Earlier this month, The Huffington Post published a contributor piece shared on social media as “I was afraid of Muslims until I started dating one.” In it, the author describes her transformation from being born and bred to fear Muslim men and society to her growing realization—after she began dating a Muslim man—that not everything was as she expected it to be. While her journey turned out positively, it was nonetheless reductive. Today we argue that allyship must not depend on personal and familiar connections, but must come from a place that is deeper in recognizing the common threads that connect struggles against marginalization.
While personal connections may seem an intuitive foundation for changing an opinion, such a starting point can do more harm than good. First-hand experiences certainly corroborate more open worldviews, but they are no substitute for an already open mind. Many marginalized groups are right to point out how frustrating it can be that accomplishments by community members and political activism over decades highlight biases that many others will recognize only after a personal connection to the issues.
Relying on connections often unnecessarily compartmentalizes struggles against bias by limiting the scope of understanding, exemplified in how someone might support their close “gay brother” but not the politicized and distant “criminal illegal immigrant.” Also troubling this paradigm is the number of outgroups that find themselves on the margins of American society. Relying solely on stories which are relatable or zero degrees of separation away leaves a great deal to be desired. Diversity comes in many more forms than any one person is able or likely to encounter. So while intimate experiences may be helpful, they are not enough.
A view of allyship formed by personal connections comes at the cost of tokenizing histories and placing the burden of education on individual persons. Literature, movies and carefully chosen Internet resources are far better tools for dispelling implicit bias. Additionally, there are events like the Muslim Students Association’s annual Islam 101 student panel that are open forums for discussion freely offered by the oft misunderstood community.
Clearly these arguments extend beyond the vitriol that has been directed at Muslim-Americans in recent years and decades. Survivors of sexual assault, women, transgender people, immigrants and members of the LGBT+ community are marginalized and caught up in issue areas that relate deeply to their rights. All too often, sympathy derives from the ability to say, “My sister and mother do deserve better!” or “I know an undocumented student.” Without losing enthusiasm for these important policy debates, it is important to inspect the roots of our support. Allies must not say without warrant that they can relate to the struggles that are happening. Rather, it is that they cannot relate but stand in support nonetheless. Empathy for struggles against marginalization must not be contingent on personal experiences but built upon mutual understanding and support.
“Show kindness to … the near neighbor and the neighbor farther away.” The full verse of this quotation from the Qur’an emphasizes the virtues of humility and outward generosity in everyday life. We ought to treat with kindness all those who we come to know, regardless of whether they are familiar or alien to us at first. The lottery of birth that draws distance between yourself and someone who is Other should have no bearing on how you can recognize how they too are situated and how we can all care for and about one another.
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