[Trigger warnings: sexual assault, racist police violence, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Semitism, child sexual abuse]
Valerie Aurora teaches the Ally Skills Workshop, which teaches people with more power and privilege how to stand up in small, everyday ways for people with less. She also trains people to the lead the Ally Skills Workshop. She is a long-time Captain Awkward reader and recommends the blog in every workshop she teaches.
Many of us are grappling with how to use our skills and influence to resist the upcoming Trump administration and the hatred and violence that it inspires. As Captain Awkward readers, we’ve been practicing setting boundaries, standing up for our values, and making it awkward for the right person. We are uniquely prepared for a crucial part of the next few months or years: changing the minds of people who support the Trump administration, and standing up to the abusers they are empowering. This post teaches scripts and techniques to do these two tasks, along with the theory behind them. It’s for people living in the U.S., but it may be useful to people living elsewhere as well.
First, some terminology: an ally is someone who uses unearned advantages that society has given to them (a.k.a. privileges) to reduce inequality, with the goal of eventually ending privilege altogether. Targets are people who suffer from oppression – systemic, pervasive discrimination present throughout society that benefits people with more privilege, and harms those with less.
The first question to ask yourself is, how likely is it that you can act as an ally? Here are some things that might give you more privilege in the U.S.: being white, male, cisgender, straight, a natural-born U.S. citizen, a white Protestant (or can pass as one), abled, rich, middle or upper class, university-educated, securely employed, or in a position of power. If you have any of these characteristics, they gives you more power to stand up for targets and work to end oppression (and your own privilege).
Most people have some privileges but not all of them. That means that in some situations, you can act as an ally, and in other situations, you can’t because you are the target of oppression. For example, a Jewish man can act as an ally when someone is being sexist, but will be a target when someone is being anti-Semitic. It can get more complicated: a white Jewish person often can’t use white privilege to be an ally against white supremacy since that system often also includes anti-Semitism.
If you have relatively few opportunities to act as an ally, you can always encourage like-minded people with more privilege to learn ally skills. Either way, remember: you are far less likely to be attacked when you speak up for another group than when members of that group speak up for themselves. For example, a Black person in the U.S. speaking up about racism is far more likely to get racial slurs and death threats than a white person speaking up about racism (who may even get praise and gratitude for doing so).
So let’s get into a concrete example about a conversation likely to come up at Thanksgiving if you have Trump supporters in your family:
You’re a cis man visiting your family for Thanksgiving. Before dinner, you’re helping chop onions in the kitchen with several of your family members, including your loudest, meanest uncle, Uncle Joe.
Uncle Joe: “All those women are lying about Trump grabbing them. Besides, even if he did it, boys will be boys, you know. No use trying to stop them.”
You: [Stops cutting the onions and puts knife down.] [Calmly] “I believe women have the right to not be sexually assaulted. I believe that Trump assaulted those women. If you want to condone sexual assault, you can do it without me.”
You leave the onions half-chopped and walk out of the kitchen, leaving Uncle Joe to deal with the discomfort he created. In the living room, you see your younger cousin Fred, who overheard the conversation. Growing up, he was a sensitive kid who loved playing with you.
You: “It’s really hard when family members act like sexual assault is no big deal.”
Fred: [Looks troubled] “Well, my friends say that sometimes women lie about it for the attention.”
You: [Looking Fred in the eye, speaking kindly] “Hey, I used to think that too: that people who were complaining about being hurt were just whiners who wanted attention, or maybe money. Then a friend of mine told me that when her high school coach pinned her against the wall and put his hand in her shorts, she didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t think anyone would believe her. And then she told me that half her friends have a similar story. I felt so bad for her. I realized that most sexual assault victims never say anything at all because talking about it ruins their lives. Now I assume women are telling the truth about sexual assault until I have a good reason to think otherwise.”
Fred: [Looks a little shocked and taken aback]
You: “Hey, I didn’t mean to lay that on you all at once. But if it’s hard for you to hear that, imagine how hard it was for my friend to actually have that happen to her for real. And on top of that, she couldn’t tell anyone about it. It really sucks.”
Fred: “Huh, I never really thought of it that way. But don’t women lie about rape sometimes?”
You: “Yes, rarely. The thing I realized is, plenty of people believe all women are lying. My job is to be one of the few people supporting them. That’s how we find out the truth.”
Fred: “Wow, I didn’t think of that.”
You: “Yeah, I didn’t think about any of that either until my friend told me about her coach. I’m so grateful my friend trusted me enough to tell me that. I want to support people like her because I want to end sexual assault.” [Long pause] “Hey, so what do you think of the Steelers this season?”
Conversations like this follow a broad pattern. We’ll summarize that pattern, then go into more details about it, and end with some more scripts and examples.
- Start by evaluating your ability to influence others in this situation: Who respects you? Who wants something from you? What can you give or take? Who might retaliate against you if you act?
- Identify whether you are likely to influence or persuade anyone (including the audience), and choose one of the following:
- If you are unlikely to change anyone’s mind, just set a firm boundary about not doing that behavior in places you control, and enforce it.
- If you think someone might change their mind, state your position once, firmly but calmly, then set the boundary and enforce it.
- If you think someone is likely to change their mind – they are a potential ally – then follow the next steps to start a warm, compassionate, safe conversation with that person.
- Figure out what values you might share with the potential ally.
- Make a gentle statement about how your shared values shape your understanding of the topic at hand.
- If they become defensive or angry or argumentative, de-escalate the situation and change the topic while making it clear you still hold to your values.
- If they respond with curiosity or confusion or even apathy, keep going.
- Find a way to express compassion and understanding for how the potential ally ended up with the opinions they have now (tip: develop compassion and love for your past self, who was almost certainly more racist, homophobic, etc. than you are now).
- Make yourself vulnerable in some way: share a time you made a mistake, or something you feel ashamed of, or a time you were hurt.
- Share a personal story about the topic: something that changed your mind, or an “aha!” moment when suddenly you understood why something was wrong (but be sure to preserve the privacy of others when appropriate).
- Help them have compassion for the targets of oppression: talk about how the target must feel, make an analogy with a group the potential ally has an easier time empathizing with, share your own feelings of compassion and love for the targets.
- Restate your values and how they inform your opinion on this topic, warmly and clearly.
- If they have another comment or question, repeat from “Find a way to express compassion” until they run out of questions, or you run out of energy.
- End by changing the subject to something you both enjoy, or expressing your feelings of warmth and connection for the potential ally.
All of these guidelines are intended to help you: spend your time and energy in an effective way, build psychological safety so the potential ally feels comfortable asking questions and expressing doubt, serve as a role model by consistently acting warm and compassionate while also sticking to your values, continue the discussion only as long as the potential ally is still making progress, and end in a way that makes them feel safe coming back to talk to you again.
Here are a few example scripts for each part of the conversation. Let’s start with the example comments that you would be responding to:
- “What I think is that if Black kids would just stop playing with toy guns, they’d got shot a whole lot less.”
- “You have to admit, it just makes sense to be more suspicious of Muslims trying to get into the country. I don’t know that I’m against the ban on Muslim immigration.”
- “I can’t believe how rude my granddaughter was. Why didn’t her mother tell her she had to hug her grandpa? Can’t you talk some sense into her?”
Setting a firm boundary and enforcing it:
- “It’s important to me to value and respect people of color. I won’t participate in a conversation that doesn’t respect that.” + leave the conversation if they don’t stop
- “I believe we should judge people by their actions as individuals, not by their religion. If you disagree, take it outside.” + broken record of “Not here.” “Take it outside.” “We can’t continue until you leave.”
- “Girls’ right to control their own bodies is non-negotiable for me. Let’s change the subject.” + keep suggesting new subjects until they get distracted
Gentle statement about shared values and the topic at hand:
- “I think every kid should have a safe and happy childhood, so it makes me incredibly sad that Black children are being shot by the police more often than other children.”
- “I think part of what makes the U.S. great is our founding value of religious tolerance, so excluding people from the U.S. just because they are Muslim makes no sense to me.”
- “It’s so important to me that every young girl learn that she has the right to decide who touches her body, so when you tell her to hug someone she doesn’t want to, I think about what message she is getting about saying no in other situations.”
Express compassion or understanding:
- “You know, I used to wonder about that too.”
- “I remember having that question too.”
- “That’s a really good question, and it took me years to understand the answer.”
- “I can see that.”
- “I hear what you are saying.” + kind and compassionate recap of what they said
Make yourself vulnerable and sharing your own mistakes:
- “Sometimes I still get nervous when I’m walking on the street and see someone who looks like a mugger on TV.”
- “For many years, the only Muslims I could name were terrorists who had killed a lot of people.”
- “I remember feeling annoyed and suspicious when one of my relatives told me that our uncle made her feel uncomfortable when he hugged her or looked at her. I thought she just wanted to get attention.”
Share a personal story about when you changed your mind or had an “aha!” moment:
- “But when I read about Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun and getting shot when he was only 12 years old… I remember so vividly playing with my BB gun in my neighborhood when I was 10, and I was only worried about my mean neighbor Bill shouting at me. Not getting shot by cops. I suddenly realized that the reason I’m alive and Tamir isn’t is that my skin is a different color.”
- “Then in my poetry class, we read some poetry by Rumi. His poems were so beautiful, about love and freedom from fear. I started reading more about Sufism, which is a very mystical part of Islam, and realized that Islam was just as complicated as Christianity. Some Muslims are pacifists and some are moderates and some are fundamentalists. I realized it made as much sense to assume all Muslims were terrorists as to assume all Christians were televangelists.”
- “Then I found out years later that that same uncle had molested one of my cousins several times. I felt sick when I realized I’d been on a camping trip with them during that time. I think that if we had taken my relative seriously about not wanting to hug my uncle, maybe my cousin would have felt safe telling us what was happening to her.”
Help them have compassion for the target:
- “I just imagine, what was it like for Tamir, being 12 years old and playing, and how terrified he must have been when the cops arrived, and what it was like in the seconds before he died? No one should have to go through that.”
- “I thought, what would it be like to be someone who cared deeply about love and peace and kindness, and have people look at me with fear and revulsion. How would I feel if I got on a plane and the person next to me called the flight attendant and got me kicked off for acting suspicious, because I looked Muslim to them? I’d feel sick all the time.”
- “I felt sick just knowing I was nearby when my cousin might have been molested. How much worse was it for her? Knowing that even if she told us what was happening, we would probably accuse her of making it up, the way we did with my relative who didn’t want to hug him. How lonely and afraid she must have felt.”
Restate your values and connect them to the topic:
- “I just think all people are humans, and deserve the same care and respect I get automatically for being white.”
- “I want to live in a country where people can feel safe from religious persecution, and part of that is not keeping people from immigrating based solely on their religion.”
- “I want girls and women to feel in control of their bodies, and that means supporting girls when they say they don’t want to hug someone, even if they are a relative.”
Reassure them that you still feel warmly towards them, and change the subject:
- “Thanks for listening to me, your opinion means a lot to me. Hey, have you watched that new superhero movie?”
- “I’m really glad we could talk about this, even if we don’t always agree. So, what colleges are you applying to?”
- “I really appreciate you thinking about this, even though it feels uncomfortable. Do you think it’s time to check on the chicken?”
Now it’s your turn, commenters: What are some the ways you developed the skills necessary to follow these scripts? How did you learn to feel compassion for someone who shared your values but believed something horrible because they’d been lied to all their life? How did you learn to recognize your sources of power and influence? How do you stay calm when someone doesn’t mean to be cruel, but says something awful anyway?
Thank you to Mary Gardiner, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Leigh Honeywell, and Kendra Albert, who all contributed to the Ally Skills Workshop and this article. This post is licensed Creative Commons Sharealike-Attribution 4.0 – please reuse and modify with attribution to Valerie Aurora and the above co-authors.