Struggling with Allyship, or, It Takes a Village

Ryan Brazell

As an open and visible member of the trans* community, I know intimately how it feels to be subjected to micro- and macroaggressions on a regular basis, even in historically and notoriously liberal pockets of the country like Oberlin and the Bay Area (where I currently live). My whiteness, however, affords me the unearned privilege of moving through society with relative ease. I was reminded of this privilege while watching students and faculty of color express their anger, pain, sadness, frustration and fear during last week’s “The Community Stands Together” convocation.

I was reminded of this privilege again thanks to the clip of a group of students interrupting President Krislov’s interview on CNN. My immediate reaction to the video was: “How disgusting, especially for a member of the student leadership, to show such disrespect to the president instead of engaging in constructive dialogue.” I didn’t question that snap judgement until I happened upon three pieces of writing from students and an alumna of color: Megan Bautista’s “In Defense of A.D. Hogan,” last week’s “An Open Letter from Students of the Africana Community,” and Helena Thompson’s series of reaction tweets. Now, I’m disgusted with my own behavior and attitude.

The fact is, it takes a village to improve a village. Just like there is no one way to be trans*, no one way to be a feminist or an African American, there is no one way to fight against racism and discrimination. To effect real change, we need well-situated progressives who can gain access to and work within existing structures, but we also need reformers who work outside the politics of respectability to raise unheard voices, monitor progress and keep momentum moving forward. My reaction to the students in that clip was demeaning and disrespectful, and for that I sincerely apologize to each of them. It was also a direct violation of Oberlin’s core values of diversity and inclusion, and for that I sincerely apologize to the entire community.

During this time of anxiety and tension on campus, try not to make the same mistakes. Before passing judgment on a student or an administrator, dig a little deeper to determine what information you might lack about their action or perceived inaction. Think critically about your own privilege and how it might be affecting your judgement. Real progress happens when we all educate ourselves on good allyship, which is equal parts knowing when to speak up, and when to shut up. Real progress happens when we all sow the radical seeds of mutual dignity, kindness and respect. Real progress happens when we all listen — really listen — to one another, because words hurt — but they also heal.

–Ryan Brazell, OC ’05
Co-Chair, Oberlin Lambda Alumni Affiliate Group Representative, Alumni Association Executive Board