Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When allies fail - Pt. 2

[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.]
 
Last week, in a post titled When Allies Fail - Part 1, we began a discussion about maintaining alliances in the face of failure.
 
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.
 
In that post, I tackled 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? Today, I want to talk about the responsibilities of marginalized people who want to work with allies. "Responsibilities of marginalized people"...already I am hesitant to speak about allied relationships this way. 
 
First, marginalized people are the owners of the anti-racist and feminist/womanist movements. The outcomes of the movement are about our humanity, our treatment, our futures, our children. Our fight is based not on empathy, but lived reality. Yes, racism and sexism ultimately effect everyone, no matter their race or gender. But, for instance, women involved in the feminist movement feel the urgency for change much more strongly than our male allies. We are more invested, I think. I say this not as a slight against men. It is the rare human being who is not most invested in things that effect them directly. 
 
Second, marginalized people, like POC, have historically been oppressed. As a result, we adapt to living in a society that does not treat us as equals and sees us as "other." We try to conform. We code switch. We hide our culture. We change our physicality to match that of the majority culture. We hold our tongues in the face of the everyday dull aches of racism. We do this every day, both consciously and unconsciously.
 
It does not seem right, then, that historically oppressed people, while working within our own safe spaces in movements for our own liberation, have some responsibility to the feelings of privileged people--the historic oppressors--even those who call themselves allies. Haven't we earned a permanent high ground through centuries of mistreatment? Surely we don't have to make gentle our words, hide our anger, wear the mask (TM Paul Laurence Dunbar) even while fighting for our own equality. Do feminists have a responsibility for maintaining relationships with men? Do anti-racist people of color have a responsibility for maintaining relationships for white people?
 
If we want them as allies...yes. 
 
We have a responsibility to treat our allies with respect and humanity. It is the same responsibility that every person has to another. This notion of human regard is the very foundation of equality movements. We cannot demand justice while mirroring injustice. We definitely should not feel a need to "wear the mask" in our own safe spaces in order to make privileged people more comfortable. But we can act with compassion. When we do not, we fail at maintaining alliances. And allied relationships are too important to lose.
 
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.
 
So how should marginalized people navigate allied relationships?
 
Listen. It is no surprise that this was the first "rule" in last week's post, too. Listening is part of the foundation for all interpersonal relationships. 
 
Don't generalize. Avoid using language that implies that all members of a group are the same and inherently bad. This kind of talk is dehumanizing no matter who it comes from. It is one thing, I think, to discuss the ways that our culture can breed aggressiveness and violence into men; it is another to speak in a way that brands all men violent predators. It is a) a gross exaggeration and b) certainly alienating to any man who calls himself a feminist and works to support women's causes.
 
Call people on their own shit, not everyone's shit. It does no good to give allies a pass on their prejudices. Consenting to being an ally and joining a marginalized group as a privileged person means committing to examining yourself and to having other people examine you, too. This is one way that good allies gain our trust. They unite with us, knowing that doing so means laying their imperfect selves bare. In the case of anti-racist white allies, it means knowing that, no matter how vigilant you are, one day, you are going to say or do something racially insensitive or ignorant, because you are human. And when you make that mistake, the POC you hope to support will be angry and hurt and they will call you on it. And it will be uncomfortable. And it will be easier to disappear from the blog or the local anti-racist group or the friendship. But if you walk away, you prove yourself uncommitted, so hopefully you stay and suck it up and learn and do better the next time. Doing that--staying when things get uncomfortable--takes strength of character and it is not easy. As a person of color working with white allies, I think I must acknowledge this and respect it. And while I have no fear of calling allies on their prejudices, I must take care not to hold them responsible for more than their own privilege and their own racial bias. Allies cannot be stand-ins for a larger racist society.
 
Don't be a bully. Marginalized people have a right to our anger and disgust at injustice. We do not have a right to browbeat our supposed allies. Alliances need to be based on mutual respect to work effectively. An environment where the "in group" is always angry and right and the "out group" is always prostrate, sorry, cowering and wallowing in guilt is unhealthy and unproductive in achieving the goals of equality work. 
 
Be willing to teach sometimes. Understand. It is not the obligation of marginalized people to teach. We shouldn't have to teach. Education is wasted on those who don't wish to learn. But offering a hand to an ally who has proven themselves a friend and demonstrated a willingness to educate themselves is a smart thing to do. It strengthens relationships and ultimately helps us move closer to the goal of having more people "get it" when it comes to "isms," biases and privilege.
 
There is a climate I have noticed in some spaces--mostly online--where even the most rare and gently-phrased question from the most dedicated ally is met with charges of "Privilege!" "It's not my job to educate YOU!" "Derail!" "Educate yourself!" I understand the principle behind this reaction, yet sometimes the execution seems both uncharitable and ultimately not helpful. If I want the majority culture to "get it" when it comes to racism and privilege, it seems nonsensical to refuse to help even proven allies on their journey sometimes.
 
Forgive. When they hurt us, we generally give some slack to our friends, family and others with whom we have formed important bonds. This is particularly true if the hurt is unintentional. We get angry. We get sad. We get disappointed. But when someone has previously demonstrated their support and regard, and when they have sought our forgiveness, we generally find a way to get past it. So, too, I think it should be with allied relationships. The seeking forgiveness part is crucial here. Forgiveness comes after a person owns, apologizes and makes right their mistake. Once that happens, the slate should be cleared. Relationships break easily under the weight of past hurts never forgiven. One hurt by a friend does not an enemy make. One moment of privilege or bias from an anti-racist ally does not a racist make, either.
 
Know when to walk away. Everyone who claims ally status isn't ready to be an ally. It's as simple as that. Someone who is unwilling to examine their own privilege, who is unwilling to educate themselves, who constantly makes excuses for bias and plays "devil's advocate" too passionately, whose slip ups are too frequent and moments of advocacy too few, perhaps is not the best ally. One can only forgive so much. It is okay to cut your losses, save your sanity and move on when an alliance isn't working.
 

13 comments:

genderbitch said...

I've failed on the forgiveness part before. Unfortunately, I tend to hold grudges and it's something that I usually have to fight and wrestle with when someone screws up in a major way.

I still am fairly harsh with folks who consistently excuse their bs or keep on doing it after being called on it (actions speak louder than words) like the folk who keep tossing the word crazy or insane around on twitter after being called out. That kind of thing makes forgiveness impossible. But I am trying to give folks more chances when they're actually working on it.

I have been guilty of browbeating in the past, not just because I was rolling with an activist crowd a while back that had no self control there (some old school Nuker types who would basically kick allies and enemies in the head in the same way, always) but also because enough consistent betrayals in a row had made me really bitter and I took that out on allies for every little mistake.

I feel like I've improved there, I've been less harsh on folks and I haven't used Nuker communication tactics to the levels I used to unless the situation calls for it (like a troll or a masterful derailer). And I'm not really rolling with that same group either, having learned my lesson about not so great influences and individuals who are unhealthy for me.

The generalizing one though? Good gods I need to work on that. I've been trying to add qualifiers a lot more when I make general statements on cis and currently abled folks.

Cindy said...

Once again, terrific post! I don't know if you & I are on the same wave length or if your previous post just had me thinking in this direction. Probably the latter...cause I've been thinking about your previous post since it went up.

My thought in this is that I can't expect someone else to know everything about my experience. It is MY responsibility to tell my own story. I only ask that they (my allies) listen when I have something to say. What I can offer in return is an open ear and an acknowledge that I don't presume to know everything about their experience either. That would be number 1, right?

If I have to scream it, then maybe that person is not ready to listen. Possibly I am not listening to myself and how I might be perceived in my delivery.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

There is a climate I have noticed in some spaces--mostly online--where even the most rare and gently-phrased question from the most dedicated ally is met with charges of "Privilege!" "It's not my job to educate YOU!" "Derail!" "Educate yourself!" I understand the principle behind this reaction, yet sometimes the execution seems both uncharitable and ultimately not helpful.

I have seen this too - not to mention the fact there is sometimes a huge dogpile on the original poster which - I don't know about you, but even (or especially?) in the online sphere I find this humiliating. And yes, I've left a group because of being abused, if you could call it that.

However... this group I left? I have to credit it as being the group that made me start thinking more and deeply examining my privilege. Before this group I hadn't heard of the term "anti-racist". Because of this group I learned to keep my mouth shut a bit (okay, a lot) and listen more. I also learned just how wrong I was about so much, like: "If it makes you angry, maybe you should stay away from discussions around race" for example. I could list a lot of other racist fallacies I lived under, but my ego is still a bit tender even years later.

Ultimately the community I left was too drama-laden, hostile, and abusive. The compassion you speak of during uncomfortable discussions was almost non-existant. But that isn't true of all online communities committed to activism - even those that show the "Derail!" "Priviledge!" rejoinders you mention. These days when I find those places I didn't just jump in to comment but hang back, reading, processing, talking to my partner, thinking it over. And listening, listening, listening. And that's been a really good thing for me.

I do wish people had more compassion in correcting others. I really do. And I do wish people used more qualifiers - it still hurts when I hear yet another evil that "white feminists" commit. If only people would just say "SOME white feminists", my little ol' feelings wouldn't be hurt! I know it's silly and I own my own sensitivity, and I try to ask myself "Do I commit this wrong or not?", which helps. But, I also agree that "you people" language can be very dehumanizing no matter who delivers it.

And finally... I understand your hesitancy in addressing the "responsibilities of marginalized people". I really appreciate what you've written here. Thank you for a great article.

iamatraveler said...

Today I experienced another uncomfortable conversation in the work place regarding perceived stereotypes of African Americans. I wrote about the incident in my blog today. I think I am kind of tired of teaching and dealing with racial insensitivity.

Mad Gastronomer said...

Thank you, Tami.
I've been reading your blog for some weeks, but haven't commented. I've seen too many dogpiles, and don't want to end up on the bottom of one. I try to take correction well, but it's certainly easier when it's not phrased as an attack.

And just to be clear, the thanks covers the first post, too. I'm bookmarking it, so that when I get called on something (usually online), I can go reread it before responding.

As a feminist and a queer woman, I try to be one of the educators. No one should have to be, of course, but because there are people who actively don't want to do it, and yet people still need the education, I try to step forward when the opportunity presents itself. I don't tolerate trolls, but I try to treat my allies the way I want to be treated by the groups I try to be an ally to.

I wanted to comment on a post about good hair, but I wasn't sure if my comments, as a white woman with her own issues about her hair, would be either welcome or appropriate. Next time, I'll give it my best attempt, and if I get it wrong, it sounds like you'll call me on it, but I don't need to worry about a dogpile.

Reggie said...

Excellent excellent post!!!

livinonfaith said...

Great post! This one and the last should be required reading for any people who want to build and keep relationships, not just allies and people from marginalized groups.

In a way, though, this is relationship 101. Many of us have been taught to automatically do these things with our family and friends. (At least most of us do, most of the time.) We constantly disagree, resolve, and forgive within these relationships, at least enough for them to continue in a meaningful way.

Is it the societal power dynamic that makes it harder to do in a marginalized person/ally relationship? Why do we expect so much more from these people than we do from even those who are closest to us?

Do we just value these relationships much less? Or is it because the issues we are dealing with are so personal? Or maybe it's that little nagging certainty that the ally can just get up and walk away from it all whenever he/she wants to. That the ally will never be "in it" to the same extent that the marginalized person will be and thus must prove their worth to a much higher degree.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Anonymous said...

I actually think that "ally" is a bit of a misnomer. It kind of sounds like a "military ally" or the "allies invaded Normandy"-- it's problematic because it somehow assumes that someone is less advantaged than the personal they are "allies" with. I don't think this works, because in real life, what works is a commitment born of genuine friendship, and many shared interests. It's not just a connection to someone because she is black. Our relationships become quite meaningless if they are politicalized in this way.

We can stand with our friends, we can stand with people we know, we can even stand with strangers at certain times and places, but without much more than "ally" I think the artificiality of this doesn't last. It's why so much of politics today has so little commitment, so little long term connections. I just don't see people like this one way or the other, but I see a deep connection, and that is what it's about for me.

Satsuma said...

livinonfaith-- I think this point is quite interesting.

"Is it the societal power dynamic that makes it harder to do in a marginalized person/ally relationship? Why do we expect so much more from these people than we do from even those who are closest to us?"

I think people have too high an expectation of "allies" -- a word that I've never much liked, and actually never hear used in common discussion with my friends. That's the problem with it, it's impersonal, it places expectations on people that are too difficult to achieve. So I don't believe it's a very good model for consistency at all.

You can have families, you can have friends, relatives etc., but allies? I don't have allies, I have friends, many of whom would have no idea how to end homophobia, nor would they be in the social worlds to understand this. Friendship and caring change things, marches, voting for new candidates opens things up. But what I found the most indicative, is the activism of one group that goes out and makes way for social progress. But that only goes so far. Then people get frustrated because they expect more of an "ally" than they would of an ordinary person, who can be just as helpful, just as needed. That's where we make the mistake I think.

And if we are the so-called "marginalized group, the so-called dominant group really can't change a social structure anyway, but they can be aware, they can make a place hospitable, and that is real progress in my opinion.

-Satsuma

The Voracious Vegan said...

Phew, I needed to read this, thank you. My husband, a feminist ally if there ever was one, has been the all too frequent victim of my rants and tirades where I make the inevitable slide into bitching at him for just being a man. I am steeped in women's liberation work all day, and I really do need to take a deep breath and remind myself that he is my best friend and supporter, and NOT the men that I am hearing about or writing about. Thank you for this amazingly well written piece. I just discovered your blog and I can't get enough.

Jill said...

Okay - I'm just saying it so the whole world knows: I love you, Tami. You are so awesome.

You need to write this in a book and blare this everywhere. Whole lotta people need to read what you write the way you write it.

Thank you infinite times.

alejna said...

Wow, these were really fantastic posts. (I come by way of the the Just Posts, where several of your posts have been nominated.)

I've had to stop reading most self-proclaimed feminist blogs because I find the comments too upsetting. Mostly because of the vitriol spewed towards other allies. I wish some of those commenters could read what you have written.

I really, really like what you have to say, and plan to take your advice to heart.

Anonymous said...

I don't expect friends and acquaintances to never show a racist thought, but I don't think I have to comfort them if they do. I'm nice about telling them what I think, but it doesn't stop some of them from translating polite concerns into "you're browbeating me" if I respond or "you're ostracizing me!" if I don't.

Surely a white person can learn not to be racist without a personal relationship with me. I'm not Jesus.

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