Allies and Pseudo Allies
This is a guest post by the always fabulous Angie.
Disclaimers and clarifications: I’m not telling people how to be an ally or how to interact with allies- I’m sharing my experiences. I’m also talking about how I would like my allies to interact with me. For the purposes of this post I’m going to use the term “oppression” as a catch-all term, covering but not exclusive to: racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination based on religion, survivors of sexual assault, rape, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, incest, the experiences of those who have developmental or physical disabilities, the experiences of those who struggle with mental illness or are non-neurotypical, and almost certainly a bunch of things I forgot. Oppression is not the best word to cover this rather large list, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment- I am very open to suggestions for a better word. Now for the actual post. Many thanks to Abigail and Sara for their edits and support.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Pax’s Victim Blaming 101 post and the comments which followed. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a good ally, both from my own experiences working with allies and my experiences being an ally.
Being involved in anti-oppression work is tricky (massive understatement). It’s tricky because we all swim in a sea of interlocking oppressions and privileges. It’s tricky because being part of the sea means it’s hard for us to examine it, and when we try we’re still part of the sea and directly impacting how it moves. It’s tricky because hearing “you are looking at this issue from a place of privilege” is hard and scary, because it’s easy to interpret this as “you’re a bad person.” It’s tricky because you are almost guaranteed to hurt someone you care about without intending to, or even understanding how it happened.
I’m a polyamorous, queer, sexual assault survivor, emotional abuse survivor, kinky, working-poor raised woman who struggles with depression and anxiety. I’m also white, cisgendered, speak English fluently, literate, and college-educated with a good paying job, a nice apartment, and no physical or developmental disabilities. This means that in anti-oppression work I’m sometimes an ally and sometimes part of the directly impacted group.
The most important lesson that I learned is that just because I understand and experienced one type of oppression does not mean that I understand what it’s like to be impacted by another type of oppression. The best example of this is a mistake I made early on when doing anti-racism work; when a person of color (POC) was talking about their experiences of racism I would jump in and spoke of my experiences growing up as working poor. I was lucky- a friend pulled me aside and gently told to me that I needed to stop. She told me that my experiences were important and valid, but not the same. She talked about how I could dress up in nice clothes and learn the mannerisms of the middle and upper classes, but that she could never turn her skin white. She explained that by jumping in as I had been I was making the discussion about me and my oppressions, not the oppression experienced by the POC in the room. At first I felt angry- How could she know what my experiences were! Then I felt ashamed- How could I have been so self-centered! Then I learned the second lesson.
The second most important lesson that I learned is that often being a good ally means shutting up and listening. If I’m in a group as an ally and someone says “you’re seeing this from a place of privilege”, or in more heated discussions “check your privilege,” I need to control my knee jerk reaction and really listen. Even if it’s said with anger, even if it hurts my feelings, especially when we’re all hurting. I learned that anger at systems of oppression which benefit me doesn’t mean people are angry at me. I learned that even though I’ve been involved in anti-oppression work for well over a decade I can still fuck up very badly. I learned that sometimes it’s legitimate and helpful for me for people to be angry at me. I learned that “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I said/wrote/did” is NOT the same as “I am sorry I hurt you with what I said/wrote/did.”
My third lesson was that a pseudo-ally is often worse than no ally at all. Pseudo-allies are the “male-allies” who write articles about how to prevent sexual assault but don’t listen or respond to the input of people directly impacted by sexual assault, or people who have been working on the issue for years. They are the “straight-allies” who laugh (possibly uncomfortably) at gay jokes but don’t say anything, or off-handedly use the word “fag” to insult someone. They are every ally who has jokingly used the term “he-she” to describe a non-cis person. I was a pseudo-ally when I made a discussions of racism about my own experiences of classism. They are often people who genuinely mean well, but don’t do well supporting the people experiencing the oppression; who want to be part of the solution but aren’t willing to dig into the discomfort of it all to do it well.
I am not a perfect ally, I will never be a perfect ally, and I will likely never meet a perfect ally. Still, I will continue to call out and help educate well-intentioned allies who mess up- that’s how we all learn. I was lucky to have a friend who got me on the right path to being a good ally, just as Pax is lucky to have Sara and Abigail to continue leading him. It is precisely these difficult, nuanced, sometimes painful discussions that help us grow as activists and allies.