource Center, I shared my experience and said at least a hundred apologies. A supportive staff room sat me down to explain that the feelings I had today were the feelings and situations they deal with on a daily basis. They taught me that allyship was an action and not just words, no matter how good the words were.
Performative allyship is the trap that holds many of us back from actually being helpful. We use our words to express a support for a marginalized group that we fail to understand, work with, or walk with. We take the accolades and respect for displaying a surface level of empathy, just covering a layer of ignorance and an unwillingness to be a part of the movement we are publicly touting.
I knew it when I walked out with those flyers. Everything I had said up to that point meant nothing. How could I support the gay community and also be terrified of someone thinking of me as being gay?
If you believe you are a non-racist and you don’t judge or discriminate against anybody, ask yourself the difficult questions. Would you walk around a college campus declaring that you are gay? Would you don a hijab and walk from a mosque through a large city? Would you take a nighttime stroll in a highly policed, mostly white neighborhood with a group of Black men?
Those of us who benefit from the privileges of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and many other indicators of our societal norms need to be willing to step into the shoes of those who are marginalized. We will never understand an oppression that we do not face. We will never see the discrimination that glances past issues that we do not have to think about on a daily basis.
It is time for us to listen, learn, and ACT with those in our country who are seeking voice, representation, and equity. We walk together or we will fall apart, one by one.