Published in Shameless magazine | January 2012 | Circulation: 3,000
Being an ally in the classroom may not be about becoming silent; it’s also about humility and authenticity.
I can credit my education with completely turning my life upside-down – and above all, helping me understand better what being an ally means.
That education probably started with my Grade 11 English teacher, Mr. Hamilton, who introduced our class to Marilyn Waring’s socialist feminist work on economic inequality. He also had us make Adbusters-style spoof magazine ads, highlighting how the media teaches us to hate our bodies, and especially women’s bodies.
A true pioneer, Mr. Hamilton even installed a couch at the front of the class – for anyone who couldn’t stand the classwork, the alternative was chatting about alienation, angst and injustice with this banjo-playing, shit-disturbing instructor.
So two years later, in my second year at university, my partner at the time suggested I take an intro course in Women’s Studies. My curiosity was overwhelmed on the first night of classes by a jarring sense of dread that my ignorance would be embarrassingly obvious to all. To actually launch myself into a space where my voice wasn’t the centre of attention (like it was in all my other classes), and to be under scrutiny was, to be blunt, terrifying.
I learned a lot – and I learned painfully. I stumbled – often dominating the space with my habitual, pathological hand-raising and chatter; sometimes over-theorizing oppression instead of speaking from experiences or respecting others’; and occasionally being arrogant with my newfound “wisdom.” (What?! You don’t know what “subaltern” or “invisible centre” mean?!)
One evening, after a particularly heated Women’s Studies discussion around racism and Islamophobia amongst feminists – which I observed mostly in silence, despite feeling uncomfortable with some of the offensive comments – I timidly approached the professor to ask if I was taking up too much space in her classroom. Her response, however, was not what I expected.
“Actually,” she said, “I could see you were uncomfortable. But I wish you’d spoken your mind because I felt it was just my voice alone challenging people’s racism. I’d like you to try to engage more, because I value your perspective. And don’t worry: I’ll let you know if you take up too much space.”
It unsettled me, because I’d assumed silence was the only tool in my anti-oppression kit. Having a respected instructor’s permission to step up helped me to realize that being an ally is also about taking responsibility and engaging as best I could. Sometimes just listening is a way to engage, but not always; silence can also enable oppression to flourish. And, by insulating me from criticism, withdrawal often simply means that my errors and attitudes go unknown and unchecked. In this particular example, I realized that listening to what someone was asking of me went a long way.
I continued taking Women’s Studies classes and integrated the skills I learned into my main studies – Political Science and Professional Writing – where I realized how little space there is for the fundamental, radical questions Women’s Studies caused me to explore. My mind, at times, felt like it was exploding as I learned o critique and deconstruct colonization, patriarchy, capitalism and the myriad of ways they’re linked, even though at times I would receive a lot of backlash from Politics professors for challenging things like colonization and racism.
It was a heady time, and yet I don’t regret keeping Women’s Studies on the sidelines of my degree. I understood that everything I was learning there was infiltrating the other, more conservative departments. If there’s anything this taught me, it’s actually an adage that actually applies generally to living with confidence, grace and wisdom: “Bloom where you’re planted.”
I realized that I didn’t actually need my post-secondary schooling to be a better ally, to challenge my privilege or to take responsibility for my choices. And while my Women’s Studies classes offered me very special gifts – of language, understanding and friendship – to “bloom where I’m planted” means to start where I am: in my own experience and the experiences of those around me, wherever I find myself. I’m not a perfect ally – but to be authentic, humble and courageous are, to me, vastly more important.
This may not be everyone’s preferred solution to privilege – and I haven’t talked about the vital importance of accountability – but ultimately, transforming oppression has been a practice of healing and liberation for me.