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We can answer that.

The podcast where we sit down with UCalgary professors, researchers and experts to get the answers to five questions submitted by you.


Episode 12: Are you an ally?

December 2, 2020

Allyship is the idea that people with privilege in the world, whether it's from race or socioeconomic status or simply being part of dominant or ingroups, can help promote and advance the interests of outgroups and marginalized people. But what does allyship really mean? Who is and who isn't an ally? Can calling yourself an ally end up doing more harm than good?

We speak with Dr. Adam Murry, an assistant professor of Indigenous psychology in our Faculty of Arts. We talk about his research project into quantifying the traits of allyship and how better understanding allyship can help both the groups who need it most and the people who want to be allies.



Mike MacKinnon (MM): Welcome to We Can Answer That. I'm your host, Mike MacKinnon. Each week, I sit down with an expert from the UCalgary community to ask five questions related to the topics that matter most in the world. Allyship is the idea that people with privilege in the world, whether it's from race or socioeconomic status or simply being part of dominant or in-groups, can help promote and advance the interests of out-groups and marginalized people. This idea has gained momentum in the wake of the 94 calls to action published in 2015 by Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Committee with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and with the ongoing discrimination and violence against people in the LGBTQ community. But what does allyship really mean? What does it take to be an ally? Who is and who isn't an ally? Can calling yourself an ally ended up doing more harm than good? Today, we're speaking with Dr. Adam Murry, an assistant professor of Indigenous psychology in our Faculty of Arts. We'll be talking about his research project into quantifying the traits of allyship and how groups who need allies can benefit from understanding more about what types of allies can actually be helpful. Adam, thanks for joining us.


Dr. Adam Murry (AM): Thanks for having me.


MM: Now you recently completed the first phase of a study to quantify allyship and to find out what it really means. Can you talk about your findings?


AM: Sure. So first I want to kind of contextualize what we're trying to accomplish here, just because I think it'll kind of help situate what this first round of findings is and what it's for. When I got to the University of Calgary, we had not a mandate, but definitely an expectation to develop Indigenous informed content and curriculum. So I started a class called Indigenous Psychology, where we review a bunch of different topical domains of interest related to Indigenous communities. When the class was over, I had folks come up to me, students, that basically said, "Look, man, I didn't know about all this stuff. I didn't know that these things were happening. I wasn't aware of it. Now that I'm aware of it, I've got feelings about it. I'm angry about it, whatever. I'm enraged. I feel whatever. So I want to help. I want to do something and I don't know how or what avenue, but what's your advice? How can I be an ally? How can I be a good ally?" The question seems more simple than it is. I could have given my own opinion, and I almost did. What I think is a good ally, for one specific to me in my own context, it's also changed over time. So I'm a little bit stuck in between one answer and the other, because do I give them like a pat answer, something that I think is just generically true? Do I tell them what I need specifically and then it won't apply to another context? Do I tell him what I think an ally is now versus what I thought an ally was 10 years ago? Or do I tell them what of handful of scholars had voiced about what allies should be or what they should do? I wasn't clear what the right decision was for that. Around that same time, Maggie Kovach, who's famous for her book on Indigenous methodologies, was speaking at our university and I encouraged our class at the time to go and listen to her talk, and I went as well. At the time, she wasn't talking about methodology, she was talking about including what she called the stream of Indigenous consciousness. So if the university was saying, "We want Indigenous ways of knowing and being and doing to feel safe and comfortable and contribute and become a part of the fabric and the ideology and the value system and the identity of the university, if you're really meaning that, then you have to make space for that to happen. So that is a larger thing. That's a larger concept she was introducing, but it applied to allyship, right? So that you needed to make space. So a lot of like the call for allies, if you want to support Indigenous folks, like say an ally in healthcare or something, then make spaces for Indigenous people to work in healthcare, become doctors. If you want them to influence policy, make space for them to contribute to policy. So for an ally who is already occupying that space, who has that position, that might mean that they don't take leadership on that, that might mean that they step down or step aside. It's a legitimate point and you need to keep that in your pocket for a strategy, but it's also hard advice and it has certain limitations, I think. So anyways, it just befuddled me, and what I thought was going to be a simple question was not. So this is a three-part study right now and the results that we're talking about today is just the first part. So instead of imposing my own definition of allyship, what we thought we would do is use this fancy method, it's called Q methodology, and basically we collect a whole bunch of statements, beliefs, ideas, intentions, behaviors, as many as you can compile about a thing. There's others that they've done this. Like they did a study where they did this on women's understanding of feminism, because in the academic context, they would kind of have feminism be like, "Are you a feminist or not? Yes or no." The literature would actually suggest that there's lots of different schools of thought and movements within that larger umbrella of a term. So once they had all these statements put together, you have people sort them, and then instead of seeing how those statements move together like we would usually do an analysis, we flip the script and we see how people group together based on how they share beliefs and intentions and attitudes and ideologies and all that stuff. It sounds like a subtle difference, but it's actually quite significant because what that means is the groups that we identify are not ones that we think exist, or that we hope exist, or some language limitation in terms of our categories. It allows the groups to emerge according to similarity and difference across, I think we had 90 different statements and beliefs. So it identifies clusters of people who think and feel and behave similarly. So that's what the results of this first wave did. We used the student population, partly because this was the first run at this type of thing. We would like to continue in other settings. But we also, given the topic of the Indigenous strategy at the University of Calgary, I wanted to say something that would help the University of Calgary. So it seemed like a sample that had a benefit along with its limitation. So we found four groups, and essentially what we found is a group of what we call supporters, people that were positively oriented towards Indigenous people, Indigenous causes, reconciliation, and a middle group that was positive, but kind of ambivalent, and then a fourth group, which was positive still on a lot of things, but had a lot of negativities. I'll go into the more details about this. So the first group, this was the group that we were kind of after, this was the, quote-unquote, stereotypical ally group, right? We named them supporters, and because that group was the largest, 60 people of the 88 in our sample fell into this group. It was folks that acknowledged colonialism as something that's still occurs today. It was people that felt a sense of conviction over who's responsible for reconciliation. They thought that the government hadn't been doing enough, that they needed to honor the treaties. They felt like it was their own responsibility to engage with reconciliation. They had positive attitudes towards Indigenous culture and Indigenous languages. They were willing to lose a friend to speak out against racism when it occurred. So this is this group that splits apart, because we wanted to focus on this 60. We reran the analysis later and it actually broke out into a group that was more activist, more extreme, and a group that felt the same sense of conviction, but thought that the government needed to do it. So we eventually called that group active supporters and passive supporters. At the end of the sort, when we had them sort all these beliefs, we asked people, do you consider yourself to be an ally to Indigenous people? I think 60 per cent of that group had said that they did. A second group, which is a kind of more ambivalent group, this is a group of folks that value Indigenous culture. They feel bad about the past, but they don't take really any responsibility for it. They kind of see the experience of Indigenous people in Canada as kind of like an injustice that's wrong, but it's wrong in the sense that any injustice is wrong. So these folks like to buy books and novels and they like to regalia of Indigenous people, but these were not folks that were strongly committed to any type of justice, didn't hold particularly strong views about the past. This was a proportionately smaller set of the students. The third group, we called these folks the anxious invalidators because they did have a lot of positive views, they shared a lot of beliefs. All of these groups shared a lot of beliefs, okay? So these are just the areas where they're the most different or similar to another, right? So this third group basically thought that the government's interactions with helping Indigenous folks was a waste of time. They thought Indigenous people needed to get over the past, that their traditions held them back. They were more likely to endorse racial stereotypes that we had in there. We had collected a lot of statements, and part of the value or part the way that this method contributes is that you have to have a full range of statements, positive and negative. So we asked a bunch of Indigenous faculty members around campus to give us ideas about what people say and think about native folks and Indigenous people, and we got some colorful statements and we threw them in there. This is real life. This is stuff that people have heard.


MM: How will a better understanding of allyship help Indigenous people and other marginalized groups?


AM: We all want to say that our research is going to save the world. Right? We all think that it's for a purpose and we all see its applications. I wish I could say that this research study, especially this first one, is the answer to the problem. Really, what it's doing is it's just contributing to a conversation that's already going on, it's contributing to things that are already happening, and we're just trying to highlight something. We're trying to make something explicit that right now is implicit. We're trying to complicate something that people think is simple. By doing that, we're hoping that the conversations and the interactions and the collaborations are just more instructive, more thoughtful, and more self-reflective. So when you think about community-based participatory research, and I don't know if anybody on your podcast is throwing that term around, but CBPR, it's become a hot ticket item for working with especially marginalized groups. Because a lot of research is top-down driven by the researcher, right? It's an extractive process. I want to know something and I come and I take it from you. CBPR is supposed to be a more reciprocal, more collaborative, longer term, messier, but still more collaborative, maybe human, kind of a process, I guess. In 2010, the National Congress of American Indians, which is kind of the equivalent of the Assembly of First Nations up here in Canada, released a report. So it's this conglomerate of all the tribal nations in the US. They lobby and write policy for federal government on behalf of all Indigenous people in the US. In 2010, they released a report. It was by Puneet Sahota. It was basically saying if you want to do research with our people, you need to use CBPR, and it outlines these like 10 ingredients that's involved in it. It has raised the level of accountability for social accountability for research. Allyship is not a certification, right? So one of the things that I think is most important about our study that we found is that across the four groups, the activist folks, the passive supporters that thought that government should do something, but they didn't need to, the folks that were a little bit more on the racist side, a little bit more on the these folks need to get over it type, more insensitive, I guess, less likely to have contact, and then the fourth group, the kind of utopian, kind of justice perceptions, but no commitment to justice, within all four of those groups, when we asked them at the end, do you consider yourself an ally? A percentage, it was highest in the activist group. It was like 60 per cent. In the later two groups, it was like 30 per cent, though, said, "Yeah, I'm an ally." Well, these are very different convictions. These are very different intentions. These are different reflections of relationships. People said, "Yeah, I have friends or relations. I would like to have Indigenous people as doctors and judges." Right? These are like legit beliefs that have impact that are arguably more racist than other beliefs, right? And still at the same time saying, I'm an ally. So if someone walks and knocks on your door and says I want to be part of this team. I'm an ally. Right? It's worth saying, "Well, what does that mean to you? What's your other beliefs? How does that fit into your identity? Is it something that you decided that you would call yourself on the way over to this meeting? I was speaking with an Indigenous educator and scholar, who you had on this podcast, about Orange Shirt Day, Dr. Poitras Pratt. I was just talking with her yesterday, day before yesterday, and this topic came up because she saw the little article that was written up about this. She said, "I don't think people should call themselves allies. I think that the communities reserve the right to call people allies." This just goes to show you that it's not as easy as it sounds.


MM: In your study findings, you mentioned that the willingness to take on risk is one of the defining characteristics of allyship. Can you talk about what that means?


AM: The willingness to take on risk was actually a characteristic of the activist supporters. So remember that these groups that we identified, this still isn't a claim that one of these groups deserves the title ally or another one doesn't. These are just groups. These are just people that think and feel differently from one another enough with a group of people that they have a constituency. But these groups are just folks that think differently about acting in solidarity with Indigenous folks. That said, in the allyship literature for other groups, like men being an ally for women, and allyship for LGBT, and the activist supporter group that came out here, risk is a significant component. So being an ally means you have to put yourself out there somehow, right? Whether or not you're inconveniencing yourself going to a demonstration, there's risk in that. Maybe I get arrested. Maybe I get beat up. Maybe I get a picture taken of me and it gets misrepresented. So this is where I start to get a little bit unsure because there's behaviors or intentions that I would correct somebody or if like a family member was saying something racist that I would intervene. But Bobby Henry, who used to be a professor here, he's now over at U of S, he goes, "I don't want allies. I want accomplices." Right? So at least from his testimony, we can say that idea of sharing risk, that that is a big deal, right? So if Indigenous people are going to put themselves out there, if they're going to put the money out there, if they're going to organize out there, and you're going to join them in those endeavors, you're risking that that endeavor may or may not work. Right? That may or may not change the system. It could waste your time. It could be a frustrating, horrible experience. The rightness of that, that to me makes more sense when we're thinking about risk. In terms of our data, risk is more conceptualized around signing petitions, showing up to marches, and like I said, interjecting when people are saying racist things, and that was most characteristic of that activist group.


MM: So you alluded to this before in a previous answer, and also to another professor saying that people shouldn't call themselves allies, but what are some of the ways that self-proclaimed allyship can be harmful or put Indigenous people in uncomfortable positions?


AM: The damage that it does is that it waters down the term ally and so it becomes like a meaningless phrase, right? It's not useful for identifying real allies and people who are allies can't identify with each other in consolidarity. If you sent out a thing saying I call out my allies and everybody raises their hand, and then you say, "Okay, show up to the next event," and no one shows up, then you're like, well, wait a second, what happened to all these allies? It becomes like a word that serves no constructive purpose and so how is it helpful? You need to have a term that distinguishes something, I guess. In terms of the second question, I think, is underneath there is that how can people who are in positions to be allies behave inappropriately or do things that are, in the worst case, like you said, doing some type of damage. I think some of the examples that come out of there, and we put items like this into the Q sort, so these were things that came out from my own experience. Because first what we did is, me and the graduate student who really deserves most of the credit for getting this project off from an idea to the results that we're talking about today, her name is Elena Buliga, she works for Dr. Cara MacInnis in the Department of Psychology, first thing we did is I told her a whole bunch of stories about a bunch of different people that I've encountered over the years in different contexts, and then she went to the literature to see if she could find those things, and she did. It was weird to read a literature review that were like a bunch of evidence had been compiled around a bunch of like stories that I've never told anybody before. Then we threw the idea out to other people and got some of their ideas to other Indigenous faculty members like Dr. Cheryl Barnabe. We asked Michael Hart. We sent it out to a bunch of the folks I've gotten to know since I've been here, other real smart, hard-working Indigenous folks. So some of these ideas, it's like there's a phrase we would say, like a saviour syndrome. Okay? So I would call myself an ally, but I'm in the context that these people are pitiful and need my help and that I'm going to save the day. In the US, we call this the Kevin Costner syndrome because a White guy comes and saves everybody. This is a common narrative. The Last of the Mohicans, right? I mean, like pick a movie in Hollywood, there'll be like the white saviour. This kind of archetype is written in to part of the motivation for non-Indigenous people to ally with Indigenous people. That's a narrative where they feel like, I hate to say this because I'm not trying to make any enemies, but there's that narrative that's available that if I act on behalf of another person then I'm a hero in some way, like in these movies that I've been raised with and washed in and collocated with. It's just a weird dynamic like if you see injustice in somebody, that the reason why you're doing it. So if you look at the helping literature, this isn't my field of psychology, but if you look at the helping literature, they actually break helping behavior into two different motivations, the altruistic helping behavior and they call it ego helping behavior, or egocentric. So on the one hand, I can help people because I don't want anything in return, I want that person to get justice or to not die or to be saved or whatever. That expectation, I'll do that for someone else, maybe somebody does it for me, whatever. Right? It's like a pay it forward type of deal. The other group is doing it because they want everyone to see that they're helping. Right? It makes them feel better than other people. It makes them feel like good people. It gives them the moral cleansing. In charity giving studies where they've given that survey out before people donated, both types of motivations predicted donations at a later time. Interestingly, the egocentric one, so on that scale, if you were rated higher on egocentric motivation for helping other people, you are more likely to give in the short-term and then stop. Altruistic, you're more likely to give in the long-term. Right? So both are good for giving, right? But it's different. It's different for the reason and it's different in the longevity. When we're looking at the allyship motivations, we threw some items on there to represent that I can help, or I know what best. A second error, I think, for allyship, apart from the saviour one, and that's is one that we kind of nicknamed wearing a badge. So this is a kind of like that self egocentric one. So the one saviour one is like I'm here to save the day, and the second one is just I'm a good person. Right? So that status for self-perception and public perception. One of the items that we had on there was like I want to be recognized for the things that I do for Indigenous communities. The third one, and this is a hard one to break apart from other like culturally sanctioned behaviors, is the emphasis like on task over person. Relationalism is a foundational worldview within Indigenous cultures, at least here in the US, New Zealand, Australia these conversations go on. A big byproduct of that is that awareness of interdependence was more prominent, more salient, more accessible to people who live closely with their ecological zone, if you're dependent on the animals and dependent on the weather. Right? I go to Safeway or whatever to get my groceries, blueberries are coming from Brazil, god knows where all these things are coming from, and that distance allows me to be ignorant about the interconnectedness of all of those things that I see before me. Like even my computer, right? The microchip that I think is made out of sand that comes from South America, the silicon from that, I mean. Right? There's nothing that exists that's not from nature, and yet I can surround myself with things that I can be ignorant of that, not pay attention to that. So this relational worldview, it stems into everything. Everything. It's not an idea. It's not a value. It's a worldview. It undergirds everything. What counts is real knowledge, what's ethical, what's my responsibility, whether or not non-living things and non-human things have agency and purpose? It's like a whole frame of identity. There's so many things that come into that. So one of the ways that it manifests itself, if you and I are working together, you and I need to be good. If you and I are going to work together for a thousand tasks, if you botch this one up, sure, I'm angry that you botched this one up, but I need to think about working with you tomorrow and the next day and the next day, right? This is a more like long-term relationship type of mentality. In the academy and in professional spaces, if you botched the job up, I'm not sure if you can be my friend. You might be a liability and I might have to distance myself professionally from you. Right? The task is everything. I know folks that, as I've survived kind of throughout the academy, I know folks that once I've made certain achievements or hit certain milestones, then people started talking to me because it was like, well, then they felt like it was safe to be my friend. So there's a tendency to put tasks before people. These are just some of the ways in which the good intentions might be lost in a process.


MM: What can people in the general community do to be better allies?


AM: You know, this is why we're doing this, right? There's some virtues that I think that we all hold. There's some intuitions about one another that we all feel that hold more importance, or at least are remembered better, within a lot of like Indigenous societies that unfortunately I think get put more to the wayside. So I guess what I'm thinking of on the top of my head is things like humility, grace, kindness, sensitivity. I don't know if these things should be like, well, of course, they're not, you know? But I think that they are worth saying. When you look at the traditional practice of education, when they say, well, what was the point of education, right? When we think about, well, why do we go to school? Traditionally speaking, education was to make good human beings. That was the goal of education, to be good human beings. A human being, when you look at the Indigenous names for people, for themselves, across the world, in, again, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, ask people, what does that name mean? Apache people, our name for ourselves was Nde. It just means the people. It means the humans. Right? Even that name is suggestive of this relational context that I was talking about before. When Columbus came to the Caribbean and he said, "Who are you?" They answered, "We're the human beings. We're the people." Right? Because we're distinguishing ourselves from these other animals and these other plants and all these other things that we are not, and that's why we're not introducing that way. We're the human beings. So there's a strong moral impetus to live in proper balance within yourself and within the microcosms of your life, so your family and your community and then all my relations.


MM: This has been We Can Answer That, edited and produced by Nate Luit, and hosted and produced by me, Mike MacKinnon. We've been talking with Dr. Adam Murry, an assistant professor of Indigenous psychology, about how better understanding allyship can help both the groups who need it most and the people who want to be allies. You can subscribe to We Can Answer That on Apple, Google, or Spotify, or by visiting ucalgary.ca/podcasts. We Can Answer That is recorded on the traditional territories of the People of the Treaty 7 Region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy, comprising the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani First Nations, as well as the Tsuut'ina First Nation and the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations. We Can Answer That is a production of the University of Calgary. Thanks for listening.



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Montreal, Canada - October 4, 2016: 500 gathered in Emilie-Gamelin Park and took the streets to mourn the missing and murdered woman of the First Nations, and to raise awareness about the violence against indigenous people.