Allies and Pseudo Allies

This is a guest post by the always fabulous Angie.

Disclaimers and clarifications:  I’m not telling people how to be an ally or how to interact with allies- I’m sharing my experiences.  I’m also talking about how I would like my allies to interact with me.  For the purposes of this post I’m going to use the term “oppression” as a catch-all term, covering but  not exclusive to: racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination based on religion, survivors of sexual assault, rape, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, incest, the experiences of those who have developmental or physical disabilities, the experiences of those who struggle with mental illness or are non-neurotypical, and almost certainly a bunch of things I forgot.  Oppression is not the best word to cover this rather large list, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment- I am very open to suggestions for a better word.  Now for the actual post.  Many thanks to Abigail and Sara for their edits and support.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Pax’s Victim Blaming 101 post and the comments which followed.  I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a good ally, both from my own experiences working with allies and my experiences being an ally.

Being involved in anti-oppression work is tricky (massive understatement).  It’s tricky because we all swim in a sea of interlocking oppressions and privileges. It’s tricky because being part of the sea means it’s hard for us to examine it, and when we try we’re still part of the sea and directly impacting how it moves.  It’s tricky because hearing “you are looking at this issue from a place of privilege” is hard and scary, because it’s easy to interpret this as “you’re a bad person.”  It’s tricky because you are almost guaranteed to hurt someone you care about without intending to, or even understanding how it happened.

I’m a polyamorous, queer, sexual assault survivor, emotional abuse survivor, kinky, working-poor raised woman who struggles with depression and anxiety.  I’m also white, cisgendered, speak English fluently, literate, and college-educated with a good paying job, a nice apartment, and no physical or developmental disabilities.  This means that in anti-oppression work I’m sometimes an ally and sometimes part of the directly impacted group.

The most important lesson that I learned is that just because I understand and experienced one type of oppression does not mean that I understand what it’s like to be impacted by another type of oppression.  The best example of this is a mistake I made early on when doing anti-racism work; when a person of color (POC) was talking about their experiences of racism I would jump in and spoke of my experiences growing up as working poor.  I was lucky- a friend pulled me aside and gently told to me that I needed to stop.  She told me that my experiences were important and valid, but not the same.  She talked about how I could dress up in nice clothes and learn the mannerisms of the middle and upper classes, but that she could never turn her skin white.  She explained that by jumping in as I had been I was making the discussion about me and my oppressions, not the oppression experienced by the POC in the room.  At first I felt angry- How could she know what my experiences were!   Then I felt ashamed- How could I have been so self-centered!  Then I learned the second lesson.

The second most important lesson that I learned is that often being a good ally means shutting up and listening.  If I’m in a group as an ally and someone says “you’re seeing this from a place of privilege”, or in more heated discussions “check your privilege,” I need to control my knee jerk reaction and really listen.  Even if it’s said with anger, even if it hurts my feelings, especially when we’re all hurting.  I learned that anger at systems of oppression which benefit me doesn’t mean people are angry at me.  I learned that even though I’ve been involved in anti-oppression work for well over a decade I can still fuck up very badly. I learned that sometimes it’s legitimate and helpful for me for people to be angry at me.   I learned that “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I said/wrote/did” is NOT the same as “I am sorry I hurt you with what I said/wrote/did.”

My third lesson was that a pseudo-ally is often worse than no ally at all.  Pseudo-allies are the “male-allies” who write articles about how to prevent sexual assault but don’t listen or respond to the input of people directly impacted by sexual assault, or people who have been working on the issue for years.  They are the “straight-allies” who laugh (possibly uncomfortably) at gay jokes but don’t say anything, or off-handedly use the word “fag” to insult someone.  They are every ally who has jokingly used the term “he-she” to describe a non-cis person. I was a pseudo-ally when I made a discussions of racism about my own experiences of classism.  They are often people who genuinely mean well, but don’t do well supporting the people experiencing the oppression; who want to be part of the solution but aren’t willing to dig into the discomfort of it all to do it well.

I am not a perfect ally, I will never be a perfect ally, and I will likely never meet a perfect ally.   Still, I will continue to call out and help educate well-intentioned allies who mess up- that’s how we all learn.  I was lucky to have a friend who got me on the right path to being a good ally, just as Pax is lucky to have Sara and Abigail to continue leading him.  It is precisely these difficult, nuanced, sometimes painful discussions that help us grow as activists and allies.

7 responses to “Allies and Pseudo Allies”

  1. angietupelo says :

    Reblogged this on Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History and commented:

    This is a guest post/rant I wrote for Pax’s blog.

    • Anat Kolumbus says :

      Angie, thank you for this piece. I appreciate your straightforward sharing of insights regarding alliance. Even though I have a sense that I understand your intention when saying:

      I learned that “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I said/wrote/did” is NOT the same as “I am sorry I hurt you with what I said/wrote/did.”

      I’d appreciate if you would elaborate on this one. It is important to me to really grok it.

      From my experience when it comes to intimate relationships, whether friends, family or romantic, it is necessary and even crucial to consciously hold space between the beings involved.

      When I say ‘to hold space’ I mean, for instance, to let communication echo before responding. It means that when my intimate is sharing experience/thought/feeling and such I am listening silently and allowing it to “sink in”, I’m absorbing and breathing it.

      Many times in communication, calm or storming, I feel how I can take the input personally as if it’s aimed to hurt me. I sometimes do fall into this egoistic trap. However, lately I’m experiencing different interactions and responding better. Every time when I am able to “disengage from combat”, pull back and just be silent and listen, and furthermore – be GRATEFUL for the feedback and the trust (in me to accept and respect) that it encompasses, it leads to satisfying results and mutual openness and positive approach.

      Of course that it is harder when it seems as a direct collision with someone I love and when one of us is vulnerable or sensitive about the issue that’s brought up. And here’s a significant recognition that helps me –
      There is one me, and I am the only one who’s experiencing my life being me.

      As stupid as it may sound, sometimes I am ignorant of the fact that we’re different, and that there’s space between us anyway which is natural. That is a neutral existential fact that requires communication to bridge these gaps when there’s a need and willingness. So holding space is an integral and beneficial part in relationships of any kind.

      Thank you for opening this chain of thoughts for me by sharing yours.

      • angietupelo says :

        I can definitely elaborate on “I learned that “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I said/wrote/did” is NOT the same as “I am sorry I hurt you with what I said/wrote/did,”” and I agree it’s both subtle and important. I think it will be easier to explain if i just give an example. (This didn’t actually happen, I really hope I’ll never mess up in this particular way, but I think it’s a good, clear one.)

        Let’s say I wrote an article about transphobia, but in the article I made some pretty big mistakes- maybe I “outed” a friend who is trans* without co’s consent, or equated gender dysphoria to schizophrenia, or suggested that all FTM (female to male) people were FTM so they could access male privilege. After the article is published, a friend who is trans* approaches me and says “the thing you said in that article really hurt me, I think you messed up, and I’d like to talk about it.”

        If I say “I’m sorry YOU WERE HURT by what I wrote,” I’m basically saying “I don’t think there was a problem with what I wrote, it’s your responsibility that your feelings were hurt.” That’s what Rush Limbaugh does every time he says something disgustingly misogynistic- it’s a pseudo-apology and (in my humble opinion) incredibly disrespectful.

        Now if I say “I’m sorry I HURT YOU with what I wrote,” I’m taking responsibility for my actions. I’m saying “I know I messed up as an ally, I recognize that I hurt you, I want to try to do this differently and better.” It’s a relationship healing thing, and it’s HARD to say. It means really examining that I screwed up, that I hurt someone, that I was wrong. For the record, I hate being wrong. About anything. Ever. But when I am, recognizing and taking responsibility is the first step to regaining trust.

        I could probably ramble on like this for a while, but that’s the basics.

  2. paxus says :

    @Angie: i loved this distinction in the article and appreciate you pointing it out. Feel encouraged and welcome back to write about this thick stuff anytime. Great comment on the original victin blaming 101 post from someone who has survived very screwy bullying, something i know little about, but am happy and honored to have shared on these pages.

  3. business development says :

    Yes! Finally someone writes about better cold calls.

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