Being an effective ally requires significant self-reflection and a strong sense of self-identity. Any educator can become an ally, but the journey might look different depending on one’s identity, experience and familiarity with issues of power and privilege.
To start, create your own identity map. List your identity group memberships, which may include gender, ethnicity, race, familial roles, professional roles and religious affiliations. Keep in mind that these identity group memberships are complex and should not be considered in a strictly binary fashion (e.g., black or white, male or female, gay or straight). Thinking of identity as either/or is limiting and can be harmful to individuals whose identities fall between or outside of these binaries.
Consider each identity group you are a part of and ask yourself these questions:
- Have I experienced privilege because of this group membership? Have I been disadvantaged because of this group membership? Note: For some group memberships, you can experience both privilege and disadvantage.
- Which of these memberships are visible, and which are invisible?
- Which of these memberships are most fundamental to who I am?
Now that you have created your own identity map, have your students map their identities. Encourage them to be as descriptive and nonbinary as possible. For example, you might say, “Think about the identity groups you belong to. Groups can include nationality, ability, race, gender, sexual orientation or other identifiers. Remember that people are complex and unique. Someone who is gender nonconforming or multiracial, for example, may fall in between or completely outside of those categories.” After they map out their group memberships, ask students to identify which characteristics are most fundamental to who they are.
Consider your own identity as well as your students’ identities. Ask yourself:
- Are my students privileged or disadvantaged because of their group memberships? Or both?
- Am I acknowledging both the visible and invisible group memberships of my students?
- Am I valuing the social groups my students value or just the ones that are important to me?
Ally (noun) someone who stands with or advocates for individuals and groups other than their own.
Privilege (noun) a special benefit or advantage that may be earned or unearned.
Note: A person may or may not be aware that they are benefiting from privilege!
Social Justice Allies (noun) “Members of dominant social groups* who are working to end systems of oppression that give them greater privilege and power based on social group membership.”
*Dominant social groups can change depending on context.
—Broido, E.M. (2000). The development of social allies during college: A phenomenological investigation. Journal of College Student Development, 41, 3-17.
Identity (noun) the qualities, characteristics or beliefs that make a person who they are.
Decentralizing and Distributing Dominant Identities
If not acknowledged, dominant identities like whiteness and heterosexuality can overshadow other identities in the classroom and automatically represent “the norm.” There are three distinct ways educators can deal with dominant identities in the classroom.
Ignore the fact that certain traits (e.g., whiteness and heterosexuality) are dominant and fail to acknowledge those traits, leaving them centralized.
Acknowledge that each student is unique, but view students through the lens of socially dominant groups or your own values.
Allow equal space for all identities and encourage students to tell you which core identities are most valuable to them.
Read the following scenarios, and identify whether the educator has centralized, decentralized or distributed dominant identities in the classroom.
Students walk into class on the first day, and the room is almost completely decorated. Students fill out a short survey answering questions about themselves, their likes and their dislikes. The teacher notes that there is space for one or two more posters on a wall based on the interests and passions of the class. After reading the surveys, the teacher will decide what to put up. When students arrive the next day, they see two posters reflecting some of the students’ interests. The same applies for the classroom library. The teacher has selected and organized books into many different genres, but there is limited room for the library to grow based on students’ input or recommendations.
Students walk into class on the first day and notice that almost all the people depicted in the room are famous people from dominant groups—male, white and straight. The teacher gives out an assigned reading list that offers no room for deviation.
Students walk into class on the first day, and the room is not decorated. The teacher circles everyone up and leads a few icebreakers and group-building activities. Then the teacher presents her own identity map as a way to introduce the activity for the students. The teacher says they will work on these over the course of the next week, and students will share their maps as they feel comfortable. At the end of the week, students will decorate the classroom to reflect the identities and interests within their new class community. The room’s decorations will guide class discussions and reading selections for the year.
Answers: B, A, C
Allyship in Action
Adapting curriculum to reflect student interests and identities can be time consuming and, if your curriculum is scripted, may feel impossible. Try looking for ways to highlight and elevate diverse perspectives in the curriculum you are required to teach. Teach about a minor character, discuss the absence of certain voices in the text or bring in an analysis of the text from a different point of view. You might also give students opportunities to analyze texts from the perspectives of their own identity group memberships.