The concept of being an ally is something that has been making frequent appearances on my radar, as of late, so the purpose of this blog post will be to unpack exactly what being an ally means and some of the issues that may arise when considering the implications of this position. Being an ally is a seemingly positive concept, but in truth, there are many considerations we must take into account when aligning ourselves with this title.
Being an ally, simply put, is when someone takes ownership for their privileges and tries to use them in a way that benefits those who haven't been quite so lucky. It might be simpler to explain using examples. If you've never been homeless, but the bulk of your life's work goes towards improving conditions for those who don't have a home, you're an ally. If you're a male fighting for greater gender equality, you're an ally. If you are a heterosexual or cisgendered person who stands in solidarity with those who have faced oppression and injustice because they identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, you're an ally.
Now while this is seemingly a concept that only brings about the good, there is a danger in aligning yourself with this identity. As an ally, you've had privilege bestowed on you, and this is something you must acknowledge and sit in for the realization of your allyship to take place. Not doing so is simply unjust. Because of this unearned privilege, because of this position you've been granted as someone who is not a victim of oppression, your voice is easily heard. Sometimes, even more so than those people you are actually working to improve societal conditions for.
In this powerful spoken word piece by Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley, the dangers of being an ally are very clearly highlighted. As the last line of the poem says, "The problem with speaking up for each other is that everyone is left without a voice".
Are issues of inequality being properly addressed when they are spoken for by people who have never experienced them?
This is one of the many thoughts I experienced two weeks ago, when attending a lecture for my International Development course. The speech in question was given by an obviously accomplished and distinguished international development professor, and the subject at hand concerned isolation onset by poverty and rejection of culture, with a special focus on Canada's indigenous peoples.
The prof spent the first 10-15 minutes of the 1-hour speech telling the audience about her family background. As it turns out, she came from a very well-off family that owned a very profitable business, which had grown over the course of many generations. Learning about her family history was interesting enough, but left me wondering if she was going to connect it to the issues central to the talk.
10 minutes later, I was fuming, as she launched into an explanation of why poverty was so isolating to a person.
Now don't get me wrong- the message that she was presenting was very interesting and informative, especially for the people in the audience who didn't know too much about Canada's indigenous population. In no way am I trying to discredit this particular professor or the important points that were conveyed in the speech. But I have to admit, I left the presentation feeling a little bit peeved. I lamented to a friend that I was tired of rich white people telling me what it felt like to be poor and marginalized. How could they know: It's not like they'd experienced anything remotely similar to that.
Then, I backtracked. Maybe I was being too hard on the professor. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this professor was simply just being an ally to this community that lacked certain financial privileges. However, an important part of being an ally is recognizing and acknowledging your privileges, juxtaposing them with the experiences you are speaking for. Although the professor had talked about their family background, there was never any indication of acknowledgement of how this affected or related to the subject at hand. There was no "I recognize that I've been lucky enough not to have been in a situation where this kind of isolation could occur" or "I can't speak for myself, but I can speak to those I've been able to meet about their particular situation". There was simply no connection the prof drew between their privileged background and the subject at hand. And this is a fatal error when acting as an ally.
Maybe the prof wasn't intending to act as an ally. Maybe their goal was just to inform the audience of the facts at hand. But I would argue in this field of study, with so many intersecting identities at play, the concepts of social justice and more specifically, ally-ship, should be taken into consideration (said professor also used a phrase and explained that it meant _____ "in Africa". Africa has 54 different countries which have different languages and dialects, so I'm guessing it wouldn't mean the same thing across the continent).
This is where the considerations surrounding being an ally become even murkier. In a way, it becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it seems unjust to speak about specific experiences of marginalization on someone's behalf, especially when you haven't experienced it. On the other hand, sometimes hearing about these situations from someone else is the only way that people will become aware of it. Think about it. We're perfectly comfortable listening to someone who we can identify with about the issue of homelessness for example. But how many people are actually willing to engage with the vast amounts of homeless people we see day in and day out, and learn all about their stories and their experiences?
Therein lies the most powerful ability of an ally- being able to communicate the experiences of marginalized communities to people who otherwise might not listen. And as long as this power of ally-ship is used while the unearned privileges of the ally are acknowledged and accepted by themselves, allies can provide a great amount of support in the fight against oppression. But being support is the glass ceiling in terms of one's potential as an ally. Because ultimately, it is not an ally's experience. It is not their story. And treating it as such actually may end up hurting their cause instead of helping it.
Ah, October. Fall is imminent, midterm season is fast approaching, and the streets are covered in fallen leaves, littered with the occasional bursts of bright red, orange, green, and blue from the (usually vandalized) campaign posters lining city streets all across Canada. Election season is upon us.
This October 19th, Canadians will take to the polls and elect our Prime Minister for the next five years. With social media in its prime, there is no way this information is impossible to miss nowadays. Most people are likely to see their Facebook pages bombarded with Elections Canada advertisements and invites to the Stephen Harper Going Away Party. Canadian elections aren't the only relevant ones either. Our good friends south of the border are feeling election fever themselves, and their plethora of colourful candidates are taking the stage to try and secure party leadership for the upcoming 2016 presidential election.
Canadian citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote, but that doesn't mean everyone takes advantage of this opportunity. According to Elections Canada, the 2011 election produced a 61.1% voter turnout, meaning that just under 40% of the eligible voting population didn't take part. Voter participation is something that has been on many people's radar recently, with friends, family, politicians, and celebrities all encouraging everyone to take advantage of the right they've been giving and try to use their voice to make a difference. Whether one votes or not, the idea of having the vote serves a different level of importance for different people. This election in particular was very special for me, as it was my first time being able to vote in anything ever (save student council elections), so I made sure to take advantage of my voting right as soon as possible. I could've spent this blog post talking about why voting matters to me and trying to appeal to those who've chosen to refrain from doing it. However, in the spirit of democracy, I decided to extend the opportunity to some of my readers, asking them why (or why not) voting matters to them. I was able to garner a tremendous amount of responses from all ages and demographics, and many raised a number of key issues that need to be addressed.
Does Voting Matter to You? Why or Why Not?
Many people brought up the point that voting gives a person a voice and a platform to express their opinion.
"You have to do your bit for what you believe in."
"We have to exercise our choice. Democracy in action."
"Voting gives me the feeling to have a real say in the matter."
"Yes, voting matters. A lot. If you don't exercise your right to vote, you don't have the right to comment or complain. Imagine living in a society where you have no right to express your agreement or disagreement with your government with a vote. "
"Voting matters as it is one of the way to express my opinion"
"Of course it matters if you like to voice an opinion on how society will be governed. If you do not vote you have no option."
"It's important that I have a voice."
"Voting is the easiest way to bring out a change that you want to see. Everyone should have an opinion and be able to express it."
"Participating in democracy and using your vote to express your opinion and influence federal decision-making is important!"
"Yes!! What every one person does can change the world. "
Some readers emphasized the importance of voting as a right that not everyone is privy to, and this means we should appreciate it and take advantage of it in an even greater capacity.
"Yes it matters. A responsible citizen will always vote."
"As a woman, I must not take for granted this privilege that we have fought for. There are many parts of the world where no one gets to vote and express their opinion and even if they do, it's not valued."
"Yes - it's your obligation and right as a citizen. Learn, be intelligent, knowledgable and make your vote heard. Be someone. Your voice matters. "
Side Note: Canadian women did not have the right to vote until 1918, prior to which they were not even considered to be persons under the law.
Some readers communicated their feelings through humour and sarcasm.
"Yes, it allows me to chose who continues to screw up the country."
"Yes, because ticking boxes gives me a civic erection."
All jokes aside, certain readers acknowledges that while voting was important, there are some problems in the election systems both in Canada and in the US.
"It does matter to me, unfortunately permanent residents are not allowed to vote which to me is very unfair as we live and work in this country too."
"I think it should be important to me but I feel over the years it hasn't made an impact and therefore don't stress if I don't vote."
"In the Canadian context, voting and greater public opinion remains one of few important checks on excessive executive authority in our parliamentary system. Our central institutions have suffered erosion from within, favouring the arbitrary discretion of a PM and his/her faculties above that of a collective House composed of elected representatives. Although our convention of 'responsible government' has been reversed in effect, Canadian leadership is still accountable to the nuances of popular support. Voting, aside from coup or cash, may be the greatest way for Canadians to affect change in our system. An issue well highlighted this election has been how spectacularly broken and ineffectual our electoral system truly is. Movements of 'strategic voting' expose the failures of SMP to accurately represent Canada's political landscape. Hopefully with our generation comes the collective realization that, beyond longstanding platitudes and regurgitated rhetoric of sexy populism, we need to have a real conversation about electoral and institutional reform. "
"Yes in your local community but not in the [American] presidential vote. I would like to see the electoral vote go away and count the people's votes.
"Of course it matters. I do hope that more people consider Electoral Reform."
"Voting is a right that I wish to exercise, even though more and more I feel like it matters less and less. Politics is now akin to show business and less rooted in anything useful or helpful to regular folk. Grassroots organizations that have a "helping one person at a time" mentality seem to have more impact than political posturing. My definition of impact is actually helping people so that those who need support, relief, assistance etc. actually FEEL like they have been supported, relieved or assisted. All the political words rarely translate into actionable items, which is when apathy sets in and disinterest occurs. We really need to fight that urge and live with the hope that some politician somewhere is working for the people. So, that is why I exercise my right to vote. I am an optimist."
Side Note: Canada uses the 'First Past the Post' electoral system. The United States uses an Electoral College system. For explanations of these respective systems, please go to:
- First Past the Post
- Electoral College
One reader straight-up expressed why voting does not matter to them personally.
"Voting doesn't matter to me. I feel like I don't know enough about the candidates to vote and I don't have enough time to get to know them. "
Side Note: Not sure which candidates to vote for or where each party stands on issues that matter to you? You can visit each of the party websites to learn more:
Alternatively, there are online tools that allow you to take a quick test to learn where you fall in respect to each of the parties and platforms:
One of the biggest issues most people cite in regards to voter turnout is the youth vote. Youth are consistently one of the lowest-represented age brackets when it comes to voter turnout. These past few weeks, I've personally seen a big push from many adults I know to try and encourage people of my age to vote. I was curious to see whether this so-called youth apathy was present in my peer group, and was encouraged to find that most of the passionate, engaged, and informed responses came from people my age.
"Absolutely. Even if one vote doesn't make a difference, the idea that a vote makes a difference matters more than anything. Also, voting is the only way we can make a difference, really, and neglecting to do so is giving up your say in government."
"Voting, in my opinion is a crucial civil liberty people of Canada should exercise. Politics affects one's life day in and out whether they realize it or not. Further to such, false majorities are a common product of the Canadian system and this often results in a PM who only 20-30% of Canada's population actually voted for. This should concern people, especially considering this individual has control over a lot of things that impact your life on a consistent basis. Voting is so incredibly important in my eyes that I would even argue it should be made mandatory. Given an individual does not support any of the parties, then they should be able to mark their ballot stating so, but even that is better than neglecting to vote. There are also things the government should do to further voting/make it easier, such as online voting. That being said, a lack of education/understanding can also be a huge contributor which also needs to be addressed. "
"I think voting matters a lot. Everyone's vote is worth the same amount, and as students, having our voices heard could change the outcome of the elections. We have the chance to show the government we do care and that we expect that they listen to what issues we feel are important. I also think it is important for students to do their research before they vote. You hear a lot from parents and read a lot of opinionated posts on friend's Facebook pages, but everyone is different and will prioritize certain issues over others."
"Yes it does because we've got to take our country's future into our own hands and furthermore, party platforms involve us and affect us so by not voting we in a way forfeit any right to complain about our government and politics because we had a chance to voice our opinion and we didn't. If more people vote then we'd more likely have in power someone we actually want and support and have faith in."
The bottom line is, whether you believe voting is a crucial right or an obligation as a citizen and someone who can actively participate in the democratic process, whether you believe in electoral reform or not in voting at all, everyone has an opinion about the upcoming election and how it relates to them and those around them.
On October 19th, our country will go to the polls and voice our opinion on how we want our country to function for the next 5 years. Whether you choose to be a part of this process or not, remember that your every action and decision (even if it's refraining from voting) has a consequence, for yourself and your community. Choose wisely.