Ugh! If you are from a marginalized group, have you ever had that reaction when you saw one of your allies coming? If you consider yourself an ally, have you ever thought that when you saw another ally coming? Then you know what I am talking about.
I am a white, gay male which means I serve as ally to some groups and I have other people who are allies with me. I think being an ally is a powerful and meaningful relationship with others and I think allies make a tremendous difference in the world. Let’s face it there are not enough lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in the world to create change without our straight allies. Yet, there are times I really wish allies would learn some lessons.
I am thinking of an incident in which I as a white ally was embarrassed by the actions of another white person who considers herself an ally. I am calling her Mary and the person of color she wanted to help I am calling Aran. Mary decided that Aran had experienced a racist incident and rose to fight for him. She was his champion and inserted herself into a discussion between Aran and another person. Mary, who did not try to determine how Aran was experiencing this situation, spoke for him and started to explain his experience for others. When Mary was confronted with the issue that Aran did not see the discussion as racist, she insisted that he was just afraid to admit it and let me be clear Aran is not afraid to admit when he experiences racism. She insisted he had been belittled even if he didn’t realize it. Mary set herself up as the arbitrator of what is and is not racist. She established herself as defining the experience of a person of color. And yes this is what white people do, even allies.
From this experience and many others, which include me making mistakes as an ally, there are some lessons I wish we could all learn.
1. White people, straight people, men, or any group who is in the dominant position try to define reality for marginalized groups. The dominant groups think they can determine how marginalized groups can feel and think. As allies we must recognize how we do this and sometimes it is so automatic we do not even realize we are doing it. If we are allies we do not get to define the reality and experiences of others. We do not get to tell people whether they did or did not experience racism, sexism, homophobia, or other ism. That is for the person to decide. This brings me to the second lesson.
2. As an ally we must listen. I firmly believe we cannot be allies to others if we cannot listen to and accept their stories. We should not attempt to explain away racist actions by trying to find different explanations for those actions. As a gay man, if I have a homophobic experience, I do not need a straight person explaining to me how it was not homophobic. I know homophobia. Likewise, for me as an ally to people of color, I accept their experiences of racism. I do not get to lessen those experiences. I think part of the reason why people attempt to minimize these feelings of oppression in others is that we do not want to believe in a country where everyone is supposed to be equal that people are not actually treated equally. We also need to listen to what people need. We cannot determine what other groups need at different times. Do they need someone to stand with them? Do they want you to stay in the background? I remember one time when I was with a friend who has a physical disability. We were in a situation where both of us thought he was going to be discriminated against. I do not remember exactly what I said to him but I remember him banishing me to a corner and telling me not to say anything. He, of course, handled the situation brilliantly and I was not needed. In fact, I might have made things worse. I needed to check myself. The best action I took as an ally that day was to do nothing.
3. My third lesson is that as allies we must stop dominating others. We must follow and this is so hard for us to do. We are used to leading, controlling, and determining what should happen. Well, we need to put our pride aside, listen to others, and then take the action we are asked to do. When my friend from the story above asked me to leave the situation, I had to put aside my desire to be his champion. I had to stop wanting to be the savior for the poor, marginalized person. I had to follow his lead because he knew what needed to happen. I would have just made a mess. This experience was humbling for me and it is one I try to remember.
4. When you do speak, it is with your voice of an ally. As a white man, I never speak with the voice of a person of color. If I am in an all white environment I can challenge racist comments and attitudes but it is always with the voice of an ally. I am not bringing the voice of people of color to that environment because that is not who I am. Only people of color can speak with their voice. I also do not like the idea of giving voice to the voiceless because it makes me their voice. If people are voiceless, we need to find a way to support them in expressing their own voice. As allies we should never assume that our voice is as good as another person’s. I know many extremely articulate straight allies for the LGBT community. They are beautiful and wonderful individuals, yet I never want them to say they speak for me. They can speak as allies and I want them to continue doing that but please do not represent yourself as me. Likewise I try to do this as a white ally.
5. Do not get upset if you don’t get accolades for your efforts as an ally. Yes, sometimes you might get recognized but here is the thing. In many ways, being an ally means you are being a decent human being and do we really need to sing your praises so you will be decent? I remember a few years ago reading another white person’s story online about how we was at a diversity event that was attended by mostly people of color. He felt slighted because he did not think he was praised enough for being there. He felt like he was not being properly recognized for his efforts on their behalf. My thought was get over yourself. Being an ally is not about you! It is about the people you are working with. If you want awards, praise, and recognition, you are not an ally because it means you are doing things for the wrong reason. Be an ally because you care. Be an ally because you believe. Do not be an ally because you want to be liked or to be a “hero.”
6. Always remember you have privilege. I remember an experience of being with people of color and someone said, “Since we are all people of color here…” She looked right at me and I looked at her. She then said, “I consider you a person of color because of how you advocate with us.” While I appreciated that comment and felt very connected to the group, I had to remind everyone that no matter how we may feel in the group I am still white and that brings a lot of privilege with it. I cannot just shed my privilege because it is something imposed on me. No matter how much I may speak out my privilege remains.
7. You are not perfect and will make mistakes. We live in a society that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and so many other things and we cannot help but absorb some of those lessons even if we try fighting them. This means we can say or do things that reflect our privilege. When we get called out for our privilege, it is not the time to be offended. It is the time to go back to the other lesson of listening. Yes, it will be difficult. I know as an ally I am attempting to overcome the racism and sexism I have learned but that does not mean I do not still express those things in some way, even if it is unintentional. When a person of color tells me I have said or done something racist, I do not shrug it off or think that person is being too sensitive. I listen because I want to understand. I engage in the conversation rather than withdraw because I want to learn and I want to change. When someone trusts you enough to point out a problem that is not the time to say I am an ally and to list all of things you have done for others as if all of those things absolve you of doing something that is oppressive. Accept your imperfections and be willing to learn.
Some of these lessons seem obvious but I know there are times, though we love our allies, that those of us in marginalized groups sometimes wish our allies would just quiet down a little and let us speak. Do not be the ally where people run from you because you are replicating the oppression you claim to be fighting.