Get Off the Fucking Fence or Get Out of My Movement: Overstepping Allies Part II

Privilege is a nasty, sneaky thing. It’s easy for most people to go through life pretending they don’t even have it. And when someone does recognize their privilege, they are invariably met with backlash from other members of their privileged social groups. This is because most privileged people are desperate to maintain the status quo–some obviously, some subtly.

Nearly every human being benefits from some form of privilege, and that privilege swaddles us in a cozy blanket of safety. It allows us to function in our daily lives with a level of peace that minorities aren’t allowed. As a white person, I don’t need to fear targeted police harassment. As a cis female, I don’t need to fear violence should I need to use a public restroom. Thin privilege allows me to shop for clothes without being bullied and eat without being guilted. All privileges have different comforts, but they are all based on the same principle: We are given this comfort because we allow the world to continue making minorities uncomfortable.

Personally, I’ve found that the most respectful thing I can do as an ally is to stop calling myself an ally. Those social justice movements for minorities I’m not a member of? They are not about me. So while I may want to pass on a link that’s of interest in those movements, or express my support to a friend fighting those battles, it is not my place to declare my word to be as important as those of the minorities involved. Instead, I stick to the sidelines, I observe, learn, and work to challenge my inherent prejudices. If a marginalized person tells me my presence is not welcome, that I’m overstepping or being offensive, I apologize, back away, and allow them the floor. It’s their movement, not mine; there is no reason for it to be all about me.

With that as my personal approach, I’m going to address self-proclaimed “allies” within my own social justice movements. Possibly my biggest pet peeve among such people is when they take it upon themselves to play mediator for my movement. Facebook is an ideal medium for such infuriating audacity, and frequently, I’m witness to this same basic scenario:

ALLY: Look at this article I’m sharing about feminism/queer rights/*insert social justice movement here*! I’m not a member of this minority, but I’m so happy to see them moving toward equality.
BIGOT: I’m tired of all this PC garbage! I will now spew bigoted rhetoric all over your supposedly egalitarian Facebook post!
MARGINALIZED PERSON: Hey, Bigot, think you could stop being a bigot and treat me like a human being?
BIGOT: Of course not! In fact, I will use the Magic of Derailing to invalidate every logical point you make. And just for good measure, I’ll add in some stuff about how you’re ruining the fabric of society with your mere existence.
MARGINALIZED PERSON: You know, I’m not a fucking theory, I’m a human being, and I’d appreciate a little respect. The least you could do is engage me in legitimate conversation, rather than ignoring all of the sound logic I present and then spouting hateful nonsense.
ALLY: Whoa, whoa, both of you calm down. Bigot, I agree with Marginalized Person that they should have equal rights, but you make good points about MP being too angry to take seriously. If we’re going to have equality, it should be the kind where minorities continue to be told that their opinions on minority issues are less important than or–at best–on par with that of their oppressors, even though they’re the only ones with personal experience on the subject. Though I’m an ~ally~ and thus disagree with you as a bigot, I completely respect your right to continue spouting hate in my space, making MP feel unsafe and further marginalized.

And you see that? That’s when allies stop being allies.

So, here is my call-to-arms for anyone who would like to think of themselves as an ally in social justice. You want to make a difference? Start lending real support to minorities, and not just the kind that’ll earn you ally cookies. You want to make a difference? Try going through this checklist before you engage in a conversation about minority rights. And then, for each point you fail to check off, challenge yourself to do better.

THE TOP TEN CHECKLIST FOR HOW TO BE A GOOD ALLY NOT BE AN ASSHOLE

1. I did not tell a marginalized person how they are wrong about their marginalization.

2. I did not actively support another privileged person’s bigoted words by stating how their bigotry made a good point.

3. I did not state or imply that privileged opinions should be heard and valued equally alongside minority opinions on minority issues.

4. I did defer to minority experiences over my privileged observations.

5. I did not tell a marginalized person that they are being “too mean” to a privileged person, or ask them to be less offensive to their oppressors.

6. I did not laugh at a prejudiced joke, or make “ironic” use of prejudice to show my superior understanding of the situation and my privileged ability to find humor in oppression.

7. I did not paint a specific marginalized person or any minority as a whole as too extreme, angry, illogical, emotional, or ignorant to be taken seriously.

8. I did ask other privileged people to follow my example in listening to the words of a marginalized person, and to value their experiences as more relevant than our own on the issue of their oppression.

9. I did not contribute to stereotypes about any minority, either actively (“*minority* is *stereotype*”) or passively (“we can’t ignore that *minority* is statistically more likely to *stereotype*”).

10. I did not proclaim myself arbiter of minority issues.

Privilege is not passive. Yes, the way it permeates our lives makes it seem that way, and elements of it are particularly subversive. But all allies need to understand that privilege, by its very nature, is actively oppressing those who lack it. Privileged people love to wave the flag of free speech in front of dissenting minorities, but it’s a strawman. Minorities are not telling privileged people, “You don’t have the right to have that opinion,” we’re telling them, “That opinion is bigoted and it hurts me.” We’re not saying, “You don’t have the right to say things that oppress me,” we’re saying, “You already oppress me constantly, and you should want to change that.” When appealing to the logic of those who call themselves our allies while still falling into bigoted traps like ‘splaining away our experiences, we’re saying, “You are still oppressing me, and it’s hurtful that you call yourself my ally while demonstrating that you consider your ‘right’ to subtly oppress me more important than my right to be treated as your equal.”

You are not granted magical insight thanks to your superior logic. It’s easy to feel that way, since your life is not invested in the subject, but that lack of emotional investment is because your Degree in Supreme Logic was obtained at the University of Social Privilege. You have the privilege of looking at things coldly, and all that really gives you is some questionable logical leaps, based entirely upon your assumptions of what it is like to be the minority. That’s the thing about real logic that privileged people tend to overlook: You can’t come to a logical conclusion without all of the facts. And no matter how many studies you read, or how many Theories of Debate courses you take, you will never have the most basic facts in the movement: The reality of what it is like to live as that minority.

Minority lives are not theories. Marginalized people are not observed subjects. And if you want to be an ally, the first step is to acknowledge that all of your booklearnings on what it’s like for minorities don’t give you the right to silence our voices. Your “logic”? It’s just another way to silence us.

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About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
This entry was posted in ableism, challenging privilege, feminism, human rights, queer rights, sj allies. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Get Off the Fucking Fence or Get Out of My Movement: Overstepping Allies Part II

  1. See, if a bigot left a comment on my Facebook page like the one you had in the example, I would call that person on his/her bigotry, tell him/her that s/he was being an asshole, and unfriend him/her.

    • bunnika says:

      I truly wish more people would follow your example. Unfortunately, I constantly see self-proclaimed allies allowing such things on the basis of “free speech” and “respecting differing opinions,” which ignores the very real disrespect that bigotry is in the first place. It never fails to offend me.

  2. robertsloan2 says:

    I love your checklist. Scary how much I do agree with you, probably a credit to my editor (a woman) and a past therapist (black man) and how much they’ve educated me.

    I am a science fiction writer. I’d like to be an inclusive one and write about all the diversity I want to live with (and do to a much greater extent now in San Francisco.) If something in one of my books is way off, I’d really rather find out from beta readers than get that embarrassment in print.

    As a little trans boy, the only example of trans people I had in my life were characters in science fiction who changed sex, sometimes unrealistically, occasionally very sensitive stories. Female SF writers used male pseudonyms, an irresistible lure. (I could be male at a distance to all my fans.) I wanted to be a Science Fiction Writer. I grew up and learned how to write the novels and drifted farther and farther from the ones I’d liked at a kid. I wanted to get into SFWA someday, Science FIction Writers of America.

    And then this series of controversies in SFWA about extreme-bigots shutting down people of color and women and GBLT and probably pagans too if it came down to it in favor of gun-toting white conservative stuff… and it hit me hard where I live, because that was what I wanted to join. It wasn’t the safe place I believed it was. They had the privilege of being jerks, I would not get the privilege of being accepted even though I was that weird. Dreams shatter.

    Goals stay when the dreams shatter so I’ll go on reading and learning and will get my books done right before more of them hit print in any form.

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