Published November 23, 2020
Two women, longtime friends of different backgrounds, explored what it means to strive for racial justice in a Nov. 19 Zoom webinar hosted by UB’s Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIX).
More than 370 individuals attended the event, titled “Is Being an Ally Enough?” It was part of OIX’s “Let’s Talk about Race” series of lectures, town halls and other events designed to foster conversations toward achieving the goal of deep cultural and structural transformation.
Amy L. Reynolds, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the Graduate School of Education, joined Gail Wells, UB alumna, former director of student life at SUNY Buffalo State and a leader in diversity training and social justice advocacy, to discuss whether it’s sufficient to be an “ally” in the struggle for racial equity. Their answer was an emphatic “no,” unless the definition is widened to include being active — not passive — in the cause. One must also be willing to take risks and apply unflinching honesty to examining attitudes and behavior.
Throughout the webinar, Wells and Reynolds assessed their own evolving insights as individuals, friends and colleagues. They worked together at Buffalo State in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and recently rekindled their friendship. Following the initial presentation, the two women responded to audience questions, while furthering their dialogue during the hour-long event.
In introducing Reynolds and Wells, President Satish K. Tripathi underscored the university’s commitment to racial justice. “Meaningful social change is not the work of the few,” he said. “Rather, it requires the engaged participation of every member of our university community. As members of a diverse, inclusive and scholarly community, we must thoughtfully apply our intellect, our expertise and our diversity of experience to help create a more just and equitable society.”
Reynolds, an expert on multicultural competence in counseling psychology and higher education, said awareness of racial injustice is a first step, but it’s inadequate if not deepened with hard work and personal commitment. “To be an ally is to use your privilege to combat systems of oppression,” she said. “It’s to amplify the voices of the oppressed before your own.”
For her part, Wells emphasized the practice of being an active ally over generalized expressions of sympathy or understanding. “It requires trust,” she said. “It requires you to be vulnerable and for you to be comfortable making mistakes.” Mostly though, she said, “an ally is someone who listens really well, is able to let go of their shame or their issues, and look at something from the viewpoint of another person. And stop trying to defend yourself or defend America or put yourself at the center.”
“Being an ally is something that needs to be woven into our daily lives,” Reynolds continued. “It’s not something that you put on your calendar.”
Wells agreed, adding that becoming an ally in a racial context stems from an “aha moment” resulting in a changed perspective. “When I was coming up [during the civil rights movement], it was seeing Black people demonstrating peacefully and the brutal attacks on them by the police, or by people who came out as counter-protesters,” she said. “When people began to see that and said, ‘Oh no, wait a minute,’ it started to become enlightening, a revelation, and it moved people to action.”
Commenting on the positive attitude toward Black Lives Matter among many white people in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Reynolds said she was “concerned but not surprised” by the recent lessening of white support for the movement. “Being an ally is a lifelong journey, a lifelong commitment,” she said. “People of color, Black people in particular, know that it’s a daily struggle. And to be an ally means to be able to take it on as your daily struggle. That doesn’t mean that’s all I do, 24-7. [But] you are sniffing out inequities, you’re looking to see how people are differentially treated.”
Reynolds described her advocacy for affinity groups in which white people meet with other white people “to work on our stuff — the racism that we’ve internalized, the hidden, and maybe not so hidden [factors involved]. In order to be an effective ally, it means you have to be willing to have some pushback. You’re going to make mistakes; you’re going to get some feedback. It’s hard to get that feedback and hear it if you haven’t done your own work. If you don’t have the cultural humility to be told, ‘You know, you made a pretty big assumption when you said that thing.’”
“The honest conversation is something that we just refuse to have because it’s always been a blame-shame game,” said Wells. “‘I wasn’t there when it happened. It wasn’t that bad. Why are we still talking about race? What am I allied to? Hasn’t everything been figured out?’ So I think being an ally means you’re willing to stumble. You’re willing to look at your mistakes. You’re willing to say that race is still an issue in America, and you have to think about the goal and the outcome.”
A challenge remains in that white and Black people often don’t have close relationships in which to mutually benefit from their experiences and insights. Reynolds recalled the moment when she and Wells were giving diversity training to a group of young people chosen to be ambassadors and tour guides when the Amistad Schooner came to Buffalo in 2003. “Wells asked them, ‘How many of you have a friend of a different race?’
“They all raised their hands,” Reynolds said. “And then you said, ‘How many of you have sat at your friend’s mama’s kitchen table?’ And almost everybody put their hand down.
“We have to change who is in our lives,” said Reynolds of the lessons learned from this experience. “Otherwise, [achieving racial justice] is going to be a theoretical idea.”