The terms ‘ally’ and ‘ally-work’ are terms that I use sparingly. To be honest I hate them, but I understand their necessity when talking about doing anti-oppression work as a person who is not in the oppressed group facing oppression. The reason I hate the word is it feels/sounds/is used as an identity. A cookie/gold star/badge of ‘not being an asshat’ in the sea of ‘unenlightened masses.’ Magically the white person is a ‘non-oppressor’ and cannot/should not make mistakes.
I have seen (especially among liberal folks) this rush to create space between ourselves and the idea of what ‘a racist’ is – and in turn that we cannot face the ways in which racism is perpetuated. The racism, or racist act has to be obvious, or it hasn’t happened at all. I grew up in an incredibly racist home, and I don’t want to ever hold the belief that because I’m not ‘as bad as x’ I am somehow not complicit in the racism that happens in a daily basis across this country. Personally I hold the belief that white folk (myself especially included) have a legacy of privilege because of racism that is still perpetuated by current racism. Because I live, work, and am in this society I am the benefactor of racism, and as unwittingly and unwillingly as I might be – perpetuate a racist system. Now, I don’t demand that all white folks hold this idea of ‘all white folks are racist’ but it works for me (or at least I hope it does) by holding me accountable to the reality of my white skin privilege every day, so that I own the mistakes I do make.
This all for me intersects with feminism because white women especially have been socialized to fear making mistakes. We have been told to do everything perfectly, nicely, kindly and gently. The fear of making mistakes has kept a lot of folks from ever taking a first step on a path, and then because when racism is seen negatively it is seen (correctly) as hateful – I think some white women hold a fear of being seen as mean that overrides their ability to understand that – intent or not – they did something that was racist (and hurtful). The feminist platform has often been one so elevated that only those who could afford college (read: white, straight, middle class or above) could ‘speak for’ a movement. Ensuring that feminism addresses the oppressions that affect all women means that we all need to hear and see each other on from a level space. Women of color often voice the ways in which feminism leaves them behind, silences them, and ignores them. Such an instance was today when I saw folks talking about Clutch’s post calling white feminists to task (http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2013/02/quvenzhane-wallis-white-feminism/). I was disappointed to see folks debating the validity of the post.
At one point in the conversation the discussion of ‘how to do ally work’ came up – and given the jumble of opinion I shared above – lets just say I didn’t know where to start. I don’t think any of us can speak with authenticity on being an ally. It changes per situation, and only the person I am hoping to help can speak to their needs in a given situation. I can say though that if you don’t want to perpetuate racism (or any other ism) here are a few tips:
1. If a person is pointing out their experience with oppression – be it in a blog, or on twitter, at an event, or in a conversation do not reply with ‘I didn’t see my friends doing this!’ that is moot, and it derails the conversation shifting the focus on you/your friends rather than the person experiencing oppression.
2. If a person is explaining their experience with oppression and using general terms like ‘white feminists’ – asking them to name specific white feminists shifts the conversation (again!) from their experience to proving their experience to you (apparently for some kind of validation or approval).
3. If your reaction is anything along the lines of questioning the person who is brave/kind/generous to be sharing their experience – please ask yourself ‘what am I doing, why am I having trouble sitting with what they are sharing, where/why is this uncomfortable for me?’
4. Don’t just talk about racism/isms in the company of the oppressed. Don’t just wait for the oppressed folks to break down why something is perpetuating their oppression. These are conversations white feminist folks need to have among themselves – asking each other what more can be done to level the field, and calling each other out when we fuck up.
I do love twitter, and the immediacy of the internet – and there are a lot of things we do need to react quickly to – and I think the Quvenzhané story shows where a lot of us white feminists could have done more. But if you are reading a critique of a group of folks (lets just say white feminists) that you fall into – do yourself and everyone a favor and sit on it. Read it. Let it marinate. Hell, journal your feelings about it. Then look at where your ego is involved. The ‘my friends/I didn’t do this!’ argument is moot if a woman of color is talking about what she saw/felt/experienced. Why does your experience trump hers? Do maybe you perceive 3 women ‘RT’ing a story about racism as ‘a lot of coverage’ and the WOC see those 3 ‘RT’ in a sea of hundreds of white faces ignoring the story – or worse defending calling a child an offensive term.
The reality is we all get this shit wrong. We all are doing (hopefully) as best we can in any given moment. While it is great that a lot of us are acknowledging that we aren’t perfect and trying is important – we also need to know how to hold the space of making a mistake and fucking up. If you step on my foot accidentally my foot will still hurt no matter how bad you feel about it. The same goes for racism within feminism. We can try our hardest – but this is an issue of institutional privilege – and when we don’t confront our own failures, or try to sweep them under the rug we are perpetuating (and shrouding in silence) the pain of oppression.
I want to thank the writers of Clutch for calling out my fellow white feminists. I also want to thank other writers who broke down the issue of the Onion’s tweet and why the insult directed at Quvenzhané is both racist and sexist: