Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When allies fail - Part One

[In the following post about allies, I am confining my discussion to anti-racism and feminism because those are the movements with which I am most familiar. I hope, though, that these ideas have broader application.]
Allies are important to any equality movement. It does not help people of color if we are the only ones who understand racism and how it still exists in society. It does not help women if we are the only ones that believe we deserve equal treatment. This is especially true considering the ways that women and people of color have been kept from places of power. The battles are ours to fight, and we can win them, but we need allies.
What does it mean to be allied? The dictionary definition is to be joined in a group to advance common interests or causes. And what does this joining require? I think mutual respect, shared activism and adherence to mutual goals and objectives. Alliances are by nature two-sided affairs. Both sides bear the responsibility of maintaining the relationship. And this isn't easy. I have witnessed too many battles between members of marginalized groups and their professed allies to think otherwise. The disagreements are often raw, emotional and ultimately unsatisfying. Sometimes, I think we expect too much of our allies. Sometimes the privileged are too confident in their roles as allies and too slow to examine their own biases. As enlightened about race or gender a person may be, we are all products of a racist and sexist society. To expect any person, no matter how good-intentioned, to never reveal a racial or gender bias is to invite disappointment. If members of marginalized groups want to work with allies, we have to know that they will fail us sometimes. Our allies have to know that they will fail.
And what do we do when this happens--when allies fail? How can we address mistakes, while preserving relationships and maintaining the power that comes through alliances with people outside of our group? How do I think an ally should respond when their bias or privilege is called out? How do I think marginalized groups should handle the mistakes allies make?
This is the first of two posts on maintaining alliances in the face of failure. Today, I will tackle the responsibilities of anti-racist and feminist allies. What should an ally do when he or she has made an unwitting show of prejudice or privilege?
Listen. Good relationship habits 101--listen to the person(s) that you have harmed. It may be helpful to repeat what you understand the grievance to be in order to demonstrate that you are making an effort to understand. Before you speak, think about what is being said. Try to put aside your ego (hard as that is) and examine the "offense." Can you see your privilege peeking through? Have you uncovered a hidden bias? Even if your actions were unintentional, can you see how they could be misconstrued?
Don't defend. Everyone wants to believe they have their prejudices in check. And when you are generally diligent about examining your biases and privilege, and you have good intentions, hearing that you have failed can feel like a slap. It is easy to become defensive, rattling explanations and defenses rather than truly listening to the person who is offended. And you may feel angry: "After all the ways I've proven myself, how could anyone think I am (racist, sexist, etc.)." Resist the urge to defend yourself at first. This doesn't mean you need be endlessly berated or that the person who you have offended is right. It simply means that you can't listen and hear where another person is coming from if you are talking.
Allow us our anger. It isn't easy being a member of a marginalized group. For instance, I have written before about the dull aches of racism. I have also written about how members of marginalized groups are expected to hold their tongues in the face of mistreatment--to be the "bigger persons." What may seem like a very small deal to you, to us may be yet another wearying and soul-destroying slight. Any human being has a right to be angry about injustice. Again, this does not mean that we have the right to dehumanize or insult you. It is not an ally's job to be endlessly flogged and called to account for the sins of all society. But marginalized people do have a right to be pissed off and to show it.
Apologize. If you understand and agree that you have committed an offense, apologize. No "I'm sorry, but..." No need to explain the whys and wherefores or attempt to minimize. Just say, "I'm sorry. I was wrong and I should have known better." Period. Own your mistake. Now, I am not suggesting that you apologize for something you didn't do or don't think you've done. If, after truly listening, you believe you have been misunderstood...well, that situation is more difficult. That I am a black woman does not automatically mean that I am always right in identifying a white person's race bias or a man's gender bias. There is a way to acknowledge what another person is feeling, even if you ultimately don't apologize. But know that if you're a guy on a womanist Web site, for example, and multiple women tell you that you are being a sexist asshole, you probably need to check yourself.
(If Possible) Correct. If what you have done can be undone, do it immediately.
Educate yourself. The best way to come to understand how, say, "racism" works, to identify your own biases and to learn the language of the movement, is to get smart about racial prejudice and privilege, as well as other cultures. Don't rely on people of color to do your work for you. As allies, we will naturally share some information with you, teach a little. But teaching is not our responsibility. Read the books by important thinkers on race. Note new study results. Pay attention to pop culture, media and art beyond the mainstream. Seek a diverse group of friends. Lurk on popular anti-racist blogs. Get involved offline. And again, listen...listen...listen. This is the best way to avoid missteps and to recover when you fail. Your education is your responsibility.
[Editor's note: There is nothing that annoys me more...and you can find this often on feminist blogs when the issue of race comes up...than when someone begins a comment by saying, "We'll, I'm just a clueless white woman, but..." To this, I say..."No." First, the constituencies of most of the popular feminist blogs prove themselves to be far from clueless on other topics. They talk of being PhDs and scientists and teachers and journalists. These are smart women. What this statement really means is, "I have the privilege of not having to educate myself on this issue, so I'm going to make a cutesy disclaimer before I speak in case I say something wildly offensive." That's a cop out. It's an attempt to get around owning your mistakes. And it demeans me and you. If you think you really are "clueless," do something about it.]
Reaffirm your commitment. Proof that you are a true ally to a cause--whatever the cause is--is that you slog through and keep going, even through rough patches and arguments. Your continued presence post-mistake, whether on a feminist blog or in a local grassroots anti-racist organization, is a demonstration of your commitment.


Deb said...

Tami, as always, you've given me much to think about! This is something that has been frightening me a lot lately. . . knowing that being human I *am* going to fail. I think that's what usually leads me to preface my statements with "I'm just a clueless white woman"-- not that I feel I don't have an obligation to educate myself, but hoping that by admiting from the very begining that I'm not trying to pass myself of as any kind of expert I'll somehow "buy" myself a bit more slack. I'll need to rethink that after reading your post!

The other thing I'd add: in addition to "I'm sorry; I was wrong" I would hope I could be a big enough person to add "Thank you for helping me to understand". I know it will be a lot easier when the correction is gently given, but anyone who helps me learn to be a better person deserves my gratitude.

Hmmm. . . that makes me think I'd best be leaving some appreciation around the blogosphere today, starting here! Thank you, Tami, for everything I've learned from you on your blog here and at the Anti-racist Parent/Love is not Enough site!

liz said...

Thank you for this post.

Nato said...

What a great post! I'm an abled, healthy, financially solvent, heterosexual unmistakeably-caucasian cisgendered male who has discovered universe after universe of internalize privilege through which I've been working. I think I can justifiably claim to have stumbled my way into finally learning* most of the lessons in this post - a fact of which I'm proud - without at the same time entertaining the delusion that I've overcome my various biases and assumptions of privilege. That said, it's beautiful to see it laid out so well, so that would-be progressives can buy into what it takes to really make progress as a person. I'll be sending this around, because it's just unbelievably perfect. Thank you.

*Not to say that I always apply this knowledge to my personal conduct as well and as immediately as I'd wish.

BroadSnark said...

This is just good advice for life.

Sarah said...

Great post, and I love how you keep a positive and constructive tone!

I always struggle with the "Don't defend" step, and in return get the most upset when I see other allies start to cite the number of years they've been feminists or whatever. I think the reason that it's so toxic to a discussion is that when an ally denies or knee-jerk defends themself without really listening and thinking first, they are prone to minimize and dismiss the feelings and experiences of the person they are trying to be an ally with.

It helps me to remember that I am not just an ally to a movement, but also to all the individuals involved in the struggle. Especially individuals who are hurt because of my words or actions.

Phira said...

Thank you for this post. I can think of more than a few of my friends and family members who might benefit from seeing this list.

And I'm so happy to see that someone else sees the bull behind "I'm sorry, but." I've tried as much as I can to elimintate that sort of "apology" from my interactions with other people. If you're sorry, then you're sorry, but defending it just means you're blaming the other person.

Cindy said...

Tami, this was an extraordinarily complete post! Well done.

We have to get out of our own way and remind ourselves not to get lost in our own tunnel vision efforts. We all have our own crap to shed too.

Since the discussion often goes in a single direction with regard to race I'll throw out this idea/concept. (Please bear with me as I veer off topic a bit) In many ways whites have been negatively affected by racism just as people of color. This doesn't play out in the same ways (believe when I say I don't think it is the same), but racism has negatively impacted many whites in deep and meaningful ways. I also don't mean this as a "me too" argument. As you already stated racism is not a people of color only issue.

The "privilege" comes in that an initial perception is often that the white person is automatically sympathetic to racist view/statements etc. I will get racist comments made to me (usually when people don't actually know me) from all spectrum including PoC about some other group. It's why I can make comments about how people of African descent from other countries often place themselves in a hierarchy above African Americans. I hear this kind of crap all the time. All the time. I hate that so many make the assumption that I will agree with their racist statements because of my perceived race.

I have to constantly call out "friends" on their stupid ass shit because they think I will agree with them. I've lost friends because of having friends of color or being friends with someone dating a PoC. Yes, I have people of color as friends...the age ole stupid, "I have black friends" statement. The thing is that I do have black friends, Hispanic friends and Asian friends, many of whom I consider far beyond friends. They are my family. I am grateful for their presence in my life and the open discussions on race that we've had through the years.

I am not blind and can see the racial profiling. I can see the humiliation subjected onto people for no reason. I can see that my bags were only searched when my Puerto Rican partner walked up with her bag. I've had to grow up listening to my father make horrible racist comments and jokes and know I had so many friends I wouldn't dare bring home. How does a 12 year old address that with a parent? I often keep my race out of the discussion on blogs because I will get dismissed out of hand as if I've lived a life outside of racism. Virtually none of us have.

I am very sensitive to the fight and struggle that PoC experience. I would be horrified to think that I offended anyone on this or any other level. Call me out if I do. For me, at least, I don't come at the activist battle from mere empathy. It's personal for me too. Racism/Sexism/Homophobia causes wounds inside and outside the targeted demographic. Recognizing this will help us come to a better meeting ground...a more open dialogue. We would be much less likely to hear, "I'm sorry, but..."

CaitieCat said...

That's a superb post, Tami, thank you very much. I had occasion recently to trip over another bit of racism left in me, and in tripping, hurt someone. I'm glad I can say that this is pretty much exactly the path I took, so it's good to have the opinion of a respected progressive on the topic.

I just hope someday I can stop tripping over this stuff, cause I've cleared it all out. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Tami, this post brought tears to my eyes. I started writing a huge comment but it was kind of all over the place. So let me just saytThank you so much - what you've said here is so very relevant and amazing.

"What may seem like a very small deal to you, to us may be yet another wearying and soul-destroying slight."

This is something so important for allies to remember.

When my white friends tell me they've been hurt by anti-racist discussions or people of color saying pointed things, I always ask - our terrible racial history, is it such that the hurt should only be bourne out by people of color? Now that as a white you decide it should be "fixed" it should be fixed in such a way as to guarantee no personal pain is involved?

I'm not sure if that makes sense but... I've been (ego-)hurt once I started taking the discussion of race seriously, but I have accepted that as part of the process of being serious about this work.

Fachtna said...

Excellent post - I'd like to print it out for a series I'm thinking of doing next year, with your permission.

There is one phrase that interests me - "women and people of color". I'm interested in this phrase because I am trying to become more sensitive generally to the way US society segments the oppressed classes - based on gender OR skin color OR sexual preference, etc. Does this phrase mean "white women and all people of color"? Or does it mean "all women, and men of color, too"?

What are your thoughts on this?

Mikhail Lyubansky said...

From the perspective of a straight, white, (but not Christian) male who has failed at being an ally more times than I can possibly recall, everything here rings true. Every word.

I did, however, have one thought that I'd like to put out for discussion. Tami wrote: "If members of marginalized groups want to work with allies, we have to know that they will fail us sometimes." I agree. And I would also add (and I base this in part on my experience as a religious minority), that members of a marginalized group sometimes also fail each other and, when this happens, all of the good advice in this blog is equally valuable.

If this is the case, then how is the failing of an ally different? I think it is, in fact, different, but would very much welcome a discussion on this topic.

I'd like to

Anonymous said...

This is a good practical post. Very clearly written, and explained. But you know what, it makes me realize that I have no allies at all out there. Nobody in a dominant group ever goes to the trouble of truely wanting me to be myself in any way at all.

They just don't give that much of a damn.

Tami said...


I think you are right that the principles here are applicable for relationships in general. We forget them too easily. The results of forgetting can be more incendiary in ally/mariginalized ppl relationships just because of histories of power, oppression, mistrust, etc.

Tami said...

Mikhail, I guess what I'm really saying is that I don't think it is so different when an ally fails "the movement." It is the history that is different and that effects the way that failure is read.

Anyone else have thoughts on this?

Tami said...


Yikes! I just realized how the way I wrote "women and people of color" could read. I meant for those groups to read off of the movements that proceeded them in the post. So, re: feminism I referenced "women." Re: racism I referenced "people of color." The way I wrote it seems to imply that people of color are not ever women. That is not a quirk of US segmentation, but a result of my unclear writing.

I would add that too often in feminist discussions "women" DOES EQUAL "white women," but many feminists of color are working to change that.

Amy said...

Aspiring Allies! Those of us who want to work as allies alongside individuals/communities who have been historically marginalized/discriminated against can aim to be aspiring allies. One never reaches "ally" status-to think so is to imply that it is a static state of assumes that you have confronted your privilege fully, and can sit back being an ally. However, the work of confronting privilege happens on a daily, moment to moment basis. We can always learn more, hear more points of view, and confront messages of entitlement that we've been fed growing up. The Women of Color Network puts out great pieces on Aspiring Alliship. (

This quote sums up my vision of aspiring allies' roles:

"...the more radical the person is, the more fully she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but she does commit herself, within history, to fight at their side." Paulo Freire "Pedagogy of the Oppressed"

Also, Tami, I wanted to support your comments about the uselessness of white women's unclaimed guilt. Poet Audre Lorde has amazingly insightful things to contribute to this conversation, "I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees." White women's static guilt or unexamined apologeticism again places the burden on women of color to respond to and to help them mediate their guilt. Guilt, if unexamined and unclaimed, cannot work to catalyze change. In aspiring to be an ally, we have the responsibility to examine privilege daily, and to engage authentically, lovingly, with open ears and open hearts. Thanks Tami, for sending out wisdom on alliship.

Hortence Littella said...

" I guess what I'm really saying is that I don't think it is so different when an ally fails "the movement." It is the history that is different and that effects the way that failure is read."

I agree with this. I think when there is a "failure" in a relationship, that failure is almost always understood or experienced as a betrayal by the injured party. The story or stories that get attatched to the betrayal change depending on the history and context of the relationship in addition to the inevitable personal baggage that people bring to their relationships.

livinonfaith said...

This was a great post. I don't know if I am an ally or not, just someone who believes in respecting all people and appreciating the gifts that each one of us brings to this world. But I'm definitely trying to educate myself on how to be more supportive to those who do exist as marginalized. I simply don't want to cause additional stress in anyone's life if I can help it.

One of your points definitely hit home. As humans, even the most well intentioned person is going to make mistakes. The fact is that each person, whether male, female, black, white, disabled, homosexual, or any other category we want to assign them, is a separate and unique person. Even within our own "category" we may have many experiences and feelings in common, or we may have very different ones. Heck, go to any feminist blog and you'll see every point of view under the sun, and a different argument for each one. Same for any African American blog. Let's be honest, you can't agree with everyone.

And, to a certain extent, if we can't agree on "the rules" within our own categories, we can't really expect an ally, who is themselves a unique person with unique experiences, to automatically agree or connect with everyone either. So a feminist ally may be really willing to actively support "basic" equality for women, but may not agree with every feminist issue that you or I do. Do we demean that person and declare them a fraud for not supporting (or maybe not even understanding) every issue that is important to us? Or do we accept the support that they ARE willing and able to give?

I think it all comes back down to the basic issue of respect. You do a wonderful job of explaining how allies have to actually listen before we get defensive. It is hard to do, though, and requires practice and patience. I think that if we all did this, whether we consider ourselves ally or not, and yes, even if we are a member of a marginalized group, there would be far less conflict and a greater possibility of understanding.

Thanks Tami!

M and M said...

Tami, as a white woman working daily to be a good ally and an effective ally (particularly in the high school at which I teach), this post is really a great resource. Thank you. Your willingness to "teach" is something for which I am deeply grateful. My pledge, of course, is to pass it on to other majority folks and do my work as a white person educating whites. I feel more empowered to do my work as an ally because of the plethora of voices here to help me along on my journey. Thank you.

yvonne said...

I stumbled across your blog a couple of weeks ago, and every post I've read so far is so enlightening/comforting/inspiring/and a whole mess of other things. As a person of color who is just starting my journey in deeply (intellectually) exploring race relations, it's nice to read a blog that I feel puts my experiences/thoughts/feelings into words when it's so hard to do it myself.

Especially this post about allies...
"Sometimes the privileged are too confident in their roles as allies and too slow to examine their own biases."
I had a Caucasian roommate in an intensive living community where we frequently talked about race... She claimed to be an ally yet was so oblivious to her own ignorance. I guess she only thought African Americans were oppressed or something.. (I am Asian American) I would get so frustrated, but felt it was pointless in confronting her ignorance because of her generally stubborn personality. I didn't want to have to continually open myself up to my painful experiences for her to "get it" and like you were saying, allies definitely have a personal responsibility to actively learn... but then again, I should have said something because she will probably never realize that non-black people are targets of racism too...

thanks for this post, I will keep reading!

Jason said...

How's it going?

I like your site a lot. There's a lot of interesting stuff on here. I'm a first-time visitor, but I'm liking what I'm seeing. I have a site that provides inspiration and guidance to people around the world. I'd like to exchange links with you to help spread some traffic around. Please let me know if this is possible.


Tina said...

I'm here from Shakesville and wanted to thank you for this post. I'm excited to read part 2!

Rosa said...

Thank you for this. I adore posts like this because they remind me that sanity is possible in an insane world.

Recently, I was upbraided by a friend I thought was an ally for calling out the racist appropriation of Native American culture. "Why are you so angry and antagonistic?" he asked me.

Weeks earlier, the same friend, as we were walking out of a screening of "Precious," shocked me by saying, "I am like Precious's mother." I asked, "What do you mean?" And he said, "So many times I stayed quiet trying to protect myself when I should have spoken out and protected someone else."

Tami said...

Welcome back, NOLA Rad Fem! Long time, to.

Thanks for mentioning the 12 percent. You reminded me that I meant to talk about that in my post but forgot. That such a small percentage of people believe a thing barely merits notice...unless of course you want to use the information to sow racial discontent among a fretful base. The fact that this race-based commercial was manufactured in response to such a negligible statistic kinda negates their point, yes? You would HAVE to be sowing seeds of racial hate to create an issue out of what statistics clearly show is a non-issue.

P.S. I'm kindo concerned that the number isn't higher. JUST 12 percent?

Joe said...

Great post.

I’d love to read a compilation of case studies and stories of actual occurrences of the situations you describe. A description of the situation, the action performed or words said by the member of the privileged group, why the member of the marginalized group was offended or hurt, why the member of the privileged group didn’t think the action or words were offensive or hurtful, how both parties dealt with the conflict, and what the outcome was.

I think a compendium of these kinds of stories and analyses would be a great method of increasing understanding and preventing similar situations from occurring in the future, both of the original actions that caused the offense or hurt, and of how to deal with the situation once the offense or hurt has been caused.

Indie said...

This was a great post. I don't want to say I'm an ally because I do have a problem with that word -- calling myself an ally implies that I'm not going to screw up and that I can be trusted not to screw up. This is very very wrong. :3 I can fail epically, and while I do apologize/correct/educate myself, social anxiety makes it nigh-impossible for me to 'reaffirm' and jump back in. I know it's worthless to say I'm 'trying', so I'll just say that I'm not denying the importance of it.

feathertail said...

But marginalized people do have a right to be pissed off and to show it.

You and I both know that the only reason we let ourselves act this way is because the other person's an ally. We take our all our frustrations on this person, because we know it will hurt them. They're like a proxy for all the people who've hurt us that we can't talk to, because we know that they'd just blow us off.

It hurts our allies, and it hurts us. Because expressing bitterness and frustration makes us frustrated and bitter, and it turns away the people who could help us. I've exploded in rage at my allies before, and I'm so grateful that they didn't tell me off for it like anyone else would have.

If we have to "be the better person," it's not because that's the weaker strategy. It's because we have fewer resources and we need to optimize. Other people have the privilege of being able to be jerks, because being mean costs them nothing they value. We can't afford that.

tessa3 said...

Hi Tami, thanks for this great post! I am working on being a better white ally and trying to read as much as I can. Do you have recommendations for other anti-racist blogs to read? I regularly read Colorlines and Racialious, but would appreciate others ones as well.


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