Over the years, it has taken me substantial effort to be plaintively honest with myself about my privileges. I have had hard truths hurled at my face by loved ones who have dealt with harsh trials in life that I would never be subjected to. I have watched videos and read books and articles that have called me out without even personally targeting me, but still forcing me to check myself. Even now it can take me a while to process my reality being infinitely more privileged than someone as close to me as my best friend or relative.
Although, I find myself almost always critically reflecting on my attitudes and reactions to confronting moments of social injustice, whether it’s in the news or hearing personal accounts from others, reading articles and posts or witnessing it for myself. It typically encompasses discrimination and mistreatment towards marginalised people based on their gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, disability and so on, and having been exposed to varying degrees of prejudiced behaviours, I find it difficult to not at the very least address my own choices in how I respond to these sorts of situations. I would be remiss to say that I am not exempt from dealing with my own obstacles, be it big or small, as a womxn, too. But to deny any real self-evaluation is emblematic of my privilege in opting out of having to deal with something that may not directly and necessarily impact me on a micro level when it clearly harms another. I also consistently attempt to stray away from showing off these leaps of character development as if to expect reward from the people I impart these fruits of labour with, since it isn’t actually meant for receiving brownie points or badges of honour — it is to carve a path towards embracing everyone, irrespective of their identity, in the hopes of establishing a far more egalitarian and empathic society.
This approach, however, to personal growth does not stretch out to everybody.
Perhaps 10 years ago or so, to even verbally express your allyship might have bore some value because our resources, access to information on social issues that we have come to incorporate in our peripheral cognitive and conversations were limited, but these days, in the advent of perennial online engagement, rife with amateurs and professionals alike planting their seeds of wisdom and learnt lessons, it is hard to avoid educating and equipping yourself with the tools to support communities who are threatened, harmed, exploited and abused by our social conditions and systems. (If you outright refuse to indulge in enlightenment on the matters, it’s safe to assume you’re either a right-wing conservative or you are a know-it-all, then which, I hate to break it to you, is an unlikely case). It seems almost every other day our feed is splashed with breaking news of a killing or assault, or some blow to progress towards a more inclusive and compassionate world but particularly since the wake of 2020, as the revival of BLM spearheaded the march towards social justice, it has been apparent that quite a large portion of the “liberals” who wish to display their solidarity are willing to only go as far as declaring it and not really doing the work — by work I mean, unpacking and dismantling their own preconditioned prejudices, decolonising their understanding of the structures we exist in, critically challenging their privilege(s) and positions in the systems that we’ve been raised to otherwise accept. To merely follow the pages or subscribe to the publications that draw attention to stories that move us or enrage us or shake us is simply scratching the surface — it’s just not enough. Sharing these with a click of a button or a tap of the finger is simply not enough. Heck, becoming friends or intimate with someone belonging to that community really is not enough. A lot of the time, if we really check in on ourselves and our intention in spreading awareness about a global or national tragedy, we may have to acknowledge that we aren’t doing it truly to inform others on these tragic realities, but that we want to exhibit that we are in the know, that we are woke enough to tap into what’s going on in the world, that we are sophisticated and intelligent enough to be in tune with current affairs. I say this because I have definitely been guilty of it myself.
And I’m aware it totally screams elitist mentality as well, which is an entire box to unpack in itself.
Social media has warped our agendas to not really participate in cultivating a world where we can fully realise material change for the better, but that we can say we are and that that would be enough. It is has provided us the platform to showcase our efforts in being one with the fight, even offering us user-friendly mechanisms to gain traction and inform people how great of an ally we are. Hashtags, symbols, catchphrases, trending images and such throw us a rope to clutch onto so we can get onboard with the fast-pacing movements that license us to be a person of value in our “progressive” society and make us feel part of something bigger. It grants us the validation in becoming a member of this community that we’ve been told is “cool” and “relevant” with esteemed worth. Therefore, our social currency in adopting (or co-opting) the language that strongly suggests we are apt in the understanding of the power struggles those communities face is part of the transaction in boosting our personal platform which moulds our veneer of being a trusting individual to support in times of need.
Minorities whose lives and livelihoods are under constant threat are not an asset to our reputation. We should not exploit their existence and struggles to enhance our social status as progressives who can be relied on to “fight the power” when in reality, we wouldn’t stand with them in critical times. It’s all well and good to soldier forward in the march for justice but when you see a bigot targeting a person, particularly someone you personally know, based on a descriptor of their identity, you have the choice to intervene or not. Perhaps not necessarily intentionally injecting yourself into clear danger, especially during a violent altercation, but for instance, when an ignoramus challenges a marginalised person based on no grounds besides outright prejudice, you have a duty (as a self-declared ally) to challenge them back and stick up for your friend or whoever it is. It’s this baggage minorities are burdened to carry that holds them back from living a full, wholesome life because they are having to consider their safety all the time. Womxn walking alone at night or in dim and poorly lit places. Black and brown people applying for jobs they’re more than qualified for. LGBTQI+ folk who have long term partners that they can’t introduce to family. Trans people just leaving their homes. Disabled bodies having to navigate around the city or even shops without proper, well planned infrastructures. Families in poverty who have limited to no access to clean water.
So when I see so-called allies posting stories with captions like “I stand with you” <insert fist emoji> and “My heart is with those affected by the violence” <insert heart emoji>, while it is a nice gesture, it does not contribute to any real material development. Why not reach out to those impacted and ask, “Hey, what do you need me to do?” or “How can I be of help?” Look up the organisations that could do with a donation. Share amply researched and reliable sources that are informative, thorough and accessible. Constructively criticise your place in the systems and acknowledge not just the privilege you have but how much privilege you’re privy to. Involve yourself in charities, organisations and NGOs that support the causes you believe in. If you say you don’t have the time, look into how much commitment is expected of you. For instance, Amnesty International Malaysia can take you on as a member for RM10/annually and you get invited to meetings which happen only a handful of times a year (not even monthly) and offer chances to volunteer at events. Otherwise, set up your own agenda that enables you to fulfil your duties as an ally. If neither option sounds feasible, then I’d question the legitimacy of your passion and solidarity because a lot of the time, even a little bit goes a long way. Oftentimes, it isn’t a matter of acts of service to contribute to the movements you want to align yourself with, but reflecting internally how you might be a beneficiary or benefactor of the systems that oppress those movements.
Being an ally is not a performance art; it is about committing yourself to the cause in a way that is honourable, honest and requires genuine work. Your efforts have to yield tangible results for harmed communities to have a better quality of life in order for it to be a valid proclamation of allyship. When someone you care about has been violated for their race, gender, faith, sexuality, class or disability, reach out to them and tell them you’re there for them through thick or thin. Take initiative and be present. Offer a safe space whether mentally, emotionally or physically if it’s within your capacity. IG stories of your sad face or dramatisation of your melancholy are only postures of suggested concern and serve very little to transpire actual change.