Tip-toeing Towards Being an Accountable Ally

“I’m going to expect any ally to speak out against racism and any other injustice…If you can’t challenge racism in your own safe spaces, you’re not an accountable ally…We need to stand up for justice all the time.  We’re privileged to speak for the women whose voices may never be heard.”

- Loretta Ross, Founder of SisterSong
@ the CLPP Closing Plenary

The last workshop I went to today, a Strategic Action Session on Racism & Being an Accountable Ally lead by Lorie Seruntine, was honestly transformational.

In order to even have a prayer of being an effective anti-racist activist & ally to people of color focused initiatives that want allies I have a ton of work to do. The biggest thing I took away from this weekend is quite simple: I don’t know much of anything at all when it comes to issues of ethnicity and race. Its obvious through the clunky way I write about it, the way I nervously and carefully select my words, the way I often stay silent for lack of the right words.

I don’t have much more concrete information now than I started with at the beginning of the weekend… but what little I have has released me from this self-imposed silence.

In the Strategic Action Session I learned the history of the word Caucasian [click  to read Zaneta's post on this issue, from awhile back.] All this time I have been referring to myself, off and on, as “caucasian” because in my mind it was the politically correct word to use in this dialogue. I never took the time to figure out where this word came from or what it really meant and, as a result, I messed up and inadvertently supported a racist system through my ignorance.  Recognizing this ignorance is the first step to moving past it.

I have messed up, a lot, in the past. I will continue to mess up in the future, no matter how hard I try, its inevitable. When I first came to feminism I said a ton of stupid things about gender issues, reproductive justice, and so on… I still do mess up from time to time, but as I read and read and read and write (or listen and listen and listen and talk) more I mess up less and less because I learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others. Its scary to be at the beginning of that process again, which is why it has taken me so long to start holding myself accountable as an ally to anti-racism work. Staying in the comforting realm of (white) body image and (white) gender issues would be so much easier and would feel so much more comfortable… but it would also mean that I was alienating tons of people and helping to contribute to a system of oppression.

In the same workshop I also learned just a tiny bit about how white supremacy was put into place in the United States:

In 1676 came Bacon’s Rebellion by white frontiersmen and servants, alongside black slaves. The rebellion shook Virginia’s planter elite. Many other rebellions followed from South Carolina to New York. The main fear of elite whites everywhere was a class fear. Their solution: divide and control.

On one hand, the slave codes were enacted that legalized chattel slavery and severely restricted the rights of free Africans. The codes equated the terms “Negro” and slave. At the same time rules were set for servants, their bonds were loosened, they were granted certain privileges such as the right to acquire land, join militias, and receive bounties for the slaves they caught.

With these privileges they were legally declared white on the basis of skin color and continental origin that made them superior to blacks and indians, thus whiteness was born as a racist notion to prevent lower class whites from joining people of color, especially blacks, against their common class enemies. [Source]

Seeing whiteness as a construct invented to create this discomfort, this divide between me and the people of color in my community, is the key that has finally, finally unfrozen me.

The power structure in the United States depends on the discomfort, and consequential silence, to survive. My silence is a small part of the divide that prevents us from joining together and rising up against this bullshit system that separates us and gives me more power. It makes us look at one another and see strangers, others… where we should be seeing allies. Its my responsibility to subvert this construct however I can.

Here are some of the tools that I feel I found this weekend for starting to do just that:

  • Accept the fact this this won’t be easy or comfortable; it will be worthwhile.

Although our facilitator and fellow participants did everything they could to make the space comfortable today, I still felt anxious even starting to talk about my own racial/ethnic identity. As an ally the first thing I need to accept is that no one owes me comfort, no one owes me education, no one owes me anything. I am responsible for educating myself before engaging, and seeking out opportunities to listen and learn in order to contribute to this movement.

Only I can get myself to a place where I am capable of engaging in a way that actually pushes this movement forwards.

  • Realize that intentions are not always enough.

My intentions when calling myself “caucasian” were good: I wanted to use the “right” word and be able to engage in dialogue. My intentions in staying out of these conversations were good: I didn’t want to butt in where I was uninformed and unable to add to the space in a meaningful way. Yet despite those intentions, my actions only managed to alienate people by supporting words that have been historically used to oppress and keep myself away from spaces where I could learn to change my thoughts and actions. For all my good intentions, I was doing the opposite of what I wanted to do.

Good intentions are a great starting point – but we have to move past them in order to be able to accomplish anything.

  • You can’t just declare yourself an ally; allyship must be a consensual endeavor.

Jessica Yee brought this up in the first panel and, embarrassingly enough, this concept had never occurred to me before she said it. There isn’t much to say here, the concept is ridiculously simple: in order to really claim the identity of ally to any movement you need to know the people directly effected by that movement well enough to know what they want to get out of the movement and, thus, if and how you can help by being an ally.

To call yourself an ally without consent is worse than meaningless, it can actually cause harm and alienate us further from one another.

  • Allies take initiative to educate themselves.

This conference was a fantastic start on that for me. I didn’t liveblog the two panels I went to regarding issues of racism and colonialism, because I couldn’t do them justice… I was just too ignorant to even consider typing and focusing at the same time because catching up to the people around me took 110% of my focus. That’s okay, for now, but moving forward I know it is my job to learn enough that I can keep up in the same way I do with things like (white) body image issues and conversations about gender. In order to take steps towards that I made myself an education action plan; my goal is to have accomplished the things on this list (and more) by next year’s CLPP conference. (Feel free to join me!)

My Personal Education Action-Plan

  • Allies use their privilege strategically to amplify the voices of people that they are working alongside and educate other allies into the movement.

I saved this for last because it may be the most important point.

My main goal as an ally is to amplify the voices of those directly effected by the movement. I started to tip-toe towards this by live-tweeting the Plenary and putting quotes in when I can. I also, personally, try to do this with the “Read This Now!” section of Imagine Today. I, personally, have a long way to go on becoming an effective and consensual ally in this sense.

This particular post does not really amplify anyone’s voice but my own. It is very self-centered on purpose because it is helping to work towards the second part of this bullet: educating other allies. It is my hope that this blog post will help other potential-allies and activists to break through their own hesitations & just dive in. Voicing my own discomfort and ignorance will, I hope, help other potential allies to own up to their discomfort and start to take positive steps towards turning themselves into an informed and effective consensual ally to the many justice movements that exist in this country.

Please contribute in the comments! I want to hear about your experiences, your reactions, reading recommendations… anything & everything to help in this process of growth.

Feminism For Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism

2 thoughts on “Tip-toeing Towards Being an Accountable Ally

  1. Thank you so much for writing this post! I wanted to attend this panel but attended 2 others instead. One of my African-American friends calls me an ally and I find it to be one of the greatest compliments ever. I will never know what it’s like to be a woman of color. But that doesn’t mean I can’t speak out against racism. The essay that changed my perception of racism and white privilege (which is so intricately intertwined with classism) is Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking essay Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

  2. Pingback: How to Be an Accountable Ally | Abortion Gang

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