The Archetype of the Ally

What does it mean to be an ally in the struggle for racial justice?

Jungian analyst Dr Fanny Brewster, author of Archetypal Grief: Slavery’s Legacy of Intergenerational Child Loss, was recently in conversation with the hosts of the podcast This Jungian Life, discussing the racial pandemic in America. [Listen to this powerful episode here]. One of the hosts and fellow Jungian analyst, Joseph Lee, spoke about the “archetype of the ally” and explored how white people can be better allies to African Americans in actively supporting efforts towards racial justice. In discussing the protests after George Floyd’s horrific murder, Lee mentioned how there is a tendency, for example, for white male protestors to “rise up to a heroic stance”, whereas being an ally calls for a deeper emotional engagement and human connection in the face of suffering, grief, and tragedy.

[Fanny Brewster will be giving an online lecture on 9/19/20 at an event hosted by the Jung Society of Atlanta. Details here.]

On archetypes

Psychiatrist Carl Jung described archetypes of the unconscious as emotionally charged images and ideas that are universal in nature and carry rich symbolic meaning in all human cultures, e.g. the archetypes of the Great Mother, the Wise Teacher, the Healer, the Sorcerer/Magician, the Tree of Life. Throughout the ages, ancient and modern humans have encountered these archetypes in myths, legends, religion, literature, music, art, rituals, and dreams. 

A familiar universal archetype is the archetype of the Hero, which our modern storytellers have retold in books, comics, and movies like The Black Panther, Wonder Woman, The Matrix, The Hobbit. Predictably, every hero faces the opposing force of a villain. Popular villains in modern culture like Maleficent, the Joker, Saruman, Killmonger, and Agent Smith, play crucial archetypal roles in the development of the heroes in their stories because they dictate the direction and actions of the hero, and draw out his or her courage, strengths, and weaknesses. 

Archetypes can play out in our personal lives; for instance, you may find yourself possessed by the Child archetype when you throw a tantrum, or feel vulnerable and helpless, or playful and innocent. Archetypes transcend age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.: for instance, anyone who cares for, supports, and nurtures the life of another embodies the Mother archetype, whether or not they are female or a parent; we see children of all genders in this role when they take care of their stuffed animals and pets, or comfort a hurt friend.

The archetype of the ally

Throughout history, allies have played essential roles in the transformation of societies and nations, from ending slavery and apartheid, to defeating the Nazis and the colonialists; from fighting for civil rights and gay rights, to fighting for Black lives. Being an ally is not for the fainthearted. It involves bravery, sacrifice, soul searching, and a commitment to universal human values. Characters like Virgil, who accompanies Dante down into the depths of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Samwise Gamgee, who sticks with Frodo all the way to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings and helps him destroy The One Ring, portray the archetype of the ally at its finest: as a courageous supporter and witness who walks with a person through darkness and terror. 

It is significant that we are using the word “ally” in the discussion of racial justice in America: therapists are being called upon to be allies for their African American clients in catering to the specific mental health needs of Black people and other minorities who often cannot access psychological care, yet historically have been the ones most negatively impacted by racial trauma. Businesses, governments, schools, hospitals, the police, military, and legal systems are being called upon to be cognizant of how they contribute wittingly or unwittingly to the racial biases that underlie American society, and are being challenged to dismantle oppressive structures and become intentional allies for people of color. People of color themselves are also learning how to be allies, since we can consciously or unconsciously engage in actions that oppress our own communities and other minorities. 

Becoming an ally

Being an ally is an active call of duty for every one of us. Imagine the transformation that would take place in our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, police departments, if we had allies calling out injustice in all these places. We can all be more aware of the hidden biases, policies, and behaviors that oppress others, and can actively advocate for racial and social justice wherever we encounter prejudice and discrimination. 

Here’s what I’m doing to be a better ally:

  • Self-education: The United States of America was built on lofty ideals that unfortunately do not apply to everyone. Toni Morrison defined utopia as who is excluded from it. How does it feel for entire groups of humans to be excluded from areas of society that matter most: family, health, education, housing, political and legal matters? I am educating myself by reading authors like Fanny Brewster and Ibram X Kendi about what we can do to address intergenerational trauma, racial inequities, poverty, mass incarceration of African Americans, which all have their roots in slavery and Jim Crow. I’m following the advice of poet Sonia Sanchez “to reread Toni Morrison every decade in order to reimagine ourselves on the American landscape.” What does a reimagining of ourselves and our nation look like? How can America live up to the lofty ideals upon which it was founded?
  • Access to mental health care for minorities: As a therapist, I’m keenly aware of my responsibility to facilitate, participate in, and advocate for programs that strive to make mental health services accessible to people of color through psychoeducation to destigmatize mental health, and the implementation of community programs that provide psychological care and social supports to minority communities.
  • Active witnessing: Whenever I ride the train or wait at the airport, I hear the familiar announcement: “If you see something, say something”. Allies speak out when they witness injustice, wherever it may show up. They use their voices and actions to call out impunity and demand accountability. It is disturbing that the shocking murder of George Floyd may never have come to light had there been no active witnesses. How many other Black lives were snuffed out and never acknowledged, and perpetrators never brought to justice, because nobody bore witness to those atrocities? I am renewing my commitment as an active witness as I reflect on the words of Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr: “The presence of injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

References and resources

Books

Brewster, F. (2019). Archetypal grief. Slavery’s legacy of intergenerational child loss. London: Routledge.

Brewster, F. (2020). The racial complex: A Jungian perspective on culture and race. NY: Routledge.

Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an antiracist. NY: Random House.

John Lewis: March Graphic Novels

Podcasts and videos

Trevor Noah on the “Social Contract” that has been broken in America

Brian Stevenson TED Talk: We need to talk about an injustice 

Toni Morrison Documentary: The pieces I am  

Rev Dr Martin Luther King

Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want to Talk about Race” 

NPR’s Code Switch Podcast: “Can We Walk about Whiteness”

This Jungian Life Podcast: Fanny Brewster on The Racial Complex  

Dr Thema Bryant Davis: Moving from cultural competence to anti-racism 

Dr Nadine Burke Harris on childhood trauma

Photo by Tina Witherspoon on Unsplash