Modifying Silk Ring Theory for Allyship

‘How not to say the wrong thing’ applies to solidarity in racial justice work too

Image Description: This square image is on textured white background. The main illustration is of curved lines growing bigger from a central cartoon avatar of a faceless brown-skinned avatar of a woman whose hair is in a bun and is wearing a white shirt. Each curved line has avatars of people from different racial backgrounds on it and these “rings” grow bigger with more people on each line. The image has two arrows: one blue arrow says “comfort in” and points from an outer curved line to a smaller curved line. The other arrow starts on one line and points out. A caption provides steps to take for Modified Ring Theory for Allyship. Credit on the image is for @namirari @namiraesq.

Note (June 2021): this article has been updated to include a new graphic that visually shows Modified Silk Ring Theory for Allyship and has steps written out, which are included in the text below. -NIA

In early 2015, during my father’s battle with cancer, I came across this 2013 gem of an article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in the LA Times on “how not to say the wrong thing” to someone undergoing a medical crisis. They called it the “‘Ring Theory’ on kvetching” and mentioned that it’s applicable to many different forms of crises.

The article is short and well-worth the read, but here’s the first of two excerpts I’m focusing on for this exercise in solidarity.

How Silk Ring Theory works:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. […]

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

This article helped me process my grief over my father’s illness, and my anger at how I felt some people added onto my burden instead of alleviating it.

The framework also profoundly shaped the way I saw allyship and solidarity, issues I was exploring and pondering during my day job. In December 2014, for example, my colleague Margari Aziza Hill wrote about allyship from an Islamic perspective, exploring the “Islamic concept of wali” as “more than an advocate” and therefore “a trust from Allah“ that forms “the basis of our work in challenging racism […].”

The word “ally” has its issues, as you can learn more about in 2013 pieces by Mia McKenzie and Michyal Denzel Smith here and here. These problems have only worsened in some ways since the 2016 election results. However, since “ally” seems to be the most widely known term for this idea of someone who should be practicing solidarity, I’m going to use it as shorthand for this piece.

Ring Theory, illustrated by Wes Bausmith for the LA Times article at http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

One central concept in Ring Theory is that there’s an order of who is impacted most by the existing trauma. The person who is most impacted is centered. The people who are then next most impacted are placed in the rings that are one step out. And so on and so forth, until you have wider and wider rings that illustrate who is situated where in relation to the crisis.

Each person in the diagram has a place and each has a role to play. One diagram will look different from another depending on who is at the center, even for the same type of crisis (ex. Natasha and Ali, each fighting stage 3 lung cancer). New diagrams could be created for the same person depending on which crisis we’re thinking about (ex. Ayesha’s diagram for knee surgery vs. for getting fired from her job due to discrimination).

The Silk Ring Theory diagram is not an exact science, but it gives people a quick and easy shortcut to begin thinking more intentionally about who a specific crisis is affecting, and how someone should behave so as not to say the wrong thing.

If you are not in the inner rings, your main role is that of comforter and helper. As Silk and Goldman instruct,

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

Not all people react to a crisis that’s happening to them in the same way. Trauma hits home for different people in different ways. By focusing on comforting or providing assistance — and not on unsolicited advice or centering your own stories first and foremost — you can avoid making a bad situation worse.

This applies to solidarity practices when it comes to racial justice issues. Racism causes trauma. There are links between racism and PTSD (read here, here, or here). More broadly, in a society where race is a deciding factor as to who has greater access to resources, people of the non-favored racial background will be subjected to higher rates of violence and trauma across all sectors of life, liberty, and happiness. Systemic racism causes a crisis situation for non-white people — and Black people, in particular — for no reason other than because you weren’t born into the race that’s favored by our society. Other -isms do the same along lines of gender, religion, class, and so forth.

If we embrace colorblind ideology or deny that racism shapes our world, we naively do away with the idea of the rings in Silk Ring Theory altogether. By centering someone who is most affected, I have to begin to understand where I fit within the diagram of rings. Am I in the nearest rings or rings further out?

As the 2021 graphic illustration shows, Modified Silk Ring Theory for Allyship provides a short set of instructions for how to show up once you’ve done this:

  • Center the person (or people) most impacted by a specific system of oppression
  • Understand where you are in relationship to the person, or to the issue they are facing
  • Comfort and support anyone closer to who is directly impacted
  • Acknowledge your intense feelings in response to witnessing, supporting, or being present by “dumping out” those feelings to people more distant from the issue than you.

For allies for racial justice issues, our first step in responsible allyship is to learn about race and identity formation. We have to examine where we sit in modern society. Through Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, we can begin to understand the different aspects of each person’s identity by looking at how gender, religion, class, ability, sexuality, and so on operate in our world.

“The point of understanding intersectionality is to understand the variety of privileges and/or forms of oppression that one may experience simultaneously at any given time” — Nicki Lisa Cole via https://www.thoughtco.com/intersectionality-definition-3026353

Certain identities are targeted in our world today and certain identities are privileged by society. People in those favored categories don’t experience the same types of trauma that others do. Someone who is not Black or Muslim will not be subject to the impact of anti-Blackness or Islamophobia. Someone who is at the intersection of #BeingBlackandMuslim will be subject to both.

Thus, the second step for allies is to implement the Silk Ring Theory practice of comforting in. We must be able to ask and listen as to what will be helpful to the person most affected. We have to take direction as well as be of service. For allyship, what are the equivalents of walking someone’s dog, watering their plants, bringing over a casserole, donating to a crowdfund for medical bills, or participating in a march for the cure?

Because these are tangible actions of care. Today, allies can actively challenge racism by listening to Black leaders, taking on volunteer tasks, educating friends and family about racism, supporting individuals who have been hurt or injured due to racist vigilante or state action, donating to crowdfunds for immediate needs as well as to organizations that do long-term work, advocating for policy reform and better laws, and so much more.

What allies should not be doing is dumping in by providing unsolicited advice, centering their own stories and emotions, or avoiding accountability for harmful actions. (If you’re going to sign up to bring Mariam some soup after she gets out of the hospital, you should expect some fall-out when you don’t show up.)

“Feed a cold, feed a fever.” Image via https://pixabay.com/en/food-curry-indian-cuisine-asian-2362678/

As neighbors, as friends, as co-workers, as co-religionists, and as family, we can begin to approach this issue of allyship as one of being better at caring for those impacted by the trauma of racism — and by working to support the efforts to find a “cure” for the underlying disease. Just as we can offer to run errands for someone who is ill while also marching for a cure, we can adopt a helper mindset toward these traumatizing issues of discrimination, bigotry, and hate as well.

Under Silk Ring Theory, we can also acknowledge that the kvetching has to go somewhere. It’s human to want to look away from pain and suffering, or to find yourself focusing on how seeing someone else in bad shape makes you feel. However, there is a place to put those feelings, and we should be more intentional about how we do that as allies. Avoiding the person who is facing a crisis is not a loving action. Showing up only to dump in on that person isn’t loving either.

Rare is the person who never faces a crisis of mind, body, or soul. There are ways we can do better by each other. Comfort in, dump out.

Silk Ring Theory is not exact. As someone who believes in the concept of a Divine justice, I know that humans will never be 100% accurate with this issue of who sits where in each ring and how these diagrams overlap with each other. Nor can we always show up in the ways that others deserve. However, I hope that applying Silk Ring Theory to allyship can help add to the ongoing discussions around reframing “solidarity” and, hopefully, improve the way we engage with those around us.

After all, almost every single one of us will face a crisis one day, and so many of us are dealing with different kinds of trauma. It benefits us all to have some shortcuts in mind as to how not to say the wrong thing. When it comes to any crisis, especially that of systemic racism, remember “comfort in, dump out.”

Eldest daughter, chef wife, lawyer + graphic designer. Human rights education & training on race, disability, faith. Metro Detroit / مسلم / বাঙালি