Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Golden Rules of Being an Ally

I am a white, cis-male, abled, tenured, upper middle class, married, American. I write about disability, gender, parenting, children, poverty, state violence, representation, feminism, and other topics related to inequality and social justice. In almost every context, I represent the privileged side of whatever power dynamic I'm exploring. Over the past few years, therefore, I've been thinking about how to be a good ally, and have developed some basic rules of conduct. Here they are, with some explanations to follow.
  1. Listen.
  2. Remember it’s not about you.
  3. Remember it’s sometimes about you.
  4. Mostly, though, it's not about you, so center the conversation where it belongs.
  5. Don’t expect gratitude; instead, accept criticism graciously.
Let's unpack.

1. Listen. The first step is to listen. The last step is also to listen. In the middle though, it's important that you speak. Nothing else can happen without long periods of silence hearing the voices of people who belong in the center.

2. It's not about you. As a male feminist, I attract attention like shit attracts flies. A man can say the most simple platitude about equality and be swarmed by media attention, opportunities to write, and even paeans of praise from female feminists who are just thrilled to find an ally. I call this the Clymer/Schwyzer Phenomenon. Don't be that guy. It's happened recently in discussions around the Confederate Flag, where white southern denunciations have over-taken black southern denunciations. 

A few years ago, I wrote: "Yes, our patriarchal system causes lots of for problems men, but when people are discussing patriarchy and its discontents, don’t make it about you. You win no points for derailing a conversation about the oppression of women to how men have it bad, too."

Remember if you are the center of one conversation, you may not be in another. That's the needed intersectional lens. I have seen many white cis-female feminists fail to de-center themselves when the conversation shifts (see #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen). Or physically disabled overspeak the intellectually disabled. Unless it's really about you, it's totally not about you.

3. Also, sometimes it's about you.

Men need to talk to men about rape. Whites need to talk to whites about racism. At the beginning we listen, at the end we listen, in the middle we say - not in my name. It's a brief moment in the discursive flow, but a critical one. 

4. Keep the conversation centered where it belongs.

Read the smartest people at the core of the movement you can find, and when you get a media platform, a quote, or make a tweet, or otherwise engage, remember it's not about you, and direct the conversation where it belongs. In my journalism, you'll see I am consistently trying to direct readership towards experts within rights' movements. If the conversation becomes about me, I've failed. And I do fail sometimes.

5. Don’t expect gratitude; instead, accept criticism graciously.

When you have privilege, sometimes people will get angry at you and be rude to you. They will want you to shut up. It will feel unfair. It may be unfair. You're one of the good ones, after all! You will REALLY REALLY want to insert yourself into the conversation, to show that you are a great ally, that you really get it, that  #notallmen are bad, and that maybe you even understand <issue> better than lots of other <directly affected group>.

Instead, be gracious. 

Accept the criticism. Try to learn from it. Think about the context in which its delivered and how you might help work on that context. Mostly, see rule #1. It's time to listen again.

I fail at these rules all the time. But they are my guides as I navigate the complex waters of being an ally. 

All of us, if we engage in intersectional social justice movements or ever veer outside our own homogenous groups, may find ourselves in the positon of needing to be an effective ally. Being an ally is hard, it's just not as being the target of abuse, hate speech, systematic inequality, or discrimination.

And you're not sure what to do in any given situation, just keep going back to rule #1. 

2 comments:

Mary said...

Nice reminder that I can use.

biteyzebra said...

I'm really not qualified to speak for non-white communities (I'm vaguely-white British) or the LGBT community (Being B and T but without any experience of activism in those spheres) but here's my own version of how to be an ally to disabled people at least; https://biteyzebra.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/a-is-for-allies-at-least-in-this-post/

It's not perfect, but at least it's from an internal perspective, rather than being handed down by someone abled.