An Open Letter on the Politics of Allyship
Dear Future Ally-Worker (or Student, if you prefer):
First, thank you so much for attending the Diversity Lecture Series event with Jose Antonio Vargas last week. I greatly appreciate your attentiveness and your kind words after the program. Hearing that our students feel seen and heard by events like these makes the months of planning worthwhile.
If you wonder why I am writing to you tonight, it’s because something you asked me—though kindly and sincerely—has not stopped ringing in my consciousness since we interacted.
As you expressed your excitement, you asked the following: “You were so great last year on stage, why didn’t you take the mic again to interview Mr. Vargas. Aren’t you like the person in charge of this?”
Unfortunately, due to my role as an organizer and the hustle of that last 30 minutes, I did not respond to you in the way you deserve. In addition to the coffee I hope to buy you and the dialogue that I hope we will have over said coffee, here I am nonetheless– writing to you and to whomever stumbles upon this blog—to answer your initial question and to share some of the thoughts that shape my thinking.
Your question isn’t the only thing on my mind as I write this, though.
As you were bidding me farewell in person last week, you closed with the expression that you want to “be an ally – but not in the bullshitty way.”
Though your description and the matter-of-fact delivery made me chuckle, I share your commitment (and underlying fears). I have spent countless years devising approaches to that work. For what it’s worth, I’d like to share some guiding principles that feel right to me as I work to support marginalized folks without the regular accompanying bullshit.
When you complimented my on-stage work last year with Janet Mock at the 2017 Diversity Lecture Series event and asked why I wasn’t on-stage this year with Jose Antonio Vargas, you ignited my thinking yet again about how to approach work in diversity, equity, and inclusion in a body that most read as white, cisgender, (sometimes) heterosexual, able-bodied, and at least comfortably middle-class—all of this is regardless of how I self-identity.
As the event neared, honestly, it might have been easier and maybe even more glamorous in terms of professional accomplishments to take the stage again. Less planning, to be sure. And I admire Jose Vargas a lot. But re-centering my body because of my institutional capacity as Chair of the Committee on Diversity when I have colleagues more qualified is just a small example of how I think ally work can go awry. To let you in on my thinking a little bit, here are some of the ideas that I think through when I try to do the best work I can—while always holding myself accountable to do better.
Please know the list I share with you tonight is always growing, evolving, and developing in collaboration with some of the most intellectually sound, piercing, and loving ally-workers and community organizers I know.
I hope it helps you fight back the bullshit that far too often muddies our best intentions to labor with and/or for others. More than that, though, I hope it motivates you to think through and devise your own.
- EMBRACE THE WORK: As Janet Mock often reminds me, allyship is far more effective when we think about it as a verb rather than a noun. Instead of taking refuge in an identity, strive to think of it as working with and for the well-being of others. This is work that is always collaborative and work that you must always re-assess under the guidance of the folks you aim to help. Work, werk, or werq—but always do it.
- LISTEN: As my grandmother (and Pulitzer-prize playwright Eugene O’Neill) taught me, plenty of folks know how to hear but very few actually take the time to listen. If you want to engage others who move through the world differently than you do and make a difference in their lives, listen to them on their own terms and without interruption. Avoid demanding more information from them (if they haven’t welcomed you to do so) and never busy yourself preparing your reply (or, more likely, your defense) when they are sharing experience and knowledge with you.
- EDUCATE YOURSELF: Keep in mind that it is not the job of marginalized folk to educate you and others (and institutions) on how to avoid abusing them. Though this invisible (and often traumatic) labor is regularly thrown on them, ally-workers should take it upon themselves to self-educate and then to share resources with others in their communities on similar preparation journeys. Things that are “new to you” are often quite old or tiring for them, so use your resources (Google is often a great—though incomplete—start). Identify books, blogs, films, and more to guide you on your path to knowledge. Follow competent folks on social media, for they will inevitably lead you to more and more capable and urgent voices. In short, get thyself a bibliography.
If folks volunteer their already-marginalized labor or welcome you to ask them questions, great. Still try to check your curiosity and make sure that your questions are value-added for people other than yourself.
- AVOID RE-CENTERING YOURSELF AND EXPERIENCES: I cannot tell you how many community organizing meetings that I’ve been to in which the “new ally” holds the meeting hostage with their needs and experiences. They arrive unprepared but yet still manage to have lots to say (usually about how much they don’t know). Be mindful of the communities and the purposes at stake and avoid the temptation to re-center yourself and your viewpoints, especially if you are in a privileged body that has always trained you to occupy the center of the world and rewarded you seductively for a job well done. This is part of what I worked to avoid when I chose not to take the stage last week. I have an esteemed colleague who is more qualified for this particular event, is a student-favorite, and is vital to our institution. Why (other than arbitrary power play) would I re-center my body in that discussion? Instead, do the labor quietly behind the scenes, partner with folks when necessary, and then get out of the way.
- BE AWARE OF HOW YOUR BODY OCCUPIES SPACE: Recognize that whether we like it or not, our bodies carry all sorts of complicated narratives into a room or into a situation when we arrive. Being aware of how your body occupies space and questioning why that might be so are both crucial first steps to thinking through your own situatedness. While you might not ever be able to erase those narratives, you can contend with them, call attention to them (sometimes only in your own head or in conversation with other privileged folk), and work to navigate them to minimize adverse impacts.
- PRACTICE UNBECOMING: Devon Carbado has this useful expression that he cites as he talks about engaging feminist labor as someone who identifies as a cisgender man. Because the world has constantly acculturated him to “become” and remain a member of the patriarchy, and because the world will continue to do so (rewarding him for succeeding and punishing him for failing), he says the best he can do is always work at “unbecoming” the dude the world wants him to be, which—of course—necessitates that he do all sorts of violence to women to accomplish the goal. What Carbado’s idea of “unbecoming” reminds me of is the need to navigate a constant tension between resisting what is expected and foregrounding what one values. For instance, because I have been acculturated in and through a racial contact that prizes white supremacy and regularly denigrates blackness, I know that I will never just wake up one day and no longer be impacted by the seductive qualities of white supremacy that elevates me arbitrarily –and calls to me to be its glove puppet—its mouthpiece—even when I am not conscious of its power. Unbecoming is the never-ending work that I must reckon with daily if I am to labor diligently towards a more just and equitable life for as many as possible.
- REFUSE SILENCE: Part of the ally work, at least as I see it, is using my voice and the protection or power that I don’t necessary deserve to speak about inequities of power. Please note that speaking up about violence and speaking for others is not the same thing. In my efforts to speak truth to power about issues that disproportionally impact marginalized folk, I never speak on their behalf, or ask them to speak with me as I am talking, or use them and what I think are their experiences as my examples. Oftentimes, this can create a kind of epistemological violence that only does more hurt, but ironically, this hurt is done in the name of allyship. Speak for yourself only and remain focused on issues. As Audre Lorde reminds us, our silence won’t save us, so I encourage you to find ways to use your voice—whether that is in person, in writing, or through other actions that make your dissenting views clear.
- EXPAND YOUR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Though the term “get your people” has always made me uncomfortable, I do powerfully believe in the idea that ally-workers should help other aspiring ally-workers do better. And, honestly, this work extends beyond dialoguing with folks who openly want to better themselves and their work with others. It also involves using your privilege (always check that, by the way) to talk to those who disagree with you and the marginalized folk whom you aim to help. As bell hooks urges, call them in rather than call them out, and work to share your views with them. As you know well, these conversations are often riddled with complexities and sometimes violence, but imagine being the person living the experience and having to endure these conversations. Doing this particular kind of labor is often where you can be the most helpful. You, too, might have your limits, so as you prepare for protracted, meaningful transformation, pace yourself, reflect, re-strategize, and always recognize the power you have and the urgency of the issue.
I hope it goes without saying that this list is wildly incomplete and shared with you somewhat casually, but if it gives you a tiny glimpse into how I approached my decision last week and how I approach a lot of my work in my research, teaching, and service about marginalized communities, I am thankful.
Oh, and please don’t forget that last week I actually was able to choose to de-center myself. Any number of marginalized folk are often not in the position to choose at all.
Looking forward to coffee and more…