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Illustration by Emma Kay Tocci

Being a Privileged Ally

Who has the right to protest for which social causes? And how can people express dissenting viewpoints to social movements without crossing a line or appearing insensitive?

In today's world, social changes occur at unprecedented speeds. Movements span countries, continents and generations, shedding light on issues that have been long overlooked. The role of advocacy has been central to the proliferation of modern social movements, but who advocates for certain movements can sometimes provoke as much controversy as the movements themselves.
Just last week, in the height of the confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and allegations of sexual misconduct, a picture of Kavanaugh supporters standing in front of a tour bus went viral. Paradoxically, the “Women for Brett Kavanaugh” is plastered across the bus, but more men than women pose in front of the sign.
This scenario raises the issue of appropriate advocacy: who has the right to protest for which social causes? And how can people express dissenting viewpoints to social movements without crossing a line or appearing insensitive?
The difference between sympathizing with a cause and advocating for it is actively taking steps to tear down the roots of a social problem. Today, generations have been raised to challenge social norms and have learned how to utilize social media and other technologies to effectively spread ideas to all corners of the world.
Although many social media campaigns begin sensitive discussions and inspire a desire for change, sometimes these conversations do not produce the desired results. On these platforms, people from different ethnicities, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds can express a desire to understand and relate to others who are suffering from injustice in some way.
Although this attention and sympathy may seem harmless, those suffering from these hardships can feel reduced to nothing more than a hashtag, created by the more privileged in an attempt to drive social change — or perhaps even worse, to appear to cause social change.
Because of this disconnect, there are opposing views on who can and should advocate for movements that they are not personally affected by. On one side of the spectrum, those who are not directly impacted by a certain issue cannot fully grasp what the affected party is truly going through. For example, some argue that a person who has not experienced war or sexual assault first-hand can never completely understand what it feels like to suffer through it and thus, is unable to correctly advocate for the cause.
One issue especially relevant to NYU Abu Dhabi that fits this model is advocating for Palestine. Jude Al Sharif, Class of 2020, a Jordanian student who is originally from Palestine but has never been there, still feels a desire to advocate for Palestine.
“One way I connect with Palestine is through advocating and raising awareness. Even though some people think that advocating for this cause is not useful or doesn’t solve the whole conflict, I believe that this is all what I can offer to represent my identity and reflect a pure image of Palestine. Recounting the stories of the ancient olive trees that have witnessed the struggles of the Palestinian people, assures the Palestinian diaspora that Palestine will also be ingrained in its place, no matter what happens,” said Al Sharif.
On the other hand, some believe that advocacy from privileged groups, even if they have no direct experience with the issue, can be crucial for a movement’s success. Some issues may demand more attention or greater resources. It is also possible that without the support of the more privileged, social change would never be enacted due to the oppression of the less privileged and the higher burden they face to obtain recognition. From this perspective, it is difficult for advocacy to be a bad thing, since advocacy from any party brings the social movement closer to realizing its goals.
“Sometimes when I talk to workers back home on the street, they think I’m just another privileged upper class man who left the country for a better life. But I use my music to advocate for what I believe in no matter where I am in the world. I use my words and my guitar to fight for the less fortunate in my country. This is my way, and I don't think there’s anything wrong with it,” said Ahmed Mitry, Class of 2021.
With this type of advocacy, however, there is a thin line between genuine interest in fighting for a cause and simply appearing to be interested in the issue to improve one’s social image. Many of the campaigns that start on social media platforms may go viral because of the branding and attention given to them by celebrities. Often, the act of advocating becomes a trend in itself; however, the appearance and image of being involved with the cause may distract from the initial intent of the movement.
A good example of this potential perversion of a movement may be the Ice Bucket Challenge. The challenge began as an attempt to raise awareness on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and ended up, for many, as a chance to create funny content on social media, with little attention afforded to the actual issue. In many of these instances, people jump at these opportunities to be in line with the newest trends, forgetting about the original purpose of what they’re supposed to be advocating for.
Likewise, many of these celebrities follow general trends for the sake of conforming to the views of majority of their base, but end up destroying their careers as a result of something they were strongly advocating for. For example, after strongly advocating the #MeToo movement, Italian actor Asia Argento was accused of the very conduct she was trying to fight against, potentially harming the ability of the movement to spread further.
All in all, advocacy cannot be perceived as black or white. Advocating can be done differently by different people. And excluding individuals from addressing social issues because of their privileged position or detachment from the issue may do more harm than good in attempts to uphold the common good.
Malak Yasser is a staff writer. Email her at
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