academy-sponsors-fall2016A UW sophomore — who asked that her name not be published — and her roommates were recently discussing the treatment of people of color by the government in the US and Puerto Rico. They described the little-known era in which the US government sterilized many Puerto Rican women during the 1950s and 60s. One of the roommates kept inserting details about Honduras, and her own experience as a Honduran, which had nothing to do with the topic at hand. While both of these topics are incredibly important, it doesn’t make sense to fight over as which one is more important, or to act as if your experiences are worse or more oppressive than someone else’s.

This happens regularly enough to have a name; it’s called “stacking oppression.” It usually happens when two or more marginalized groups get together for discussion in a “safe space” environment, and often it goes unnoticed. Whether you mean to or not, when you divert the conversation back to your own experiences in a “I see what you’re saying, but I think my people have it worse because …” kind of way, it takes away from the safe space created.

Oppression-stacking violates one important rule of proper allyship: not speaking over the group you’re trying to help.

Quite simply, you are not important in the discussions about suffering within a community you aren’t a member of.

You are there to learn, and you can’t learn about other people if you’re dominating the conversation.You’ve entered a community’s safe space in an effort to sympathize, not compare. Being oppressed is not a game where you win if you’re the most oppressed. There is no prize or gold medal waiting. What do you get for being the most targeted person? Nothing. In fact, no one should want to be the most oppressed in the room, because it’s daunting knowing how wrongfully you’ve been treated.

Here are some more rules to being a proper ally:

  • Understand your privilege. Most people are privileged in some way. It’s important to understand the advantages you have over a group of people, and why they’re known as privilege.
  • Do your homework. As stated above, if you want to help a group of marginalized people, please understand the history behind their suffering.
  • Realize that the word “ally” is just a word. Just because you say you’re an ally, doesn’t actually make you one. It’s not a noun, it’s a verb, which means it’s time for you to get out there and actually help the people who need it by protesting, educating yourself, etc.
  • Speak up for those who might not have an opportunity to. Using your privilege as a means of support can really help, but it comes with some danger. One of those dangers include asserting your thoughts in a discussion.

Stacking oppression pins marginalized groups against each other. In that way, its only real purpose is to serve white people. If minority groups are against each other, there is no way for solidarity between them. If there is no solidarity, there’s a higher chance for white people to further derail us from our goal: equity. It’s a chance to gain more power and keep us in the same place we’ve always been. It’s important to know when to pick your battles, and when to stay out of the spotlight if you aren’t a part of the conversation.

Being an ally is easy. No one can deny you the right to say “I am an ally of…”, but, being a proper ally is hard. It’s more than just putting on the “Ally” pin and walking around proudly while feeling good about yourself. Being an ally means constantly working to better understand the circumstances marginalized people face, and the history of how they got into that position. It also means realizing that regardless of your race, everyone deserves the chance to speak about their experiences. Your trials and tribulations are not more important than someone else’s.

This piece was produced by a student in the Madison365 Academy program. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Madison365, its staff, its board of directors, or its sponsors.