On allies, silencing and privilege

// 27 March 2013

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Being an ally isn’t about being comfortable. It’s not actually about the ally at all. Truly being an ally recognises that there are areas where you put yourself and your experiences second when somebody with lived experiences tells you that they have different opinions.

Being an ally also recognises that, while we may try to get it right – we may try really, really hard – being told that we’ve got it wrong is nowhere near as damaging to you as it is to the oppressed person who is surrounded by people getting it wrong. People who get it all wrong, every day. And where, at times, someone “getting it wrong” can mean violence, abuse or murder.

So while it can feel like a really unpleasant slap when we are told that our assumed title of ally is being revoked because we accidentally used offensive language, this is nowhere near as painful as it is for the oppressed person who is running out of patience when, three times already that day, someone else has chosen that very language to abuse her with in the street.

It’s not always easy to be an ally, and that is because the people we are trying to be allies to can have it really hard.

Is it really about you being silenced? Is it not about the other person getting to a point of being unable to hear one more person make an offensive assumption or use that awful word before they collapse into despair?

It feels shit when we get it wrong. But how that shittiness feels is very telling.

Take these two options:

1) It feels shit to get it wrong because it means I have upset one of my friends who doesn’t deserve extra upset in her day;


2) It feels shit to get it wrong, I had something to say and now nobody will listen just because THEY can’t all agree, how should I know what to say?

Being an ally is not about you. If somebody bestows the title of ally onto you, you can feel proud because they consider you an ally to them. They are not now your personal affirmation machine. If someone around me gets disability stuff right, or women’s stuff, or survivor stuff, or whatever, if they get it right, I’m relieved more than pleased. Because it’s, “Yay, less stress to deal with!”.

If they get it wrong, it’s awful. “I can’t believe you are so angry with me for posting the victim-blaming link, raising awareness about rape is good, isn’t it? God, you can’t do anything these days without being slapped down”.

That person’s distress about having got it wrong isn’t, “Oh god, have I made this worse? Am I taking part in sharing something that will actively upset and frighten survivors?”.

So I hope, when I use the right language around my trans and black friends, mainly that I don’t make them shudder or cringe. If I make them happy, that would be the best thing, but I don’t expect it because if I got it right and wanted a cookie, I’d still be doing it wrong. I don’t deserve a reward for not fucking up, I’m just hoping that I don’t make the days of the people who I try hard to “ally with” worse, by being thoughtless or cruel.

Other people who hope to be allies in the areas where I experience multiple oppressions seem to have the same attitude. If they offer me help with something, or take an issue on and want to check they haven’t mangled it by showing it to me first, they aren’t waiting for me to turn up with golden wheelchair and silver gay marriage awards to give out. If they get it right, I’m relieved that I don’t have to feel angry, or triggered, or like I haven’t been listened to.

It’s like people want the oppressed party in the dialogue to be grateful all the time. If you tried but didn’t get it right, we should still be grateful that you were trying and heap on praise. I am too tired to be grateful to everyone who tries and messes up but still considers that it is only them who are facing any problems within this interaction.

Being an ally does mean – and I hate to say it given recent discussions – but it really does mean questioning your privilege. If Person A says a word that they don’t realise is offensive to Person B, it is Person B who is hurt. If Person B points it out and Person A feels like a victim of callout culture, then their “ally” status is becoming precarious.

Person C: “I saw a really cute crip earlier”.

Person D: “Eek, you shouldn’t really use the word crip if you’re not disabled or unless you have the explicit permission of the person you are talking about”

Person C: “That’s not fair! I can’t believe you can say crip and I can’t”

Person D: “I can’t believe you are objecting to the prospect of not using an offensive word with a long history, one which happens to be being reclaimed by some members of a particular group, and not understand why it’s offensive”.

Person C: “How was I to know?”

Person D: “There’s plenty of writing about it online.”

Person C: “Where? Everyone says different things! It’s confusing! Woe is me!”.

It’s all about person C. She’s distressed and confused, and perhaps a little angry too. Now let’s remember, again, what ally is supposed to mean. I guess it’s something about doing our best to make the world a better / less dangerous / less offensive / less lonely place for people who experience oppressions that we do not. Has Person C done that? No, she has made the world less friendly, slightly more offensive, and rather more tiring for Person D.

Being called out isn’t fun. But when we look at the discriminations we each face, then trying our best to be a good ally involves looking beyond our own sensibilities and tastes and accepting that others know much, much more than we do. And that it is our own responsibility to educate ourselves on where we’re going wrong. It also means that when, or if, we get it right, then just being pleased we haven’t contributed to Person D’s shit day should suffice, rather than expecting Person D to start baking us cookies.

[The image is a photograph of a pile of cookies with hundreds and thousands on the top. It was taken by mikoosij and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

MarinaS // Posted 27 March 2013 at 10:59 am

With respect Pippa, I think this talks past the problem. Nobody in this current round of controversy (certainly not me) is complaining about being told “you shouldn’t really use that word”. What the real issue is, is that translated to current twitter speak, this exchange would look something like this:

@PersonC I saw a really cute [insert questionable term here] earlier

@PersonD Um, has it ever occurred to you that that is a really horrible word? Well done for being a disablist bully! Yay intersectionality! #facepalm

And no, it’s not a tone argument. Because there are 2 differences between the way you described the interaction and the way things actually go down on twitter: sarcasm and blaming the person not the action. It’s a toxic combination, and it is the gold standard of how feminists who pride themselves on being intersectional routinely talk to other feminists online, and it is *demonstrably* putting people off engaging with the movement.

I think it’s unfair to the people raising this issue to do this bait and switch and say “oh, you’re just whining because we want you to take responsibility for your words”, because that is not what’s going on, and it’s not helping resolve the problem really.

PS I hope the formatting works, otherwise this’ll be a bit of a nightmare to parse…

Philippa Willitts // Posted 27 March 2013 at 11:29 am

Hi Marina,

I agree Twitter has been horrible lately, including for some of the reasons you’ve discussed. However while that was in my mind as I wrote, I was responding more to some of the more extended writing I’ve seen on this topic lately, in blog posts, emails and Facebook posts and such. Many people are very upset at how confusing it can be to try to be an ally, and I wanted to point out that an individual’s discomfort about that is not really comparable to the discomfort they can cause.

I don’t accept that I did any kind of bait and switch.

Lisa // Posted 27 March 2013 at 12:03 pm

I like feministplus’ take on this, in which she suggests reconceiving “allyhood” as activity, not identity, and sketches out a language of “bearing witness” as follows:

“I’m proposing that we use ‘bear witness’ as an activity which is primarily an activity of people who have experience of that injustice, i.e. are members of the oppressed group in question, so it’s not a straight replacement for ally language. I suggest it as a term that we can secondarily apply to those doing liberatory work on behalf of other people, and those who fall in the margins between those two groups (see section 6 below).

Much of the criticism of so-called allies has focussed on the way we tend to use our privilege to speak over or silence members of the marginalised group in question. Bearing witness language hopefully makes obvious the idea that in any situation, we need to listen most, or exclusively, to the best witnesses. The role for the secondary witness then, is to speak up in spaces where there are no primary witnesses, or where they do not feel safe to speak. The second job being to make those spaces safer and less exclusionary to members of those marginalised groups.”

Holly Combe // Posted 27 March 2013 at 12:04 pm

Thanks for this, Pippa. It can sometimes be hard to decipher a way forward when there are loads of people with differing oppressions and privileges having discussions in a public online space, so it makes a lot of sense to go back to the basic principles behind trying to be a helpful ally.

I’m not up-to-date with regard to all the debates going on out there but I guess another thing possibly worth mentioning is that there’s a difference between being an over-zealous ally -perhaps indulging in call-out culture for point-scoring or cookies- and directly having to deal with the form of oppression being talked about. This means it’s unfair when public figures seem to use the existence of a few shouty allies in order to avoid actually listening to the people who face that oppression. It’s a distraction, I think.

[Of course all that raises the flipside issue of using *not speaking for people* as an excuse not to *speak out* but that’s probably a subject for another day!]

MarinaS // Posted 27 March 2013 at 2:55 pm

@Pippa: Accepted. In which case it might be helpful to clarify this very explicitly in the body of the article, because in terms of timing, coming as this does right smack in the middle of this enormous Twitter conflagration, I should think the incorrect inference would be easily made by others, not just me.

Kurt L. // Posted 27 March 2013 at 3:43 pm

There are some great points here. I just want to point out that while a selfless, victim-first attitude is admirable, being an ally is hard and worthy of empathy. When allies try their best and don’t get it right, the resulting feelings — disappointment in themselves, being upset about accidentally hurting others, frustration with still not “getting it” — are legitimate feelings that should be acknowledged. Kindness and understanding and empathy is for everyone, not just the hardest-hit victims.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 28 March 2013 at 7:40 am

I’m not going to make that change at this stage. If others are confused, it is all explained in these comments.

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