Skip to main content

Homework for Those Seeking to be Allies

Today's guest post is by Dr. Sarah Ballard, a Carl Sagan postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, and soon-to-be Torres Fellow at MIT. I am very much looking forward to her return to Cambridge, where she did her PhD studies at Harvard. Sarah is one of my closest allies, and one of my few true allies. This is because she is one of my most valued and closest friends. I can always count on her to listen and give thoughtful, helpful input. I try to do the same for her. She is also a collaborator of mine in the field of exoplanetary science. One of my proudest achievements is publishing an influential publication with her last year on the statistical nature of multiplanet systems orbiting red dwarf stars. My heart swells with personal pride to see my name next to hers on a two-author paper. Sarah is multidimensional excellent, all the more so because of her academic origins as a social justice major at UC Berkeley before switching to astronomy. But make no mistake, she has the chops as an observational astronomer, and as a teacher, advisor and mentor of the next generation of astronomers. Because of her all-round excellence, she'll no doubt be joining a faculty near you very soon. 

The writer and activist Janet Mock describes the idea of an “ally” as more of an action, and less of an identity. “Ally” is something that we actively do, not something that we can ever passively be. I found this conception very helpful to hear because it posits “ally” within the context of hard work. Being an ally is hard work. It is similar to my other kinds of work (in astronomy and elsewhere) in that (1) improvement is not only facilitated by criticism from respected peers and colleagues, it relies upon this criticism, and (2) it’s characterized less by large leaps and bounds, and much more by constant and small day-to-day efforts.

I consider the ally process an integral part of my job that I simply must do in order to participate meaningfully in the astronomy community. I trained myself to allot time everyday to check arXiv, so I can train myself to be a better ally. These things are both “my work.” If it is helpful to others, I’d like to share my own process. In this particular article, I’ll focus upon my efforts to interrogate my whiteness. I reside at an intersection of many privileges, and this is only one of them. I’ve written before that I once thought I would devote myself to studying social justice, rather than astrophysics. Even though I’ve shifted careers, I’ve tried to bring that lens (newly and inexpertly formed as it was) into my current job as an astronomer. I’ll first describe my initial training, and then move on to my current strategies.

It was clear to me, even as an undergraduate, that academic STEM is very steeped in whiteness. This was evident simply from observing the races of the vast, vast majority of my professors and fellow students. My women’s honors society was one of the few places that I encountered women of color in a classroom during my years at UC Berkeley in numbers that reflected anything near the US population. My first taste of hard ally work (at age 19, my late age a huge privilege unto itself) came while I was a facilitator of a sexual violence awareness and prevention class on campus. Myself and the three other facilitators worked hard to change the curriculum to reflect the complex reality of violence against women. I learned from other women that violence against white women, while it gets the most airtime, manifests totally differently than violence against women of color (again, I emphasize that I am focusing upon race here. Violence manifests differently along other axes of identity as well). This applies to both direct and structural violence. I learned to observe the passive erasure of women of color that, when unaddressed, inexorably erodes the margins of justice movements.
The desert spreads even into carefully tended spaces. (National Geographic)
I remember sharing my frustration and sadness about the injustices we discussed in this class with an older white woman, from a generation before mine. I was overwhelmed by the inextricable links between poverty, race, gender, and violence (We had just screened SeƱorita Extraviada, related the disappearance of now hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez. Please watch this excellent film if you have the chance). Her response reflected the values of that outdated movement: “can’t you make it easier by focusing just on the basics? Why include race and economics in the discussion too?” 

I think many white women from the generation preceding mine, but also many within my generation, perceive that these are things that can be meaningfully disentangled. Patricia Arquette just voiced such an opinion after the Oscars, saying that people of color had been parceled out justice, and that the time had now come for “women.” As easy as it is to dismiss a celebrity as being out-of-touch, I think that worldview is not an uncommon one among white women, even within spaces devoted to dismantling unjust practices. It’s even more salient in spaces where injustice is rarely discussed, if at all (such as academic STEM). 

I think it’s very, very probable that more people are reading this article because I am a white woman, than if a woman of color were describing the exact same reality. In this sense, the task set before me as a white woman is twofold. I need to speak up about the injustices I see perpetrated against people who look like me. And I must be just as vigilant, if not more so, about making sure I don’t visit the same oppressions on people who do not look like me.

That sounds important in theory. But what do I do in practice?
  1. Homework: I try to seek out the voices of people of color. If I waited for these voices to reach me in large numbers atop the academic ivory tower, I’d be waiting a very long time. Social media too is characterized by segregation. Furthermore, I know that it is not the job of my colleagues and friends of color to have these discussions with me. Instead, I go to the spaces (typically on the internet) where people of color are talking openly, and I listen. Twitter is a better platform than other social media: it’s demonstrably more diverse than other spaces. For example, I listen to podcasts like Black Girls Talking to hear what women very similar to me (bookish, ~30 years old, interested in culture) are talking about.

    I’ll listen while I’m cooking, or while I’m on the bus. This is embarrassing to admit, but truthful: There have been many times that I’ve become defensive while listening, believing my own lived experience to be more reflective of reality than the one I hear these four women describe. I’ll freeze with the spatula in my hand and my eyes closed, realizing that I’m doing this.

    This is my opportunity to reflect on my impulsive responses: dismissing the experiences of black women when weighed against my own. I ask myself why I feel the urge to come to the defense of a white woman being called out, why I imagine to myself that such-and-such “isn’t that big of a deal”, or why I tell myself that whatever topic being addressed “isn’t really about race.” Even in my own carefully tended landscape, the desert sand creeps in unless I do the hard work to push it back. I’m happy to share more of my own favorite podcasts, websites, and blogs with folks if they are interested. I note that I’ve already set aside time to read important work that others like John and Chanda have recommended, and will continue to do so.

  2. Another of my favorite podcasts, "Call Your Girlfriend" is cohosted by best friends Aminatou Sou and Ann Friedman. Listen to them playfully brainstorm an intersectional intro to feminism.  

  3. Real-time check in: When I am engaging in a conversation related to race, I run through a checklist in my mind.
    • Am I saying something that a person of color has just said? It is very easy for white people for slip into this toxic pattern of behavior. We’ll be heard more clearly, and even lauded, for saying the same idea that was ignored when expressed in another voice. If I’m repeating an idea that I heard a person of color express first and they are not present in this scenario, I make sure to direct others to them rather than taking ownership of the idea myself.
    • Am I responding because I feel “attacked” in some way? This lesson is important in every sphere of my life, and I bring mindfulness practices to bear here just as I do elsewhere. Responding from a place of unexamined anger is unfair to myself and unfair to others. Like every person who navigated her 20’s, I know that taking 10 deep breaths, taking a walk, etc., is a much better idea than responding impulsively in anger.
    • Am I doing something that I’ve been called out for doing before? This check-in is drawn from a history of having messed up in previous interactions and been approached and checked by friends and colleagues.
    • Am I behaving toward others the way I want to be treated when I’m trying to point out an injustice? I say this cautiously, because the ways in which I am treated unjustly differ in quality and quantity from the injustices experienced by others. But I do know how awful, frustrating, and vulnerable it feels to be speaking from my lived experience and articulating mistreatment. But it’s far, far worse to have that vulnerability met with disbelief or dismissal by others. I want to treat others the way I wish I were treated. How do I wish these critical folks had approached me?
    • Am I asking something of this person that I wouldn’t ask a person who looks like me? For example, it’s often very tempting when engaged in a conversation about racial injustice to ask for references or context. Google is my friend. For example, I never ask white women I don’t know to explain to me where they are drawing their statistics: I look it up myself!

  4. Daily observation: Just by virtue of existing in the world as a person, I bear witness to the erasure and distortion of images and experiences of people of color. I’m not going to live a hermit lifestyle, and this means I’m going to consume problematic media: the very least I can do is consume it with awareness. Often in the books I read, the magazines I see on the newsstand, the TV I watch, black and brown voices are absent or pushed to the background. In majority white spaces (which are almost always the spaces I inhabit, being a white astronomer in Seattle), media that prominently features people of color is rarely discussed in the same way as media featuring white people. I scan the images I am fed, in advertising, for example (Here’s a blatant example in Cosmopolitan). I look for complex and humanizing depictions of people of color (I do the same for depictions of women).

    These are often negative portrayals or absent altogether. I am ingesting a steady diet of garbage, just by virtue of living my life, that lacks accurate and decent portrayals of people of color. This is especially important in spaces set aside for discussions of justice. In a room reserved for women in science, are there any women of color present? And if not, rather than shrugging, I ask myself: what should I be doing differently to make this space welcoming?

I’d love to hear the practices of other folks who are trying to live “ally” as a verb! Do you have practices for checking yourself?


Jason said…
Thanks for this great introduction, Sarah! I love his definition of ally-hood. I once heard it as "earning your 'A'". Mere sympathy and moral support for a cause does not make you an ally — it's actions that make a difference, and a dedication to constantly learning.

Since you asked, here are some action items for allies that I've participated in:

- Get trained. Many campuses have, for instance, LGBTIQ+ safe spaces. Penn State's certification program now requires in-person training to join, instead of the old online training session. The in-person training is a great introduction to what it takes to be an ally, and to get more training.

- Nominate. The AAS prizes, your campus's awards, and other forms of recognition often go overwhelmingly to white males, even out of proportion to their representation among eligible candidates. Only some of this is because of bias on the prize committees — I have found that much of this is the nominations.

So, find an obviously worthy, overlooked astronomer/colleague/student/alumna, and do the HARD WORK of writing an outstanding nominating letter. Do research and run it by experts in the nominee's field to make sure it's perfect. Get the most prestigious names you can think of that will write the strongest letters of support, and hound them to do it on time (I once actually knocked on a door hours before the deadline at an office 3000 miles from mine to remind them (I did just happen to be in the area for another reason, but still...))

- Watch for those falling through the cracks and ACTUALLY PULL THEM BACK UP. Those of us that advise undergraduates should read this:
about why undergraduates leave STEM majors. "Some who had survived [that verb! meaning made it into a STEM field] described how a lucky, last-chance encounter with a faculty member who took the time to listen and give support had encouraged them to hang in just long enough to surmount their immediate problems, and to persist."
<a href=">Luck is the residue of design.</a> We can make these encounters not so lucky, not so last-chancy, but we have to keep our eyes open. It's hard; we're busy; I know that I miss more than I catch.
But even when we catch someone, pulling them back up usually means more than a pep talk. It means following up, making time to meet regularly, checking in, giving real resources. This is hard when we're busy.

But that's how it is: you have to be constantly earning your 'A'.
Ember said…
Many places of worship will have training about select social justice issues and/or non-violent communications, non-violent activism.

I was able to attend a Welcoming Congregation refresher workshop through a Unitarian Universalist church. The Welcoming Congregation program is for UU churches that choose to publicly affirm their openness to the LBTIQ+ community.

My local community's Interfaith group has acted to educate on racial justice and combatting anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.

Popular posts from this blog

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

News reel for KOI-961 and its three tiny planets

On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I started by downloading a stock photo of J.J. from, which I then loaded into OpenOffice Draw:

I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…