It took me a while to truly acknowledge what delicate flowers allies in social justice are. Part of this is attributable to my own ally status, as I’d run in circles trying to explain how I’m not racist!, and that comment I made wasn’t transphobic!, because just look what a good ally I am! and but but but intent! It’s a really vicious cycle, and one that even those of us who try very hard to acknowledge our privilege can still stumble over. But if we want to really start creating equality in this world, all allies need to stop focusing on how we’re the bestest best allies in the world and marginalized people just need to let us explain that to them. We need to actually take a step back when someone says, “Hey, you’re exercising your privilege over me.” We need to try and have enough empathy and basic human respect to say, “I’m not the one who matters here. Society lets me have my say all the time, that is my privilege, and I need to relinquish it if I really desire equality.”
Many marginalized people live in constant fear of alienating allies. We need people to listen to us, to take our plight seriously, so it’s easy to want to cling to those privileged people who say they understand. But the problem emerges when that acknowledgement comes with so many privileged strings attached that the oppressed person winds up bound by the threads of their “ally.” It goes something like this:
ALLY: Hi! I’m Whitey McStraightdude, and I agree that I have privilege over you. I’m so sorry that Alabaster Heteroman is so mean to you! It’s really awful how all those other privileged people oppress you. In fact, I will now stand here and tell you all of the ways that I respect you and consider you my equal.
MARGINALIZED PERSON: Well, thanks Whitey, but since I’m the oppressed person in a minority space, I’d like to talk about the prejudices I face. This isn’t about you, or what a good ally you are; it’s about me, and marginalized people like me.
ALLY: Oh of course, but I want to make it clear that I’m one of the good guys, and I’m totally on your side. I would never oppress you.
MARGINALIZED PERSON: Uh…actually, by making the entire dialogue about you and your praise-seeking desire to prove that you’re a great ally, instead of allowing the discussion to remain strictly about the prejudices I face as a marginalized person, you’re silencing my voice, and that’s oppressive.
ALLY: Impossible! I admit that I have privilege, and thus am incapable of oppressing you, while also setting myself up as completely free of the responsibility to assess my words and actions for prejudice. By calling myself an ally, I have wrapped myself in an impenetrable force field of my own ignorance and ego! Now please stop waving about these wild accusations of me oppressing you, that’s just silliness.
MARGINALIZED PERSON: But you’re not being a good ally if you don’t listen to the words of the oppressed!
ALLY: Whoa now, you’re getting too emotional, when what you need to do is calm down and recognize that I’m correct here, because not only do I call myself an ally–thereby ensuring that everyone respects me as self-aware and a person seeking equality–but I’m also the male/white/straight/etc. person here, so society has already informed me that my opinion means more than yours.
MARGINALIZED PERSON: What the hell?! That’s prejudiced! The person on the receiving end of prejudice is the one who most deserves to have their voice heard. You don’t get to tell me that you know more about my oppression than I do, or that your opinion of it trumps my own!
ALLY: Well now you’re just being hostile, and a good ally like me shouldn’t have to listen to a marginalized person saying I could possibly do anything wrong, ever.
MARGINALIZED PERSON: Of course I’m being hostile! You’re ignoring every word I say in favor of your own privileged opinion! You’re oppressing me just the same as any other privileged person!
ALLY: No, no, you’re confused. Remember, I’m an ally. I don’t oppress you. You’re just a fringe lunatic who wants to enact reverse-prejudice against me because you’re jealous of my social privilege. I refuse to listen to such a hysterical argument from someone so prejudiced against me!
MARGINALIZED PERSON: But I have every right to voice my anger and frustration when someone is exercising their privilege over me! I have every reason to be angry, and you’re doing nothing but dismissing my words because of some arbitrary standard you set up for how oppressed people should demure to our oppressors, even when talking about our own oppression!
ALLY: Yep, and now that I’ve properly gaslighted you, I’ve made certain that you appear to the masses as a radical lunatic whose opinions deserve no respect, because even your own allies disagree with you. You’ve turned me into a martyr for privileged people, and proven that oppressed minorities are illogical, hateful, unappreciative bullies, and everyone really needs to start having pity for the unfortunate privileged people who have to suffer at the hands of your reverse-prejudice. That’s what you get for not showing me the proper gratitude when I pretended to consider you my equal.
Sound pretty extreme? Probably. But it constantly happens within social justice circles, and is made all the worse when marginalized people feed the ally’s ego.
Sometimes we do it because we’ve internalized our own oppression so much. We’ve been told our entire lives that we aren’t effective people, because we are inherently less capable than our social “betters.” Women can’t be expected to enact change, we’re too weak and emotional for such intense responsibility. Queer people can’t be expected to enact change, we’re too depraved and selfish to understand the consequences of our actions. Disabled people can’t be expected to enact change, we are literally less than fully-functional human beings and need to constantly have our hands held. We’re all somehow lesser than our oppressors, and if we are forced to enact social change all on our own, we’ll fail miserably because we’re just not capable enough by ourselves. After all, here’s an ally telling us we’re wrong–and they should know, society taught us they’re always right.
Sometimes we feed an ally’s ego because of simple fear of alienating them. It can be exhausting to recognize all the rampant inequality that exists around us, and if we challenge an ally who demonstrates their privilege, we may end up scaring them away, and being forced to bear the burden of our oppression alone. There’s comfort in numbers, and sometimes it’s easier to retreat into the safety of those numbers than it is to step back and risk solitude by standing up for ourselves.
Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to be “one of those marginalized people,” you know, the crazy extremists that no one likes. No no, we’re the logical type, we’re accessible and fair and really understand that it’s about equality. We’re the fun-loving ones, the ones who can laugh at jokes that are offensive to our minority groups, and eyeroll at the extremists, because it’s so much easier than living with the daily reality of just how far off we are from equality.
There are a lot of ugly motivations on both sides of the coin, and while minorities need to work to actively challenge our oppression, it’s unfair that we once again be asked to bear the social burden. Anyone calling themselves an “ally” should constantly be working to recognize the ways in which they feed oppression, and try to always consider their multitude of privileges before speaking out in a minority space. Remember, demanding that you be respectful and allow minority voices the stage does not necessarily mean that those minorities despise your presence or don’t appreciate your effort to be a good ally. At the same time, if a marginalized person does ask a privileged person to sit down and shut up or leave their safe space entirely, it still isn’t the mystical unicorn of “reverse-prejudice.” It’s a guttural reaction to desiring one tiny corner of our lives to be safe from privileged voices, well-meaning or not. Everyone deserves a place where their words can be heard, and privileged people already have that in the greater social sphere. They need to respect minorities enough to grant us that same freedom in the one tiny arena where we have reason to expect it.