“Well, what the hell AM I supposed to do?”
This was the thought I had after reading a blog entitled, “Dear Liberal Allies“.
Read it (seriously) and then think about your own reactions to the author’s observations. You may be in a space very similar to the one I was in after I read it the first time- by the way, I felt super annoyed and alienated.
Here’s an excerpt that really struck a nerve:
All anybody’s looking for in an ally is someone who knows that “empowerment” means taking a step aside in a place where you know you have privilege. And if it is, for example, a PoC-to-PoC [person of color] conversation, a woman-to-woman conversation, a queer-to-queer conversation, etc. about this stuff, and that isn’t who you are, you don’t need to be chiming in.
“Chiming in”? So again, my thought was: “If I’m not supposed to “chime in” what the hell AM I supposed to do?”
Reader, you may not even consider yourself “liberal” and you may not be entirely sure what being an “ally” means in this context.
However, I would hazard to guess that you are a decent human being. AND I bet that you demonstrate care and concern for your neighbors, and that sometimes you feel uncomfortable when you see things that just aren’t right:
- the way a person speaks rudely to one server at a restaurant but not to another who is a different race or gender;
- when someone at work uses hateful or hurtful language about specific communities, be that people of color or those from a different country, women, people other than heterosexuals, the elderly, the disabled;
- or even how some may refuse to even interact with specific groups (the man who refuses to engage with female coworkers during meetings, the woman who won’t let her children have a playdate with a child with same-sex parents).
Maybe you’ve even called people out for being assholes or corrected someone who may not have understood how hurtful certain words can be.
When I feel brave, I correct people when they’re out of line, and I choose to shop at places that don’t discriminate against specific groups or communities.
So, as I over-internalized the blog, I wondered why this blogger was calling me out and saying that, as an ally, I’m probably doing more harm than good? Why is the author assuming that I automatically think what I’m saying is more important? Did the author really mean to imply that as a person of the majority (white, middle class) I could not possibly contribute to the conversation?
Then I read this article by by Audre Lorde. — Go read it! Mind.Blown.
This woman, who has faced systematic oppression all of her life (not only as a woman of color but also as a person who identifies as lesbian) has articulated a concept that I honestly believe I never, ever could have reached on my own:
Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.
And then I realized why I could never have arrived at these observations on my own, why I wouldn’t even think to make such observations on my own: I don’t have the same life experiences to recognize these overlaps in oppression. I have faced one type of oppression in being a woman, and some discrimination as a woman veteran. The rest of it is pretty much a cake walk. I’m white, I have enough money, I live in a safe, suburban neighborhood, I’m employed, I have a car, etc… Ms. Lorde’s essay is something I could never have fathomed; I didn’t even realize it could exist. I had never even contemplated the overlap for someone who is a woman, a person of color, and someone who identifies as other than heterosexual. I mean, I knew it was out there. But I didn’t know what it meant.
This is when I finally understood what the Trungles blogger was pointing out: All my education about oppression means jackshit when side-by-side with someone’s actual life experience. Any subject I study that discusses the systematic oppression of minorities, LGBT individuals, the very poor– all that means diddly if I don’t shut my mouth and recognize that the very people who live through those oppressions will have the truest and most valid observations. That doesn’t mean that I can’t speak honestly from my own experiences of oppression- it means the exact opposite of that! I am entitled to speak to my own experiences and those who haven’t lived them need to shut up and listen, especially before they make suggestions about how to make things better. And when people are sharing experiences of their own, those I haven’t lived or experienced- well then, I need to shut my mouth and listen. The genius of Audre Lorde’s essay would have been lost on me had I not read the Trungles blog first. And the sense of alienation I felt from the Trungles blog would surely have lingered had I not read Audre Lorde.
My initial thought (What AM I supposed to do?) is probably a thought shared by many, many people. Allies and potential allies often feel helpless in how they can actually make a difference. And after I read the two essays discussed above, I thought to myself, “Why aren’t there more essays like Lordes’?”
I froze for a moment after I had that thought, startled by my own expectations (my own privilege). Ah. So there it is. My presumption that there weren’t more articles like this was like a flash of insight. Had I even looked? Or was I expecting to be spoon-fed by CNN or Facebook?
I did one internet search and guess what? There TOTALLY ARE more essays and articles and books and blogs out there written by people who have lived these experiences and who have amazing insights and ideas. First tool at your disposal? Google (or any search engine). Search key terms like “ally”, “oppression”, “discrimination”, and “social justice”.
And once you dig in, almost every blog you read will link to related blogs and news articles, and the more you read the deeper your understanding and appreciation of the complexity of the world around you will become.
Oh, and I don’t think there is “one answer” to my initial question (at least not one magic solution). But it does begin with being open to recognizing your own privilege and coming to terms with your own lack of expertise in all things (that was totally difficult for me). Also, don’t be like me and take shit so personally, either. Acknowledge that those who have lived the experience should be the people to whom you defer. That doesn’t mean you can’t do good work, just don’t assume that your idea is the best idea or that yours is the only opinion that counts.