Published November 24, 2020
A GSE professor and a UB alumna and former student life director at SUNY Buffalo State—longtime friends of different backgrounds—explored what striving for racial justice means during a Zoom webinar, hosted this month by UB’s Office of Inclusive Excellence as part of the “Let’s Talk about Race” series of lectures, town halls and events.
More than 370 attended “Is Being an Ally Enough?” led by Amy Reynolds, GSE professor of counseling, school and educational psychology, and Gail Wells, UB alumna, former student life director at SUNY Buffalo State and a diversity trainer and social justice advocate. Their conversation centered on 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 his introduction to their talk, President Satish 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.”
Throughout their hour-long conversation, Wells and Reynolds, who worked together at Buffalo State in the late 1990s and early 2000s, assessed their own evolving insights and answered audience questions.
Reynolds, an expert in multicultural competence, said awareness of racial injustice is a first step. But, she said, it’s inadequate if it is not coupled with hard work and personal commitment. “To be an ally is to use your privilege to combat systems of oppression,” Reynolds said. “It’s to amplify the voices of the oppressed before your own.”
For her part, Wells emphasized that being an ally is about action. “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.”
Reynolds elaborated. “Being an ally is something that needs to be woven into our daily lives,” she said. “It’s not something that you put on your calendar.”
Wells shared an observation from the civil rights movement when she noticed allyship followed an “aha moment” and a change in perspective. “When I was coming up, 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.”
Reynolds acknowledged the positive attitude among many white people toward the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd seems to have diminished. She is concerned, but “not surprised” by the recent lessening of white support for the movement.
Being an ally is a lifelong journey, a lifelong commitment,” said Reynolds. “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.” Instead, she said, it means this: “You are sniffing out inequities, you’re looking to see how people are differentially treated.”
Effective allies, Reynolds said, have to be willing to make mistakes, be humble and accept critical observations that may sound like this, “You know, you made a pretty big assumption when you said that thing.’”
Wells agreed. “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.”
A remaining challenge: White and Black people often don’t have close relationships. Reynolds told a story about diversity training she did with Wells in 2003 for a group of young people working as ambassadors and tour guides when the Amistad, a recreation of the original 19th century schooner that held kidnapped Africans, came to Buffalo.
“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 been at your friend’s kitchen table?’ And almost everybody put their hand down,” said Reynolds. To make racial justice more than a theoretical idea, she said, “we have to change who is in our lives.”