Being an Ally: Race, Racism and Social Justice

Guest Sermon by Dr. Shan Mukhtar

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on July 30, 2017

In keeping with the theme for today – that of being an ally and advocate for racial and social justice – I decided to focus on the thing that I feel is one of the greatest challenges allyship and collaborative work – the fear of discomfort. In this I’m drawing from a body of scholarship from higher education called “pedagogies of discomfort.” That is, how do we teach and learn social justice and social change in diverse classroom spaces in ways that are authentic and possibly transformative.  

Two of the scholars who have written at length on the topic – pedagogies of discomfort – are Zembylas and McGlynn. They state the following: “Emotions are involved in relations of power and are crucial to the formation of social norms.” What this means is that the relationship between positive or negative emotions and power – that is who or what has power in a society and who or what does not – allow us to create the social norms that people generally follow – such as norms of how we express emotion and conduct ourselves in public spaces. So then if a social norm is unjust, if it is based on a false, biased, or even cruel premise, if it is used to oppress others and deny them full human citizenship, then we must disrupt it, and as Zembylas and McGlynn write, “Disrupting . . . social norms demands a change in the emotions associated with these norms” it “requires a re-evaluation of the emotional attachment to certain norms and practices that sustain inequities.”  

Those of us who care about the world, who see ourselves as ethical, fair, anti-racist, anti-hate of any kind, when we see or hear about injustice, will usually immediately feel shock, anger, outrage, sadness, despair, or compassion for those being wronged. We depend on those emotions to let us know something is wrong. But what if we don’t feel those things. What if through our own biases or assumptions we don’t feel emotions that we associate with the sense that something wrong is occurring. Does it mean the injustice never happened? Does it automatically mean the people experiencing the situation are over-reacting or misinterpreting something?  Zembylas and McGlynn warn that setting our agendas and marking our place within a conflict or struggle based on such determinations can become “idiosyncratic,” and I argue, it keeps us from thinking, examining, reflecting on what is actually happening around us and to us and – through us. Because the injustices that are perpetuated through our identities, our privileges, our social norms are the hardest to accept for what they are.

But that’s not all. On the other side of that spectrum is the emotions we tie to ideas of rightness, justice, progress, unity, equality. In this case, we tend to associate moves in a positive direction as being linked to positive feelings. Being anti-racist and acting on that ethic should feel good because we are fighting against something bad. Mainstream stories of the civil rights movement are stories of triumph and togetherness in the face of evil. Photos of Freedom Summer organizers being beaten by police, marchers being attacked with fire hoses and German Shepherds,, the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodwin, and Schwerner in Mississippi – these evoke our outrage. The iconic image of Dr. Martin Luther King at the podium at the March on Washington, young women and men traveling across the country to converge on the southeast US to register black voters, or forty four years later the election of the first black president of the United States, for many people in this country not just those who see themselves as activists – these events and their memories evoke a hopefulness and sense of pride.      

But actual allyship and advocacy rarely involve a sustained sense of positive emotion. They exist perpetually in the “emotional ambivalence associated with [critical thought and action].” Being an ally calls for embracing a different type of emotion – that of discomfort, which another scholar, Berlak wrote was not just unavoidable but also necessary. And by discomfort what I mean is feelings of confusion or fear — What if I look like or live my life like the people we are organizing against? I am socioeconomically privileged. I’m a man. I’m straight. I’m white. I’m Christian. I am a citizen of this country. I am someone who can exercise their civic rights, like the right to vote, easily. What if the people I consider my family, friends, or community look and live like the people we are organizing against? Is my presence as an ally or advocate wanted here? Do I belong in this space? Do I belong in this movement? What role is it possible for me to play?

The idea of “pedagogies of discomfort” – the strategies for teaching and learning that Zembylas and McGlynn and others write about, and the idea of “social movements of discomfort” – the strategies of community building and organizing that communities like this one may want to engage in among themselves or with other groups – both center on all of us examining and reflecting upon our “cherished beliefs and comfort zones in order to deconstruct the ways in which we have learned to see, feel, act, and react. So that if we can see fit to “uncover and question the deeply embedded emotional dimensions that frame and shape [our] habits, routines, and unconscious complicity with hegemony” then we can walk down the path of dismantling even those injustices that seem on the surface to serve us quite well – help us get our foot in the door, help us make it home safely every day, that provide us with place, property, a sense of belonging – those things that according to our norms, do not elicit our ire. Within these difficult spaces of discourse, we can understand (even if we do not agree) the differences of meaning between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, between discrimination and reverse discrimination, between equity and equality, between the privileges of whiteness and the transnational systems of white supremacy. And to be sure in spaces of advocacy, discomfort with language and meaning has always created tension even within seemingly common struggles. This is not a new thing. A classic example is that of Martin and Malcolm. Whose ideas of progress or revolution can elicit substantive social change and justice? This was during the civil rights movement a source of considerable tension – among other tensions – within the movement. But imagine, if we actually acknowledged that Dr. King’s “dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls” was not a plea for equality or sameness but a highly critical call for what we now refer to as social and economic equity or distributive justice , and that Malcolm X’s “motto” of “freedom by any means necessary… justice by any means necessary… equality by any means necessary” was to many Americans as compelling a call to arms as the American Revolution was to the people we revere as our national forefathers, in what ways could these acknowledgements stretch, shake up, or even crush our often narrow definitions of “movement” and “revolution”? And how do we learn to recognize that disruption and the sustained sense of discomfort we feel when critically examining our norms of knowledge and action as “not just unavoidable but also very necessary”?  

Source: Zembylas, Mickalinos and McGlynn, Claire (2010), “Discomforting pedagogies: emotional tensions, ethical dilemmas and transformative possibilities,” British Educational Research Journal.