How can I as an individual be an ally in social and global issues?


By Stephanie Boey

How can I as an individual be an ally in social and global issues?

Reading the news can bring on a feeling of helplessness, frustration and discomfort. If you’re feeling the latter two, that’s good. It’s normal and healthy, to see injustices taking place in the world and to have a visceral response to it. But you need not feel helpless, you can do your part.

The longstanding issue of #BlackLivesMatter in the United States, and the eruption to what it is now, says that enough is enough. Systemic racism and oppression has long been a problem in that country, our country, and on the global scale for that matter. We’ve been taught to look at the bigger picture, but what happens when the bigger picture is biased, distorted and ugly? What happens when we don’t like what we see?

If the #BlackLivesMatter movement has taught us anything, it’s that abuse of power continues to happen. In Minneapolis, Officer Derek Chauvin had a man handcuffed, on the ground, and pinned under his knee for a non-violent crime. Officer Derek Chauvin took George Floyd’s life; even after being pleaded by the man that he was violently holding down wasn’t able to breathe, he did nothing to stop himself.

Over in New York, Amy Cooper was told to leash her dog in Central Park by Chris Cooper, in an area where dogs should have been leashed. Instead of respecting the park’s guidelines and following Chris Cooper’s advice, her response was to call the authorities and say that there was African-American man “threatening” her life.

Thankfully, Chris Cooper was able to maintain composure, kept a safe distance and filmed the exchange as evidence, to show that he was not a threat that she had claimed him to be. He did not engage in her confrontational behaviour, or give in to her rising temperament. It’s scary to think what would’ve happened if Chris Cooper did not film the encounter. But what’s scarier is that Amy Cooper knew the power that she wielded as a white woman to call the police on a black man, to say that he was threatening her, and expecting an outcome that would be in her favour. What’s scariest? How many Amy Coopers are out there in the world?

The examples in Minneapolis and New York are less than a fraction of the blatant racism that has been going on in that country, but are crucial moments that have lead us to where we are right now. We can learn something from Chris Cooper, by taking power in passivity, while also upholding your boundaries.

When it comes to oppression and abuse of power, they can come in many forms. There is injustice in the world everyday. When not policed, power structures can lead to disparity. Be it one race claiming superiority over another, or one gender over the other, or on a smaller scale, power dynamics in the office, in your social circle or household. It is only natural as humans to resonate with dominance. It may be 2020, and we’ve evolved into a “modern” society, but make no mistake, it is still a harsh and brutal jungle out there. But what is holding it all together? One word: Society.

History books have told us that governing a society with an imbalance of power leads to a long line of damaging effects, which some of us are feeling to this day. Slavery, colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism to name just a few. But the good news is that we have the capability of abolishing these systemic injustices, but it has to start with ourselves. You have the power to create change. But true power comes from within. So, how do we do it? Simple: Self-improvement. Get ready, ‘cause it’s about to get philosophical AF in here.

1) Educate yourself

I believe the first step in everything is always education. Knowledge is power. However, due to people’s different socioeconomic backgrounds and opportunities, that means we all have different starting points. But you don’t have to go to a fancy Ivy League school to get a proper education. We’re in the 21st century y’all, the world of information is literally at our fingertips. Use your phone, use your laptop, use your tablet. Be hungry for information! Seek it out, feed on it. It can be as easy as following well-respected activists on social media. But if you’re old school, go to the bookstore (a locally owned one preferably), and read up, or visit a library.

2) Fact check your intel

I love our parents and they mean well, but the prime example here are Boomers and their forwarded Whatsapp messages. Please do not be deceived by misinformation and fake news. Do not fall prey to questionable agendas which have the intention to confuse and cause doubt. Stay focused, and refrain the urge to react and hit forward on something you’re not sure about. Take a moment to let the new information sink in. If the information comes from someone you know, ask the right questions to confirm credibility. And if needed, do additional research on it, too.

3) Stop and think

If you’re an introvert, chances are you’re already an expert at this! For those new to it, take the time for careful introspection with all that new information you now have. What are your personal thoughts on it? What do you agree with? What do you stand for? And in the current social climate, what are you against? #BlackLivesMatter has taught us it’s not enough to not be a racist, but we have be anti-racist. Use your personal experiences and learned knowledge to decide what is personally acceptable to you, and what isn’t acceptable is just as important. Desmond Tutu famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.

4) Have an open mind

When it comes to the matter of social discourse and the sharing of ideas, don’t be afraid to be wrong. Ask questions! It is impossible for all of us to be experts in everything. I personally like to be proven wrong, because that means I learned something new, which harks back to my first point ie. education. Listen without judgement, and hear what the other person is saying. Basically, make TIL an IRL thing. The natural response when hearing something you don’t like or don’t agree with is to react immediately. And I believe with the internet and social media, and the current pace that we’re going, it has recently conditioned us to be this way. Reacting is good, but sometimes taking your time is better.

5) Recognise your privilege

An ally is all of the above, but this is crucial. Introspection will help you realise yours. Privilege is defined as a special right or advantage granted or available only to a particular person or group. This can come in many forms, like gender, race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background.

For example, as a Malaysian citizen of Chinese descent, I am aware that I do not belong to the majority of this country, but belonging to an ethnic group that has an approximate 23% of the population, I also recognise that I am not the minority. And because of that, a result that was not my own doing, I have inadvertently benefitted from it.

Not to say I haven’t been subjected to racism in my own birth country (this is a whole other issue in itself), but I understand I have benefitted from the colour of my skin. I understand that just by the colour of my skin, whether or not it is in favour of me, people already have a perception of me. I have seen multiple housing advertisements where landlords are seeking tenants. Verbatim the ad goes like this, “Malay and Chinese only. No Indians”. I recognise that if I were to be interested in this advertisement, that I already have an immediate advantage over my Indian friends, just by sheer fate that I was born in the skin that I’m in, and nothing else.

In the matter of cultural appropriation, pointedly the use of racial slurs, if you do not belong to the culture, and are not subjected to the oppression that comes along with it, you have no right to say what is and is not acceptable to a culture that is not your own. Periodt.

6) Make new friends

This is a little inside joke here at BURO Malaysia, because it’s what our founding Editor-in-Chief, Cai Mei Khoo used to tell her writers. And safe to say it’s stuck with me. I’ve always been a shy person, but I now make it a point to meet as many people as I can. Different people means different experiences and most importantly, different perspectives. Hearing them out will only broaden your thinking process.

But the ultimate goal here is to find like-minded people who share the same ideals, views and morals as you, so you can bounce ideas off each other, have healthy debates and learn. On the flip side, be aware of peer pressure—thinking for yourself must continue. To be a true ally is to speak up even when it is uncomfortable. Start by educating the people closest to you, such as your partner, friends and family members. But remember to provide a safe space for disagreement.

7) Let go what isn’t in your control

Spoiler alert: You will come across bumps in the road. Just as you are confident and strong in your beliefs, there are people who will mirror it in ways you may not like. Recognise that we cannot control others, and how they think. Concentrate what is in your control, so say your piece and hope for the best. Wrongfully influencing others to get your way is not the solution, and TBH, it’s the exact same tactic previous oppressors have used to gain control and the upper hand. Don’t fall for it.

8) Be accountable for your actions

We all have different abilities to do our part. Walk the talk by taking conscious actions. If you have the means to, donate to organisations that contribute to the specific cause that you are passionate about. A quick Google search will lead you to these places. If financial aid is not your strong suit, find other ways that you can help. Volunteer at a non-profit organisation of your choice or spread awareness by speaking up about it. We are all so hyperconnected now because of social media, so why not use your platform for good?

9) Hold people in power accountable, too

After achieving all of the above, the next step is to hold those in positions of power accountable. Trevor Noah eloquently illustrates this with his monologue on The Daily Show‘s Instagram. He metaphorised human society with a contract saying, “Society is a contract that we sign as human beings amongst each other”.

In it, “we agree on common rules, common ideals and common practices that are going to define us as a group”. However, “the contract is only as strong as the people who are abiding by it”. “We need the people at the top to be the most accountable because they are the ones who are basically setting the tone and the tenor for everything that we do in society”. 

This is where we are at right now when it comes to many problematic issues in the world. In meme-speak, it’s the final boss of the internet, the hardest level to win. Because nothing changes, if nothing changes. However, believe in the power in numbers, which is where peaceful protests play a huge part in our society and its influence in creating change and history.

Look at the effect of #BlackLivesMatter on us Malaysians. We didn’t even have to get out of our house and it has caused so many vibrations. All we did was to stop and think, put ourselves in other people’s shoes and speak up. As civilians, we need to recognise we have more power than we realise. We have the power to pressure businesses, brands and governments. We all have a voice, and we should use it.

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