Being an Ally

16 Apr



I’ve been  trying to answer for myself the question of what makes a good ally,  defining ally as someone who actively supports the rights of an underprivileged group of which they are not a member. I occupy a reasonably privileged place in society and I often feel like in an ineffective advocate for equality. In the name of self-improvement, below is a list of all the key points I could articulate. If anyone reading this has ideas for additions, I’d love to hear them.

1. Be informed. Know the history, know the current politics, talk to people in the underprivileged group about their needs

2. Do advocate – when someone says or does something messed up, call them out even if it’s awkward and even if it wasn’t directed at you. Don’t let your PC decency paralyze you. As in, don’t be too afraid of saying something wrong or being an outsider to get involved. Also don’t assume that your work is already done and that the battle is already won.

3. Don’t ‘white knight’. It’s okay to be, say, offended by a racist comment when you’re the caucasian in the room. But don’t try to speak for an individual in the underprivileged community when they’re there and can speak for themselves unless they have told you they would appreciate this.

4. Do listen. Make sure to actually listen to members of the underprivileged group and to add your voice as a secondary  support to theirs. Signal-boost. Pass the message on. Also, they will tell you who they are, how they feel, and how they’re going to act. None of those are things you should be telling them.

5. Don’t appropriate. An ally does not a member make. You don’t have to claim an identity that isn’t yours to be one of the good guys. This is one of the best bits of ally-writing I’ve ever read. It makes trans equality a personal issue for the author, without ever veering into appropriative, self-congratulatory territory.

6. Don’t use being an ally to offload privilege-guilt. That’s something you need to deal with on your own. No one can magically make your privilege go away, including you. Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person, but it is something you’re going to have to be aware of. Your good intentions won’t make you immune to saying and doing problematic things.

7. Apologize where it’s called for. If you mess up, ‘fess up (I’m sorry, I wanted to rhyme -alliterate? whatever – so bad). So many people get defensive about how they’re not a racist/misogynist/etc, therefore they can’t have said something screwed up about race or gender. They didn’t mean it like that and that should have been obvious, etc. Don’t explain yourself. A sincere apology and examining your words does more to defend your enlightened reputation. Good people screw up sometimes.

8. Remember the underprivileged group is not a homogeneous block. They will not all have the same opinions and identities. They will not all be ‘model minorities’. They will not all be – and do not have any obligation to be – activists. Also, you are not obliged to totally agree with any given individual in the underprivileged group, as long as you are respectful of their opinions and watch your own privilege.

9. Do  self-examine. Sort of a corollary to #7  – just because you want to be enlightened and decent, doesn’t mean you automatically will be every time. Try and think about the -ist things you might be doing subconsciously or carelessly. Notice where you’re privileged or reinforcing privilege.

Thoughts? Additions? Criticisms?


2 Responses to “Being an Ally”

  1. Yochanan the Younger April 22, 2013 at 12:34 am #

    I gotta disagree with you on that piece you linked. It’s terrible. Cis people don’t get to go around caring about trans people because “[they] or someone [they] love might get cancer at some point, and a trans person who is capable of discovering the cure is otherwise occupied defending their right to exist” and calling that ally-ship. This buys into the notion that people are valuable because of what they can do for other people with smarts, leadership, mad skillz, etc. This is, I think, ultimately ableist (but also fucked in general, we’ll get there). What if you’re paralyzed from the waist down and have the mental capacity of a three year old? Do you not deserve respect and a decent life? (Or the right to not be constantly referred to as “a little angel who reminds us of God’s love with all their sweetness,” like you don’t have the right to have a shitty day because your only legit role is to make other people happy). People cannot be reduced to their utility; the attempt to prove the “worthiness” of trans people by showing that trans people are good for the economy reinforces the idea that human lives are worth what they are worth in dollars to the economy. Let’s take a stand and say hell no to that. (If you are interested, there is a fair deal of writing about the rhetoric of the gay marriage movement with respect to this concept).

    Leaving aside money, saying that you care about XYZ group because of what they can do for you is basically saying, I care because you benefit me. And what have privileged people been doing for years? Using underprivileged people for their benefit. That’s not cool, and liberation doesn’t happen by saying that maybe we have a better way to use these people, so let’s have them do that. It happens by saying, “maybe people have the right to exist, to eat, to do their thing, regardless of whether or not that ever pays out for me, because my expectation that other people’s lives should result in a pay out for me and mine is one of the very things that keeps me privileged.”

    The other huge thing that’s missing from his article (and yours) is the bit on doing some serious self-examination. You might decide to read a bunch of random stuff on racism and decide you’re an ally to POC, but this is not good enough. Revolution starts at home, as it were, and if you’re not thinking to yourself, “hey, where are the racist messages I internalized? Where are my racist inclinations? Am I (sub)consciously crossing the street when I see black men walking down the sidewalk? Do I assume that my elementary school students who are POC are ‘bad eggs’ when they act out, but assume that the white ones are just having a tough time today or are having issues at home? [ad infinitum]”, then you’re papering over the problem. Every single person needs to be examining their privilege and their internal attitudes that reinforce privilege, because it comes from somewhere, and a huge part of those origins are unconscious bias that leads into whacked-out social dynamics, bigoted social policy, racist/classist/homophobic/transphobic policing, etc.

    This leads me to yet another point, which is the idea of saying, “I’m an ally.” I had a link to a good run-down of this, but it has been eaten by a spam bot. Boo. I will summarize it for you, though: saying “I’m an ally” is trying to center your own (privileged) identity in someone else’s struggle for liberation. The very fact that you can say, “I’m an ally” is a sign of your own privilege, and maybe you should recognize that and cut it out. Moreover, whatever you’re doing to combat XYZ privilege, it’s not your right to say that it makes you an ally. The only people who get to decide if you’re an ally are the people you’re (maybe) an ally to, as they’re the ones who know what’s what about their own struggle, including the need for outside help (or lack thereof).

    Lastly, and this touches on your point 8, is to be aware of internal dynamics that promote privilege among certain subgroups of underprivileged groups, and how those dynamics may be affecting the information you’re getting. I will give a concrete example, which is FAAB trans-spectrum people “reclaiming” the term “tranny.” The line on this is usually something like, “we’re trans, it’s a thing trans people can reclaim, fuck off we do what we want!” Except that this is bullshit, because “tranny” is disproportionately used to attack MAAB trans-spectrum people, and I think it’s pretty fair to say that the privilege which masculinity gets in our culture still plays out among trans people, which is to say that it’s no coincidence that the majority of big-name trans people in this country (and especially those who have become big names while openly trans) are trans men, plus a few other FAAB trans people. In other words, when some trans guy sidles up and tells you it is totally chill to say, “Let’s go to a tranny party tonight! Hahaha!”, this is bullshit. He should not be saying this. You definitely should not be saying this, and if you know what’s what, you’ll have searched out MAAB trans-spectrum people’s voices to realize that this guy is selling you a load of misogynistic BS. Other examples of in-group divisions are economic class, national origin (or status as X generation in the US), immigration status, race (because OMFG is the mainstream gay community racist or what), shade of skin color within a given racial group, gender (including binary privilege), ability (including cognitive ability, invisible disabilities, etc.), religion, passing privilege, size, language, etc. I could never list them all, but I think you get where I’m going.

    Anyway, I figure out something new every day that I realize I previously knew nothing about. And there’s still so much more. Nose to the grindstone, yeah?

    • sidkettle April 22, 2013 at 3:28 am #

      Good point on self-examination – I’ll add that one in.

      I see your point about the article. I think what appealed to me to it was that it wasn’t reductionist – like, it didn’t just paint transpeople as victims and remembered that they have interest, talents, etc outside of being trans. I also liked that it was focusing on transpeople being capable and successful; a lot of articles that should be about ‘people just have the right to live their life, yo’ end up being painfully self-righteous/condescending, and turn the underprivileged group in question into tragic set pieces. I think some of my liking for the article goes back to your criticism of calling yourself an ally, actually – I’ve gotten really sick of the self-congratulatory tone a lot of ally-articles take. I liked that this guy wasn’t trying to make it seem like he was doing something notably altruistic and great by writing this. I don’t think the article was actually advocating caring about people only for their utility, so much as drawing attention to the drain it has on people to always be defending themselves.
      I can see how you read it, though, and saw disturbing utilitarian corollaries. Basically, though I don’t think it’s horrible, my bad for holding up like it’s a model for how things should be done.

      Do you know of any articles about rights/decent treatment for an underprivileged group written by someone outside of the group that you do think are really good? I’d really like to have examples of people being apt at this.

      You should send me the link to the anti-ally thing at a point too. I generally agree that you can’t decide that you’re going to be an ally and are therefore are a good guy now. That was part of the point of the no-appropriation thing for me – this is their struggle and identity, and not yours. You cannot put on an ally-hat and suddenly be part of their group/erase your privilege.

      Of course saying you’re an ally is an artifact of privilege, but sort of by definition? It’s descriptive rather that prescriptive. You’re either part of an underprivileged group or a privileged group (or are a transplant from a totally different social system I guess?). But it’s good to have a word for ‘actively trying to support [underprivileged group] and trying to not exercise privilege in creepy ways’ – and ally seems to be the going term. If there’s a better one around, I’m totally up for switching. But I think what’s important is your state of mind. Is being an ally something you aspire to, a constant process rather than something you achieve? Cool. Does it absolve you from self-criticism and guilt? Nooo, bad.

      But yeah, basically. Onward and upward.

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