The Role of Allies
So today on Tumblr there was a big hooplah over this image. A man posted it on his personal blog and someone commented saying that he was silencing female voices, taking away a safe space, and talking about experiences he will never have. People have reacted strongly on both sides of this, with some saying that the original poster is being silenced and invalidated and that we should trust and accept allies, and others saying that all those jumping to his defense are doing it just because he’s a man, that it’s impossible to silence those who have privilege and that he shouldn’t speak about his experiences because they’re not relevant and they distract from the real problems. I’m not going to get into all of it here because it’s not entirely relevant, but it did bring up something that I think is important:
What is the role of allies?
While I am by no means an expert on questions of allies, I’m just going to throw out my thoughts, and I’d love to hear responses. I have a couple experiences of allies:
1. Being a woman who is part of the feminist movement and interacting with allies of the movement
2. Being an ally to the GLBT movement and interacting with those who identify as other than straight
I’ve had very different experiences in these two capacities. As a woman, I frickin’ love allies. While there are some men out there who come in and expect brownie points and love, who expect to dominate the conversation, etc., the vast majority just want to help and are willing to listen. But as a woman, I also want to know what other people’s experiences are. Gender binaries hurt everyone, and one of the ways to move past sexism is to get those who have privilege to understand this. Men’s experiences are paramount to that. We should not berate someone simply for being a man because we assume that he will not understand the experiences. In some cases, yes, an ally does make a mistake, they do mansplain, they do talk over women or say “what about the MEN?”. In those cases we should rationally tell them what we think the problem is. Opportunities for discussion are the places where we will make the most progress. Opportunities for attack are the places where we lose the most ground. So I do believe that we should call out allies when they make mistakes, but we should do it in a rational manner, in a way that asks WHY they did what they did and HOW they can understand who it hurt and why. As a feminist, that is my experience of allies.
I think I agree most thoroughly with ladyatheist (watch out, there’s a bit of swearing):
“Ok, look, when it comes to discussions of equality of any sort, allies are important. No matter what you think, we can’t solve the problems of the country/world all alone. We need allies. Whether you like it or not, allies are very, very important. In the same way we want allies to listen to us and understand the struggles we go through, we also need to listen to them.
We need to understand what the majority of the country/world/society thinks about minorities. (By minorities, I do not only mean racial minorities. I’m talking about all types of minorities.) If we want to have a productive conversation and get rid of the animosity, we ALL need to shut the fuck up, pull our heads out of our asses and LISTEN to each other!
I have no problem at all with allies telling me their experiences with race/class/sexism, whatever the problem is. I value their opinion. It allows me to better understand why certain people may not understand what I say. Now, if said “ally” tries to tell me what I should and should not be doing, then we have a problem. Other than that, we’re fine.
I guess my whole point in this rambling diatribe is to say that we should all just shut the fuck up sometimes and listen.”
However I’d also like to address my experiences as a GLBT ally. I am hardly the most involved in the movement, but I have tried to become involved in my on-campus GSA. Every time I’ve been there, I have felt as if I was unwanted because I identify as straight. I understand that in this case there is a question of safe spaces: many GLBT people want to be overwhelmingly gay in their GSA because it is where they feel safe to completely embody that. But as someone who wants to help, it did make me feel as if I had nothing to contribute, so I stopped showing up. Maybe that’s my own problem: maybe I should have tried harder. But movements should realize that when they alienate allies…THEY ALIENATE ALLIES. They’re driving away people who can build their movement. I’m not sure how that helps anyone. And it certainly made me less interested in exploring how GLBT issues relate to feminist issues and race issues and skeptic issues and all the other problems that need to be addressed in concert, which again hurts people. It makes me less interested in showing up to rallies and in writing letters: is this a privileged person getting butthurt because they have one experience of what NOT having privilege is like? Quite possibly. But I do think that movements need to be pragmatic to some extent. Ideally a privileged person could look at that existence and see that they should get over themselves. But they won’t. And a movement needs allies in order to succeed. So it seems that simply pragmatically the GLBT people that I know would be better off if they had been more welcoming (even if we shouldn’t HAVE to put that responsibility on them).
So my personal opinion is that in order to have equality on any level, we need to recognize all experiences. If we tell allies to go off to their own corner and do ally work there, or to only pay attention to someone else’s experiences and beliefs, then we will never gain a nuanced picture of reality that has a whole spectrum of people who are all acceptable. In order to gain equality, we need to recognize everyone’s right to speak and right to their experiences.