How can you be an ally to someone without disempowering them?

February 5, 2016

Last week Morningside Center's staff developers came together for a day-long workshop on how to help teachers and young people explore issues of culture, identity, and bias. The group had many amazing conversations, including one about whether to use your own privilege (because of your race, class, gender, etc.)  to act as an ally to others. 

Last week Morningside Center's staff developers came together for a day-long workshop on how to help teachers and young people explore issues of culture, identity, and bias. The group had many amazing conversations, including one about whether to use your own privilege (because of your race, class, gender, etc.)  to act as an ally to others. 
 
We watched the video below, in which Joy DeGruy  tells how she faced bias in a grocery store, and how her lighter-skinned sister-in-law intervened, knowing that she was using her privilege in the situation. It's a great video, and less than four minutes long. 
 
The video made us wonder:  It's one thing if you see that a friend or family member needs an ally, but what if it's a stranger who is experiencing bias?  Should you intervene?  And if so, how?  The group felt that in some cases, the act of stepping in for a stranger could actually be disempowering to them.  It could send a message that you don't believe the person is capable of handling the situation themselves, creating feelings of shame rather than support.  
 
We brainstormed different ways to intervene in this situation, including ways of standing next to someone as an ally rather than standing up for them.  
 
Janice Marie Johnson, who was facilitating the workshop, shared that she makes sure the person who is being targeted knows that she's there.  "Sometimes I'll just ask , 'You got this?'" That way the person knows that there is an ally in the room, but can make their own decision about whether to call on that ally for support. 
 
What strategies do you have for situations like this?  Please share your thoughts with us.