“I’m an ally.” It’s a phrase those of us in activist communities hear all the time. Sometimes, it describes us personally – perhaps we have friends or family members who are part of certain oppressed groups and we want to show solidarity and support – while at other times, it describes those who associate with us and want to provide support to our own struggles. In either case, it’s a politically charged and complicated term, and its so very easy to be a progressive person who means well yet falls flat when trying to do this properly. Recently, I came face to face with this myself when, while having the best of intentions, I accidentally invalidated the identity of a transgendered girl I had been talking to on OK Cupid by speaking too much about reproductive parts. Granted, that was far from the only thing we talked about, but it was the topic of conversation between us quite a few times. Were you to have asked me in the moment, I’d have defended myself by saying that I was only being honest with myself and her to ensure that we were compatible in every way. Truthfully, I’m not even sure she felt invalidated because she never seemed offended and in fact appeared to be more than willing to talk openly. And yet, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I was failing in my attempts to support the rights of the Trans community. I spoke with a trans friend, explained the situation in more detail to him (including that I was willing to keep an open mind and did everything I could NOT to be reductionist, but couldn’t help but feel that I had been anyway), and he explained to me how tricky a situation it was. That by some definitions, what I’d done WAS wrong, but also that it appeared that I’d tried everything I could to avoid falling down the slope before I finally succumbed. He ended our conversation by saying that my attempts not to invalidate, coupled with my reaching out to find out how I could do better, in fact made me a good human being and ally, which I appreciated. And yet, the entire situation both rattled me and made me realize how very easy it is to slip up and fall down the slippery slope into normative privilege land.
So how do we avoid it? How, as both members of oppressed groups and allies of others, do we do everything we can to be the best allies we can be while avoiding the pitfalls on the way? I don’t have an easy answer for you (and I say that as both a spectrum dweller and someone who tries his hardest to be an ally to others), but after much thought I’ve come up with a list of things that can at least point us in the right direction:
“Leave the War Outside!” Checking Your Privilege At The Door and Recognizing That Everyone’s Truth is Different
I won’t lie, the title of this section reminds me of the cliché World War Two-era bar where patrons – both German soldier and civilian alike – were encouraged to “leave the war outside” for civility’s sake. The funny thing is, we can actually learn from this example and apply it to privilege. Essentially privilege is, among many things, the assumption that our personal life experiences as members of a group with social power are applicable to everyone (including marginalized and oppressed people). “Leaving the war outside,” in this context, means to take a momentary step outside your life circumstances, and try to see what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s the very important realization that your life circumstances are as genuine to you as those of someone else are to them. The sad reality is, we all need this reminder on occasion as even the best of us have the tendency to forget this by virtue of human nature. After all, the easiest perspective for us to understand as humans is our own, as it is the only concrete experience of consciousness we have at our disposal. Any time we look at, say, a member of the trans, LGBTQ, Neurodiversity, or hell even furry community and think ‘well that’s weird,’ because it doesn’t jive with our internal narrative of normalcy, we are doing this. Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re doing it – that’s how deeply engrained this tendency within us is. Every time someone calls for a cure to the ‘terrible’ disease that is Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example – no matter how well meaning this call may be – they are engaging in this kind of behaviour and invalidating the existence of those of us on the Spectrum. Likewise, fat shaming “out of concern for their health” and countless other such micro-aggressions do the same thing. The best solution to this problem? Adopt a live and let live philosophy when it comes to others – after all, people in marginalized groups don’t NEED you to understand the details of what they’re going through as much as they need your acceptance of the validity of their existences. Even if you think it’s strange, remember this; no one asked you. Just go with it.
Don’t Police The Tone of Social Justice Conversations!
This is another common one on the internet, and one I’ve come across countless times online myself. A member of a marginalized group expresses genuine anger at some injustice or another perpetrated against their group. Not long after, a chorus of sheltered, privileged voices are screaming out about how aggressive this person was, and how they should ‘tone it down’ and ‘be more open to a reasonable discussion’ since, after all ‘you get more bees with honey than with vinegar.’ The thing is, this one is complicated because strictly speaking, it IS true that people respond better when being talked to than when they’re faced with anger and aggression. It’s even understandable that people would strive for this – after all, in an ideal world, this WOULD be the best way to engage in such conversations. The key thing to remember here, however, is that we do not in fact live in that world. Those who call out for calm, reasoned conversations often have privileged life circumstances that make it easy for them to step back and treat social justice issues with a calm, theoretical eye. Not every one has that ability, least of all those who face racist/sexist/transphobic/homophobic/ableist microaggressions each and every day. The fact is, when you face constant comments denouncing the legitimacy of your life experience, you will be angry. And most often, when in this situation, you also won’t have an outlet because society will be against you (funny thing about living in a society where certain groups are more prized than others). When you have your back up against the wall, are facing discrimination on one side and lack any forum for legitimate expression on the other, you WILL lash out in anger. To deny oppressed and marginalized people this anger under the guise of ‘keeping things civil’ is to silence their voices. I’m not saying you CAN’T be someone who prefers reasoned, level-headed discourse about these subjects – certainly calm quiet activism has its place and is effective in its own way. But if you are one of those people, go back, re-read the first section and remember; your way is not everyone’s way. Remember that everyone deals with these things differently. They aren’t any less valid.
Don’t Know How Best To Be An Ally? ASK! (But Don’t Assume)
This is probably one of the most important ones on this list, because it respects the agency of oppressed and marginalized groups. To borrow a phrase from my own cause in the Neurodiversity struggle, there should never be anything about a marginalized group without input from said marginalized group. (“Nothing about us without us!”) It is not the place of an ally to assume that they know how best to be of help to an oppressed group, no matter how well intentioned that assumption may be. If you aren’t sure how best to be supportive to those of us who need allies, then please ask! Odds are, we’ll be happy to talk to you about it. Be careful though; while it’s a matter of practical reality that, at least in the Neurodiversity struggle, it falls on us to educate others about our needs, don’t ever assume that it’s our RESPONSIBILITY to do so. There are lots of great resources out there – educate yourself, bring what you have to the table, and ask us for clarification. If you do your homework, I for one will be happy to help!
Understand The Difference Between “Guilt” and “Responsibility” (And Don’t Take It Personally!):
This is one that hangs lots of people up online, especially as it regards both racism and sexism. After all, when taken out of context, hearing things like “everyone’s a racist/sexist” can sound downright discriminatory. I mean, we were all taught not to lump people into groups right? Likewise, saying “all white people are responsible for racism” seems very accusatory. When faced with this, remember; there is a very significant difference between guilt and responsibility in this context. I don’t think there’s an activist alive who would say (unless you are an ignorant pig) that you’re personally guilty of any racist/sexist/classist/etc. actions unless you show yourself doing such things on a daily basis. If you’re a good person who doesn’t do these things, then you are absolutely right that you aren’t guilty of them. However, if you are a member of a privileged group (white, male, cisgendered, straight, neurotypical and so on) then, as someone whose life has been made better by institutionalized systems of power based on oppression, you ARE responsible for trying to level the playing field. A good way to look at this is in the context of working at a retail job. You aren’t personally guilty as a lowly peon for any of the crappy policies your company may have towards its customers, but as an employee (and therefore a representative of your organization) who deals with the people affected, you are responsible for trying to mitigate the situation as best you can for all involved. The same logic applies to social justice situations when it comes to dynamics of privilege and oppression in society. So despite how inflammatory it may FEEL to be told you’re responsible for any form of discrimination, think back to this and remind yourself; you aren’t guilty of being a jerk, but as part of a group that has historically been made up of jerks, you have the opportunity to use your social power to make things better. You can be a super hero! And who doesn’t want that??
Be Patient With And Forgive Yourself (But Don’t Rest on Your Laurels Either):
This is probably the hardest one for anyone who prides themselves on being a progressive, accepting person. Let’s face it, if you’re anything like me, your first instinct when being called on an unintentional micro-aggression is “What? Me? I’d NEVER!” followed by copious amounts of self-shaming and beating yourself up when you realize that you did in fact break one of your cherished values and act in an unbecoming way. I get it, believe me I do, but it’s important to remember two things; you’re a flawed, imperfect human, and our society conditions in us the worst responses. It’s far easier to be ignorant of one’s own privilege than it is to battle it every day, and when you do engage in this fight with your own subconscious, it often isn’t a far slide into self-loathing once you realize how deeply engrained social programming truly is. It’s important to always forgive yourself for your unintentional micro-aggressions, and in so doing treat them as opportunities to educate yourself and do better. We will ALL make mistakes, because to err is human, but as the best teachers would say, a mistake is a teachable moment. Only the ignorant fool, when faced with the opportunity to learn and do better, embraces his mistake proudly. Likewise, the definition of insanity is knowing that something doesn’t work, but continuing to do it anyway hoping for a different result. Don’t be this person. Learn from your mistakes; they don’t define you, but they can help you be a better human and ally.
This is by no means an exhaustive list on how to be the best ally, nor is it (as I mentioned earlier) intended to be. Because I hope it’s become obvious by now; constantly resisting our own internal privilege and social conditioning isn’t easy, nor are we going to be perfect and never slip up. That doesn’t mean, however, that the struggle isn’t worth pursuing. Fighting for both our own rights and the rights of others as full human beings in this society is a moral obligation we all share, whether one does it softly or loudly. By following these five recommendations, we can all be both better allies, and better humans overall. And trust me, as a member of the neurodiversity community, I’m far more likely to respect someone who tries to be a good ally, follows these tenets and occasionally stumbles than I am to respect a proudly ignorant bigot any day. The same, I suspect, is true of members of many other oppressed and marginalized groups. We all make mistakes, but come to us humbly with the genuine desire to be a good human, and it will amaze you what we can accomplish together.
As always, yours in diversity,