On allies

12 Oct

It used to be that allies were in. You know, it was progressive, righteous and cool to be an ally. Whether you were a white ally (of people of color) or the heterosexual member of the Gay Straight Alliance, you were walking the social justice walk.

Then, being an ally became uncool. It was patronizing, self-righteous and more of the status quo than the status novo.

So there was a retreat to consciousness. Awareness offers a safe, low commitment haven for folks who don’t want to be caught allying in the post-ally era.

Well, cool or not cool, there’s a very real need for allies. And here’s the reason: social proof.

In the 1930’s pioneering social psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated the influence of group judgment on individual perception and discernment of what is right and true. Professor Dan Ariely from the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University referenced Sherif’s work in a recent NPR article on “small stakes cheating” and why so many of us do it when it is, after all, cheating. According to Ariely, “social proof is the idea that if other people are doing it, it must be OK” (http://www.npr.org/2012/09/24/161696134/many-of-us-are-small-stakes-cheaters-but-why).

Ariely’s research into socially forgiven cheating includes an interesting, if not shocking, finding (which one might expect from the Center for Advanced Hindsight): social proof’s effects rely on in-group identification. In a study Ariely conducted, when college students thought someone from their college had cheated, the social proof effect (“Then I’ll cheat, too!”) was much stronger than when they thought someone from another college had cheated.

Which makes me think about the importance of allies.

Social proof theory and anecdotal experience suggest that if a white person stands up to racism, other white people will see standing up as socially acceptable and even correct behavior. More so, than if they witness a person of color saying, “Hey, that’s racist!” So too, for heterosexual folks who observe other heterosexual folks stand up to homophobia and heterosexism.

This is in no way to say that minorities need to be saved by the majority. Rather, the majority plays a critical role in the work of social justice,  different than and alongside the minority. And everyone has not only their role to play, but their group to work with and within.


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