Huge thanks to student activists: Joel Coats, Amy Flores, Javon Garcia, Tess Given, Clare Mao, Taylor Nys, Sivan Philo, Devyn Shea, and Qianning Zhang, for sharing their time and wisdom with me. 

We talk about social justice. We talk about being “allies.” We talk, and talk, and talk. But how do we actually DO these things? A lot of the time it comes down to… well… listening. I spoke to nine self-identified student activists about how to be a better ally, and I proudly present their helpful hints to you, the aspiring Grinnellian social justice ally and activist.


One theme came up again and again with each of the students I interviewed: the most important thing an ally can do is to just listen. As one of my interview subjects put it, “if you’re talking, someone else isn’t.” It can be tempting to jump in with your own ideas, theories, and experiences, but don’t forget that as an ally you’re in a supporting role. Accept that you don’t know everything, and be open to new and uncomfortable ideas. Respect the value of lived experience: for example, a person of color has learned about racism by living as a minority in a racist society, while a white ally can only learn about racism secondhand. Be ready to challenge yourself, and to reevaluate even your most basic assumptions. And know that it’s not enough to proclaim yourself an ally; you have to actually do something about the issue, too. Try to think of “ally” as a verb, and not a noun. So, go to meetings. Read blogs. Show up at events. Ask the community what you can do, and then follow through.

Here’s the bad news: no matter how good your intentions, at some point, as an ally, you are going to fuck up. It sucks—it really sucks—but, as a more privileged person working with a less privileged group of people, at some point or another, you are going to accidentally say something that hurts the people you are trying to support. You might get called out, and you might even get some people seriously pissed at you. And—I can’t stress this enough—it is going to suck. But you’ll recover, and you might even be able to handle it with grace. Here are a few tips from my student activist experts:

  • Take it as a compliment. You know the expression that some people are “beyond saving”? Well, if you’ve been called out, then you’re not one of those people. The fact that someone has taken the time to point out a mistake means that they think you are mature enough to handle the criticism. Obviously taking criticism as a compliment is easier said than done… but it’s worth keeping in mind.
  • Remember: nobody’s perfect. No one, anywhere, has reached total social justice enlightenment; we’re all walking this path together, and while some of us are farther along than others, no one has arrived. So you’re in good company.
  • Own up to your mistakes. If you think there’s been a genuine misunderstand- ing between what you said and what was heard, then by all means defend yourself! Most of the time, however, the misunderstanding is on your end: you said something hurtful without realizing its harmful potential. Don’t try to explain to someone why what you said was not actually offensive, but take their offense seriously and apologize.
  • You are not owed an explanation. As frustrating as it can be to hear that you said or did something wrong, and have no idea what exactly about it was wrong, remember that marginalized people are not obligated to spend their time and energy educating you. As an adult living in a self-governing community, you’re perfectly capable of seeking that information out on your own. Where? On the Internet, of course! With the magic of Google you can learn just about anything you want to learn about microaggressions, intersectionality, and everything else on your own time in a stress-free environment.
  • Don’t make it about you. It can be terrible to slip up, and you might find yourself embarrassed, uncomfortable, and apologizing profusely, but in focusing excessively on YOUR feelings of embarrassment, you are effectively minimizing the other person’s feelings. You might be craving some acknowledgment that you’re still a good per- son, and that you get points for trying, but remember that the person you have hurt doesn’t owe you their forgiveness. Just apologize, and promise yourself to do better.

Hopefully this has been a good (if basic) introduction to allyship for Grinnellians interested in getting involved with activism on our campus. I encourage you to look into taking sociology or GWSS classes for more in-depth discussions of these issues, or to attend an activist meeting or two. On the College website there’s a list of all registered organizations, and you can email any activist groups you find interesting to learn more about their mission statements, meeting times, and how you can get involved. And, silly as it sounds, I can’t stress the Internet enough as an awesome source of information and networking—whatever your interest, you can find FAQ pages and introductions to help you become more familiar with the material. Seriously, just google “racism 101,” “trans 101” or anything else, and marvel at the abundance of resources at your disposal. This is also great because it allows you to educate yourself at your own pace, and spares marginalized people the burden of having to explain the basics of their oppression to every privileged person they meet. The information is at your finger tips.

A Super Brief (And Incomplete) Social Justice Glossary

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that social justice has its own specialized vocabulary—one which can be incredibly alienating to people unfamiliar with it. I’ve included a quick refresher on social justice terms in this article as a reference point, but remember to know your audience. Think of how you’d talk to your friends back home, or your parents (if they’re anything like mine); throwing around words like “patriarchy” and “microaggression” could make your conversational partner feel like you’re speaking a different language, and no matter how well-reasoned your argument might be, your point will be lost.

Abelism: A term used to describe normal assumptions and practices that often lead to unequal treatment of people with apparent or assumed physical, intellectual or behavioral differences. (From

Cissexism: A cissexual person is someone whose gender identity is aligned with the biological sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a person who was labeled male at birth and self-identifies as a man is cissexual beliefs and social structures that affirms cissexual identity and delegitimizes the existence and expression of transgender identity.

Classism: From the succinctly named, it’s “differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class, the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups, [and] the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.” An example of classism is the assumption that people receiving welfare benefits are lazy or stupid.

Heterosexism: A system of beliefs and social structures that affirm heterosexual relationships, people, and identities. It delegitimizes and threatens the existence of non-heterosexual relationships, people, and identities.

Microaggressions: They’re “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative … slights and insults towards [marginalized people].” (From “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”) Basically, a microaggression is a reminder to a marginalized person that they are marginalized. Examples include asking a person of color where they’re “really” from, or asking a female homosexual couple, “Who’s the man in the relationship?”

Privilege: Unearned benefits that a dominant group receives automatically from society. For example, straight people have the privilege of seeing people of their same sexual orientation portrayed frequently and positively in the media, while queer individuals do not.

Racism: As it’s used in activist and sociological circles, racism refers exclusively to discrimination against people of color. It’s often said that racism is “prejudice + power;” most positions of power are held by white people, many of whom, whether consciously or unconsciously, have internalized racial biases. This means that the laws that get passed, the curriculum that’s taught in schools, the shows produced for TV, and more, tend to be made by white people for the benefit of white people. So, while individual people of color can hold anti-white racial prejudice, reverse racism is not a thing.

Sexism: The activist and sociological definition is different from the one you may have been taught. In a social justice context, sexism refers exclusively to discrimination against women. Most positions of power are held by men, so society is constructed and functions in ways that benefit men and disadvantage women. Although individual women can be prejudiced against men, reverse sexism is also not a thing.