Visiting professor leads allyship conversation

When the Center for Multicultural and International Engagement (CMIE) chose discussion topics for the Cultural Conversations program, no one could have predicted just how appropriate it would be to center November’s talk on “Discerning paths of solidarity” in a tense post-election atmosphere.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Music and Consortium for Faculty Diversity Fellow Suzanne Wint gathered with a small group of students on Wednesday, Nov. 30 to explore the idea of being an “ally.” She opened her presentation with a disclaimer, stating that she did not consider herself an expert on the topic but had been involved with various protests and rallies. Wint provided an illustration of her personal experience as a student at the University of Chicago, where men were criticized for demanding representation at the Women in Engineering Club meetings. Her example set up the discussion of how people can respectfully and productively participate in civil rights movements and protest movements organized by those outside their own identities.

The topic proved understandably difficult to navigate, as the actions of well-meaning people have proven problematic. Students in attendance brought up criticisms of outsiders who hold patronizingly sympathetic attitudes or insert themselves for attention. Gestures of solidarity, such as wearing a safety pin, sometimes come across as more focused on the individual than on the issue. Indeed, dominant groups are often part of the problem being protested against.

Many opinions articles in national media have targeted the apathy of dominant groups in civil rights issues. Protests often take place in response to societal issues caused or contributed to by majority groups. Wint explored this.

“Whose problem is it to solve? [A good argument] might be that white folk need to be working with white folk to change,” Wint said.

Wint also brought up the criticism aimed at Beyonce’s performance at the recent Country Music Awards. Two white, male non-country singers performed last year with little to no pushback, but the black female artist brought many negative reactions from country music fans. The media and representations of different groups emerged as a recurring theme throughout the hourlong discussion. Conversation eventually turned to the responsibility of consumers in reading and interpreting news.

The group generally agreed that it was important for dominant groups to listen to protesters and seek understanding, even if they could never fully relate. Wint shared an article published on the American Friends Service Committee web site entitled “Note to Self: White People Taking part in #BlackLivesMatter Protests.” The author suggested remaining respectful toward authorities, avoiding self-congratulatory social media posts and staying involved after the event ends. Wint also brought up articles from other sources, which took a variety of stances on the issue, giving students fodder for discussion.

Wint closed the discussion with a personal story of participating in an anti-nuclear protest walk to the European Union headquarters in Belgium. She described the difficulties in navigating differences between the protesters, some of which prevented people from taking direct action.

“There are support roles that you can play as well. For instance, figuring out for someone’s family where they’ve been taken if or when they’re interested. Or maybe getting them their medication,” Wint said.

She offered ideas about concrete actions allies could take, including listening to nondominant groups’ stories, supporting protest efforts, writing letters to government officials, taking part in quiet activism movements and discussing issues with people who have different backgrounds or beliefs.

“This conversation became all the more important as the political situation became more confrontational throughout the fall, but regardless of the political temperature, this conversation will continue to be important as long as there are groups of people who feel unsafe in this country due to their identity,” Wint said.