In my own life I have an increasing number of opportunities to act as an ally to various groups or individuals, against oppression. I say “increasing”, because I find more as my learning grows, my personal strength grows or at least is tailored to certain sitautions, and I have more and deeper relationships with oppressed folks. This isn’t linear at all–in grade school, I had some very deep relationships where looking back I did a lot of supportive work of fellow students of color just as part of being friends, and I learned a lot from my friends. But I have more intentional and political relationships now, with friends and acquaintances. Right now I have deep relationships with several trans women, and women and queer people of color. A good bit of what I do is when they’re not around, in situations where my personal privilege and tiredness sometimes cause me to disengage, but those relationships (past and present) keep a constant need to confront certain injustices on top of my general drive to push for fairness.
Things I confront in my life near-constantly are trans misogyny, racism and views that think America should be a world leader in how trade is done, and a military enforcer of the world’s peace. All things I “benefit” from, as in benefit materially but become less whole, less human because of them (still trying to sort out what I mean by this). And am learning how to notice and confront ableism, which is complicated as I have several invisible disabilities, have felt the sting of some kinds of ableism (and gratitude for access needs being met–and resentment when they aren’t even considered) but not others. So this is mostly based on that.
Listen AND support
People say it over and over again, “shut up and listen”. Privileged people should listen to marginalized people and learn how to treat them better. Absolutely, that is social justice 101. But I had a valuable conversation with a friend about how processing trauma involves telling your story. How sometimes, if you are oppressed or hurt and you’re around others who can understand your oppression, they don’t want to hear it–or they’re too tired to–and you could actually use someone outside of all that to listen. And so we can be that listening force for each other, we allies can do that emotional labor for folks who ask it of us. We can be there for our friends when they are oppressed and they trust us to hear them, without putting our own discomforts forward or even making it about what we need to do better.
Disrupt privileged spaces
I’ve said this before and I will say it again: we can get used to awkwardness, get used to putting ourselves out there, get used to calling out racism among white people or anti-blackness among non-black people and so on. When a person of our privilege is talking over another one, we can try to do something useful, and try to learn how to do it better next time. When people seek out our social justice expertise, we tell them but also point them to where they’re missing. When people talk to us wanting to dip their toes into anti-oppression work, tell them about the need for real commitment, or the need to pay trainers and speakers and value their work.
Give out help–if it is asked for
If you have connections, if you see connections that can be made usefully, make them. If you have skills and people who want to learn them or use them, offer your time or just offer the way you learned them. If you go to an event, ask if you can volunteer or support. If you have money, contribute to campaigns, give more to the groups that ask less because they expect less. When people need money to survive or to be creative, when people need connections and skills denied them, a little goes a long way.
It’s so important though to be a supportive force when you are asked, not to be a savior there to decide what other people need. Not to decide that the way you are an ally to 1 person must apply to everyone like them. This is especially a problem for white people yes, but it could apply to anyone.
Recruit and support more allies–or not
This is a point that really gives me a headache. When we are privileged, there are people who are going to hear us better than they are going to hear marginalized voices. Especially as a white middle-class American, my voice can speak to people who have no reason to listen to people outside that bubble, although being a woman and queer at that means lots of them just don’t listen to me, or worse, ask for far too much of my time to move an inch. So my voice is needed–allies’ voices are needed. BUT
BUT I worry sometimes that my privileged friends, or whoever writes my obituary, and say things like “she is passionate about social justice” and “she speaks for the voiceless”. I would roll over in my grave and scream at them, were that possible. If I seem to be “speaking for the voiceless” it is because you are listening to me but not to the people I try to point out to you, or the ones who cross your path at any time.
I worry about what happens when white allies recruit each other and train each other. Yes, we should have supportive relationships. I have white folks I love and whose commitments I trust, to talk to, to ask perspective. Even one I can show the harshest ugly dynamics to and ask what should I best do. I try to make sure friends of color know I’m open to talking race issues, but balancing that against not asking them to be the ones doing race analysis for me again and again. So when I hear about programs for white allies, where white people end up connecting to each other over anti-racism because those connections are easier than connections _across_ power dynamics, or reaching out to your neighborhood in less explicitly political ways so you work against gentrification–that disgusts me. That is unacceptable and so disappointing that I understand why people are so jaded about allies. There are obvious limits to what allies can teach each other, and when we let any new ally learn just from us and think that is the end goal, we do a huge disservice to the movement. I cannot tell how racist most of my white liberal friends are, even activist ones until I see how they treat people of color–and I mean do they respect strangers, do they seek to understand and spport folks of color around them.
Or as I snarked to a friend recently, “it’s amazing how much white men can learn only from other white men. Even if they want to learn feminism and anti-racism, there are white men there to explain these things so they never have to seek out or listen to women of color”. So it’s a constant question in my mind: when we rely on allies to speak, do we not get listeners who will never truly respect us? When we don’t have allies speaking up, will we ever be heard at all? And when allies do speak, how do we convince them and each other to do the hard work of always, always, amplifying the voices of the oppressed alongside them? And I have a tiny readership right now, but should I worry about this post being read by strangers, without enough references to the people I learned things from? I can’t remember enough to cite everyone, although I can ask that please if you are reading this, at least check out the great writers linked on my resources page, and particularly read everything about white allies and white silence on Black Girl Dangerous (see also their list). And then donate to them if you like what you read.
Allies I look up to, and don’t
There are such good examples. Janet Mock, who has fame and class privilege so rare among trans women of color, who as far as I can tell is always gracious about criticism, often drawing the public’s attention to the leadership of other trans women of color. Or Jos Truitt, who works hard to push queer and trans feminist organizations to be more accountable to folks of color, more understanding and inclusive and less co-opting–I really learned from her call-out of Girl Talk 2013. Or Crommunist, who pushes other men to be feminist, reflects on his growth as a feminist, connects his anti-racist work to feminism, and reaches out and makes himself available to others. Some of my own friends are very good at building solidarity, whether they have large platforms or don’t.
But then there are endless numbers of frustrating people like Tim Wise, whose articles I have and will give to friends, yet who has been noted again and again as a white anti-racist who does not like to talk to anti-racist activists of color, as a white guy who gets paid for basically copying the work of folks of color and bringing it to audiences who would rather hear him. There are privileged activists who are paid to serve communities that they aren’t part of, very few of whom work to train members of those communities to take over their jobs. (Beck Witt from the TGI Justice Project is one who I think did, very much, work to support formerly incarcerated trans women taking over his job, although I wasn’t around most of the time he was on staff and so have mostly come to know the new leaders.)
And most of us who are really committed are called out sometimes, or learn from the callouts of others, and try to do better.