Phase One: Awareness
Awareness is both the first phase and the intermittent step for the other two phases. Without Awareness, Actions will often be misguided, and Integration has the potential to be a stopping point, in that we get to a point where we believe we’ve reached the end of allyship, we are an ally. The Active-Ally model asks us to continue; Awareness is the offer of a path.
There are two main parts of awareness in the active-ally model: Self and Systemic.
Self-Awareness looks at how we engage with the world, the ways in which we are perceived, and the ways in which those perceptions create a layer of privilege for us. For example, though someone may identify as a woman (which carries its own amount of marginalization), if that person is a white woman, whiteness creates a layer of privilege.
We focus on privilege because, without doing so, we are less likely to turn it into change—less able to be honest and vulnerable—if we are unwilling or afraid of acknowledging the privileges we carry.
Self-Awareness is also about the implicit biases we carry, the perceptions we have of others. Beginning to step into self-awareness might look like having a conversation with yourself about hidden thoughts and feelings you have about those different from you. Perceptions and biases about race, gender presentation, education level, ability, or class.
Self-Awareness engages the witness. It is a process of witnessing ourselves. It is about stepping into the honesty of those ways of being which are harmful and the ways in which we are intentional and honest in our actions.
It involves engaging intense personal honesty.
It can be about those first thoughts and reactions when you meet someone whose gender cannot be defined. It can be a deeply-felt belief which you never say aloud, which you may not even be aware of yet, that certain people are not only different, but inherently bad people. It is through our honest personal awareness that we can understand more clearly the moments when we unintentionally harm others and the ways we can create change.
Self-Awareness allows us to understand and witness ourselves in the ways that are uncomfortable and embarrassing. It allows grace for where we are.
What is Systemic Awareness?
Systemic-Awareness is the awareness that institutions privilege some people over others. It is understanding that the way things are not “just the way they are”; that there are rules, regulations, institutions, and individuals creating and upholding the systems. Systemic-Awareness is an understanding that many systems exist together and overlap each other.
An Awareness of how systems operate creates an understanding that those who benefit do so only when others are oppressed, through systems such as racism, classism, ableism, sexism, etc. These systems are supported and upheld through our institutions. They are validated by our individual perceptions and our implicit bias.
For example, racism is a system built and created to maintain the success, hierarchy, and well-being of those who are white or perceived as white. Racism was cultivated and continues to thrive by virtue of through other systems, such as the educational system or our governmental system. Over-arching institutions (universities, prisons, schools, government, etc) have processes in place to protect the overall system of racism. Racism impacts who is admitted to certain colleges and universities, which students are less likely to be punished in grade school, what textbooks are used, which authors are highlighted, who is less likely to be shot by the police, etc. These practices, as well as the social lessons taught herein, create a dominant narrative which are based on white or perceived white existence. It can determine who is more likely to be placed in jail or prison, who is given the power to make laws and policies, which stories are told and how they’re told.
We can look at just about any system and see the ways in which institutions were created to uphold and protect a certain type of individual and narrative.
Generally, as individuals, we do not directly cause these inequities. Those of us with privilege, however, directly benefit from these systems of inequity, and we simultaneously maintain them even while wanting to change them.
Systemic-Awareness is about looking outside ourselves. It involves acknowledging that certain identities are privileged over others. It is about finding our spot within the systems of privilege and challenging those systems. It is about learning how to use those privileges to create change within the systems, within the institutions, within ourselves.
Self and Systemic Awareness Together
Awareness can be difficult to inhabit. It can be confusing and frustrating. You may start to feel as though you are a horrible person. It can often lead to feelings of guilt and shame that may feel debilitating.
Sometimes the awareness becomes so discomfiting that we want to hurry up and move on. We want to move into action. In those moments, we must return to The Five Tenets and ask ourselves: What is honest? How can I find the grace to support myself in honesty? Can I be vulnerable in this awareness? What does vulnerability feel like right now? What ways can I witness my being, and in what ways can I allow others to witness me? What is the level of my commitment?
Sometimes the answers to these questions are difficult, revealing behaviors and thoughts we would rather not own. These are the moments to take our time, settle, and sit in the discomfort.
Some of the hardest moments are when we become aware of ourselves in a way which challenges what we’ve always known to be true.
Sometimes the hardest and most painful experiences of this work involve beginning to see the ways in which we perpetuate or benefit from what we want to change in the world.
Awareness requires acknowledging and owning these truths about ourselves and those around us, even if they are embarrassing and uncomfortable. These are the opportunities for growth and possibility.
We cannot move into the Action phase if we do not sit with and learn from our implicit biases and understand how to apply an intersectional lens. This is why Awareness is both phase one and the intermittent step between each of the other two phases.
Next week: Phase Two: Action
Kyle Sawyer (he/they) is an anti-oppression facilitator and educator specializing in working with individuals and organizations on how to turn privilege into change. He is a trans, queer, mixed-race, white-passing individual. With over a decade of experience Kyle founded Building Allies in 2013 and developed the term Active-Ally, someone who witnesses injustice and responds to it in any situation. Kyle has worked with teachers, nonprofit organizations, students, therapists, social workers, community members, family members, and many others on learning how to be Active-Allies through an intersectional lens.