I wrote a blog post the other day about being an “ally,” and while I shared it with my friend network, I had a lot of reservations about anyone beyond my friends encountering it. Then a friend whom I really respect posted a blog but also expressed similar reservations. (Note: I’ve removed my previous post because it never reached a point of feeling OK or very authentic to me. This one feels more like I’m standing naked…weary, and naked…in front of an audience. And I’m OK with that risk.)
This evening I’ve been thinking about why this is such difficult territory and wondering how to navigate the complexities of how those of us who have and are aware of our social privilege show up … or don’t show up … for our friends and family who experience oppression.
I’m not writing this as a defense or justification for myself or others, but simply to try to articulate some thoughts in written form. One of the biggest difficulties in figuring out whether or not to show up is that there are huge risks involved.
There’s the risk that saying something will cause harm. And there’s the risk that staying silent will cause harm. There’s also the risk that either choice will cause harm, and that no matter what we do, someone might get hurt.
And maybe that’s the reality of being a person who has social privilege: no matter what you do, someone might get hurt. If that’s the case, then I wonder if the best we can hope for is harm reduction, weighing the pros and cons of what to do, then taking the risk of trying to do the “least bad” thing while knowing that the system operates in such a way that pain and harm might be inevitable.
I’m speaking in vague terms, and yet again I find myself wanting to offer all sorts of disclaimers and qualifiers for what I’m putting out here. For example, I’m using a lot of “I” statements because I don’t want my words to be taken as speaking for anyone other than myself. As in what I wrote the other day, I want to scream over and over again, “I’m not an authority!” And yet, maybe when it comes to these difficult matters I am at least an authority on myself, if nothing else.
What I really hope comes out of all the ongoing discussions about how we engage in the world is that the things we do (or don’t do) might help push us toward the dismantling of systems of oppression that continue to cause harm. (Maybe that’s Pollyanna-ish?)
I could link to a bunch of “how to” articles with tips for being an ally (I’ve actually compiled a reading list, which I’ve also removed from my blog site). Instead, maybe I should be asking my friends who have social privilege to do their own work. Maybe we can do some of this work together. But as many others have said in other places, please don’t ask those who are oppressed to do your work for you. That sort of thing reinforces the very systems we’re trying to dismantle.
Oh, and in case anyone is wondering what I mean by “do your own work,” maybe a good place to start is by listening and learning. This takes on many different forms. Perhaps the most important is learning from the words and writings of those who have experienced oppression, rather than looking to those of us with race, class, and other privilege to summarize, take credit for, and profit from those ideas (which is why I’m not going to be more specific…I am not the authority…look elsewhere).
I almost defaulted back into academic list-making mode, but then I deleted what was going to be the rest of this paragraph. If you truly want to learn from anti-oppression perspectives, I’m sure you’ll figure out a way. There are plenty of resources out there, and there are spaces in which deep discussions can take place without asking or demanding that those who have been targets of discrimination and violence “hold space” for you.
If you’re not interested in exploring any of this, well, I’m not sure what to say, except that I can only hope you’ll become interested. There’s too much at stake for us to resort to apathy. And yes, there are those out there who want to cling to these damaging systems because there’s a perception that some are actually benefiting from it (although any such perception is ultimately an illusion).
Back to the question about whether to show up or not show up, particularly when it comes to events like rallies and other activities that occur in public spaces, again maybe it’s a matter of listening and learning.
I can only speak for me when it comes to this (so here’s more of the “I” statements): if I hear or sense indications that I’m wanted, I show up if I can. If I hear or sense indications that I’m not wanted, I stay away. If I show up and hear or sense that I’m not wanted, I leave. I apologize if that’s needed. And I try not to project my own fears, anxieties, or excuses onto others when determining where and how I should show up versus where and how I should not show up.
I try to be mindful that as an ally (why does that word feel so awkward? Is there a better word?), my presence isn’t about me. I’m not there to seek praise or affirmation. I’m not there to tell about “that one time when someone hurt me” or to spend hours declaring “I feel your pain.” I’m not there to act like my own anger about oppression is the same as the anger of those who experience oppression directly.
I’m not there to appropriate or capitalize on another culture’s or group’s traditions, experiences, artistic expressions, or material objects. And I’m not there to focus on ways that I as a woman have experienced discrimination, as I’m also aware that my skin is still white, I’m still straight, and I’m still able-bodied. If I’m present, it’s to support the movement, not to fulfill some ego-driven need or desire.
Over the weekend I chose to attend several events to show solidarity for those experiencing racial oppression. I made several new friends, and through the beginnings of conversations that are to be continued, I feel like I might start to learn more about the particular racial dynamics of the overwhelmingly white community where I recently moved. And it’s certainly an issue that’s been ignored and dismissed for long enough by most (although certainly not all) of the town.
If it’s appropriate, there might be instances where I can use my privilege in support of the movement. This doesn’t mean I’m intending to swoop in and play the uninvited savior (or even to act as if anyone needs “rescuing” in the first place…ugh…). But in the past, if I’ve been asked to do a particular task as an advocate, I try to honor that if it seems like it won’t cause harm to those I’m in solidarity with.
Sometimes it’s a matter of making a donation to an organization. Or leveraging other resources. Or giving my time. Or listening. Or speaking. Or writing. Sometimes it’s honoring a request *not* to show up.
And sometimes it involves learning about how I might have caused harm, and what I can do better. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) I have to be prepared for that risk, and I’m not willing to use ego-defensiveness as an excuse about how to show up … or not show up … or both.