Oppression analysis on its own isn’t enough: Becoming an Ally

Gears of Iowa

by Tim Nafziger and Mark Van Steenwyk

In July, Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman blogged some reflections on his visit with Mennonites from various Native groups in Ashland, Montana. He clearly describes the way white settlers’ sense of manifest destiny led to the clearing of the Cheyenne and other groups from their land. He acknowledges the deep trauma these communities have experience. He shares the effect this had on him personally. In other words, he knows that oppression is bad and that he as part of the dominant group, is complicit in it.

Stutzman concludes the article with a commitment to “walk alongside our Native American brothers and sisters as they seek God’s way for their future.” What does this mean, exactly? What does it look like to take the the tragic knowledge of history of oppression and the analysis of how this oppression continues and do something to make a difference?

In an article for this month’s Mennonite, Glen Alexander Guyton points out the scenario that plays itself out with sad regularity when white Mennonites rumble in with good intentions in one hand and a large dose of guilt in the other:

The dominant culture (“white folks”) is dreaming up some big plan just to make themselves feel good. There is going to be a bunch of processing, some hymn singing, a couple of meetings, then someone from the dominant culture is going to stand on stage and say, “I’m sorry, black people. I’m sorry, Native people. I’m sorry, Hispanic people.” And what will we, the people of color, be doing? Standing there with big ole’ Amos ‘n Andy grins on our faces trying to look appreciative? Been there and done that many times in Mennonite Church USA.

Guyton uses the term dominant culture to refer to white people, but it can just as easily refer to men, straight people or those of us who are able bodied. We will use the term dominant culture throughout this article to refer to all those whom systemic opression gives unearned privileges. Its quite possible to be part of dominant culture in one part of your life and not in another as is the case for black men or white women.

Being an Ally

Both of us (Mark and Tim) have spent time looking at the way we as straight, white men are complicit in a living legacy of racism, sexism and heterosexism. We know how to talk the talk. But we’ve learned that living out of this analysis, which we’ll call being an ally, is much harder.

In understanding what it means to be an ally, learning a new language can be a useful analogy. Linguists argue that the language we use to talk about the world shapes our perceptions of it (read more on this linguistic theory). As with the learning a new language, learning to be an ally changes the way we view the world around us. Our sensitivity deepens to the way group power dynamics affect members of oppressed groups. Learning a new language also means a willingness to make mistakes. In the companion article to Guyton’s, Joanna Shenk writes about her recognition that the mistakes we make along the way and how we handle them can be more important than the end goal.

Becoming an ally is confusing…and can cause pain for yourself and those with whom you are allying. It is easy to wade back into the seemingly safer waters that ignore systemic oppression and sees only intentional racism or sexism. This view sees the bigotry as the problem of only a few bad apples. It allows someone from the dominant culture to feel like everything is, more or less, as it should be. The old script works with a few tweaks here or there. In this view, we just need to be “color blind” all try harder to get along with each other. Becoming an ally calls us deeper into recognizing the way that all members of the dominant culture benefit from unearned privilege, just as those who aren’t on the inside are oppressed by systemic racism, sexism or heterosexism.


But it isn’t enough to simply develop a deeper analysis of systemic opression. One can understand the basics of power analysis without being an ally. Going deeper is about Naming, that practice of–in the midst of an oppressive situation–unveiling a truer narration.

What does this Naming look like? It means noticing when members of the dominant culture are the only ones speaking in a mixed group and pointing it out. It means confessing those times when we’ve dismissed people because of our unintentional prejudices. It means honoring the moments when members of an oppressed group name oppression rather then getting defensive. It means making sure it isn’t the women in a group who have to call out a man for making a sexist remark, intentional or not. It means breaking rank with other members of the dominant culture. It is risky.

Naming happens when we bring hidden things to light, speak truth in the midst of error, or confess our complicity in systems that devalue others. No matter how nice we are, the impact of our words and actions can be very different from our intention.

It is about loosing the lies, and binding the reality with our attentiveness, presence, words, and actions. We are moving beyond mere symbolism to real praxis–acting in a way that unveils the oppression and co-creates liberation.

Isn’t this what Jesus was doing in the Sermon on the Mount? In the Beatitudes, Jesus is Naming the truth, and opening the space for a new reality in so doing. Were the poor blessed before Jesus said “blessed are the poor”? Were they, as we’ve assumed, blessed because of their awareness of need? Or was Jesus sentimentalizing? Or was he, in that moment of Naming, unveiling the Lies, and, with his fellow poor, co-creating a new reality? A new moment where previously entrenched realities break open so that a new future is possible? This is revolution-speak. It is about the in-breaking of God.


Finally, being an ally involves a commitment to move past defensiveness when we are challenged on our own oppression (usually unintentional). In her article, “Restoring Balance Through Right Relationships,” Sylvia Morrison says:

Feel what happens to you inside when someone challenges you to acknowledge your privilege. Can you feel the enormous surge of force moving through your body — the fear that is masked as defensiveness or hostility? Hear your voice — how it changes, how it becomes harsh or shrill. Be aware of your mind racing to defend its position, to justify or attack or blame …

You’re now aware of this; it’s happening to you, what do you do? Stop. When you feel that force that says, “Defend your argument, justify your position,” stop, and do not move into defensiveness. Breathe deeply and fill your lungs with air, life-giving oxygen. And then as you exhale, feel the shaking in your body and ask yourself, “What am I afraid of? What am I afraid to lose?”

If we are open to recognizing our own complicity in oppression, members of the dominant culture (be it straight, white or male) have a lot to gain, both socially and spiritually. Our relationships can deepen with those not part of the dominant culture of which we are a part. And when we are in deeper community with our brothers and sisters, we take a step closer to the vision of the beloved community and our liberation together.

If you’re interested in exploring farther what it means to be an ally, we highly recommend Becoming an Ally : Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in People by Anne Bishop. Find it a library near you

Photo by Tim Nafziger