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True Solidarity: Moving Past Privilege Guilt

As I prepare to head to the White Privilege Conference in Madison, WI this weekend, here’s my latest piece published at Everyday Feminism.  As I have been helping plan some of the parts of the conference meant to inspire people to take action during and after the three-day event, this post seems particularly relevant, as those of us with privilege must find ways to move past guilt and toward accountable action.

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I remember well when I was first confronted with my privilege.

I had just started college, and some activists called me out on the ways in which my class and race privilege were showing up in the classroom as well as in activist spaces.

Of course I was indignant. “I’m not privileged! I work hard for everything I have!”

And while I did indeed work hard, that assertion is obviously laughable.

There are all sorts of aspects of my identity that afford me privilege: my race, my gender, my religious upbringing, my intergenerational wealth, my ability, and on and on.

But that didn’t make it any easier for me to hear, and as I realized they were right, I fell into a bit of depression, carrying tremendous guilt and struggling to understand how this could be true.

I felt as if I was a bad person simply for being who I am, and I was trapped in shame.

I’m a racist, classist, sexist, ableist homophobe who is ruining everything everywhere.” Yeah, it’s a little dramatic, but it’s honestly reflective of how I felt.

In the midst of my wrestling with this guilt and inertia, I noticed a quote on the dorm room wall of a girl I was totes crushing on:

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I didn’t think much of it the first time I saw it. Or the second time. But since I was hanging around in her room a lot, the quote kept showing up for me, and after a while, it really hit me.

I had to find a way to move out of guilt if I wanted to make a difference.

In time I came to realize that if privilege guilt prevents me from acting against oppression, then it is simply another tool of oppression, and sitting in guilt means further colluding with the system that is making me feel shame.

In turn, we have to find a way to move through or past guilt and toward action against oppression.

And though the process of overcoming privilege guilt must inevitably be intensely personal, there are approaches to ending feelings of guilt that all people of privilege can take.

Approaches to Moving Through or Past Privilege Guilt

1. Self-Reflect

If you’re struggling with shame about your identity and your privilege, that guilt is rooted somewhere, and understanding those roots is important.

Is your guilt coming from your active collusion in oppression? Is it rooted in past action? Is it rooted in feelings of powerlessness about the big-picture problems of oppression?

Without a strong understanding of where our guilt comes from, it is impossible to overcome guilt and accountably act for social justice.

After all, if our guilt is rooted in past oppressive actions, knowing so allows us to forgive ourselves and, perhaps, apologize to others for our hurtful behavior so that we can move forward.

If our guilt stems from our own collusion with oppression, lacking such awareness will only lead to “White knighting,” a term I use as a catchall for acting for or on behalf of those we wish to help. Having knowledge of our own collusion, then, allows us to begin to take steps toward solidarity.

2. Understand and Accept Your Role in Oppression

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Allies: Are You Really About This Life?

There’s been a lot of great conversation taking place on the interwebs about allies, allyship, and solidarity lately.  And when this week’s guest contributor sent me this post, I knew I had to publish it.  It definitely says plainly and clearly what any of us who fashion ourselves “allies” need to know.

Marcus SimmonsThis week’s post comes from Marcus Simmons, a writing and diversity educator based in Chicago.  Marcus Simmons is a native son of Texas who has worked as an intercultural communications educator/artist and a writing coach in Chicago for the last nine years. With a background in performance, conflict transformation and higher education, he views his work as amplifying stories that reconcile, build community, and push deeply into the end of abuse culture. Marcus currently serves as the Coordinator of Student Engagement and Lecturer at North Park University, where he is completing graduates studies in theomusicology. He’s also involved in a number of creative projects ranging from blogging to video game modding. He is absolutely obsessed with music and double stuff Oreos.  Connect with Marcus on Twitter and Facebook.

Allies: Are You Really About This Life?

I’m tired of people making anti-abuse alliances all about tolerance and benevolent privilege. Being an ally is more than promises, pretty words, and potlucks. It’s more than re-posting liberal think pieces on facebook and winning arguments with bigots on twitter. You call yourself an ally, but are you really about this life?

Sayin’ It Ain’t Bein’ It

You may think yourself an ally, but that doesn’t make you one. Too many crusaders, dripping with self-belief and entitlement, elbow their way into spaces wanting to make a difference without really investing in the community.

Anti-abuse spaces are clogged with slacktivists who study the community from a distance, expecting to impact the lives of people they know precious little about. These people show up with great ideas that are great because they said so. They usually have a limited understanding (if any) of their own privilege and the power dynamics that animate it. They act with a lot of passion, but often lack people skills and wisdom.

You can’t be a good ally if you don’t know how to care for people. I’ve done work with numerous fair-minded, sincere people only to learn that at the end of the project, meeting, rally or dialogue, I become invisible again. Don’t be one of those people who are married to the cause and divorced from the people.

Becoming an ally begins with asking permission to be a listener, a supporter, and a co-worker. Be motivated by a love for people – not a need to erase whatever guilt, fear, or shame you feel because of the privileges you have. You can’t base a movement on that. To be an ally, you actually have to join the community, be mentored in it, and take your cues for action from your relationships with the people there.

Do the Work

Here’s the thing about privilege: it teaches those who have it to press your own well-being and desires over and against others. It conditions you to think that people without social advantage must take time to teach you, the one with the social advantage, how to be a better person to them.

You’re wrong.

I’ve lost count of the number of white “allies” that have accused me of not providing them with enough inspiration, education, suggestions, and closure to sustain their anti-racist work. This is a textbook example of internalized privilege.

Alliances are mutual so I don’t mind partnering with you, but I refuse to be held responsible for you “getting it.” I am confident in your ability to get your stuff together without me having to get it together for you.

Allies Do Not Give Agency 

If you think oppressed people need your help to survive, do not apply.

Many well-intentioned (but ill-informed) allies make the mistake of thinking their job is to speak for the voiceless. This is another textbook example of internalized privilege. There is no such thing as a person without a voice or the ability to articulate their situation.  It’s just that sometimes that voice is in a language, a body, or tone that some of us would rather not acknowledge.

Allies understand that they can be helpful without being the hero. Fighting abuse culture is less about “empowering people” in their humanity and more about making sure that people’s inherent humanity is recognized.

What the oppressed require more than anything else are ears to hear, eyes to see, a heart that won’t forget, and feet that won’t turn and run for the hills (or suburbs) when the fight becomes difficult.

Allies Are Not Experts

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Everyday Feminism

30 Ways to Be a Better Ally in 2014

As I think back over 2013, I’m happily overwhelmed by memories of my first year living with my partner, of incredible opportunities to collaborate with new professional colleagues, and of time with family and friends.

Standing at the margins of these memories, though, are ones that make my heart beat a little faster, that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

No, these are not necessarily memories of trauma, per se. They are memories of hurt that I have caused, of my attempts to be a good ally that ended up hurting those with whom I attempted to act in solidarity.

My heart races, in part, because I feel embarrassed and ashamed, but more so, my heart races because I know I hurt people for whom I care very much, and I have a responsibility to do better going forward.

With that in mind, I have been reflecting a lot lately on how I can be a better ally.

And as we wade our way into 2014, I suppose now is as good a time as any to consider some ways that I (and any person who wishes to act accountably as an ally) can do better in 2014.

So here’s my list of 30 ways that those of us who strive to act in solidarity and allyship (most notably inclusive of myself) can be better allies.

1. Listen More

It can’t be said enough. The single most important thing we can do to be better allies is to listen across difference.

2. Talk Less

The other side of the coin of listening is that we can always do a better job of stepping back, asserting ourselves less into spaces, and, in doing so, allowing those to whom we ally to speak their truths.

3. Look to Amplify Rather than Overshadow

Though being a better ally can mean that we must talk less, that doesn’t mean that we ought to be in total silence.

We surely need to defer to those with whom we are acting in solidarity, but we also want to make sure that we are not leaving those to whom we want to ally ourselves to be the only ones speaking.

Thus, there are times we should be speaking up, times where we can amplify the voices of others with our collective perspectives. It’s just important to be sure we’re amplifying, not overshadowing.

4. Strive to Use More Inclusive Language

There are always ways that we can use more inclusive language as allies. I, personally, think I do a pretty good job of being inclusive, but I still find myself using ableist language like “insane” or “lame” pretty often. Thus, in working to be a better ally in 2014, I can work to be even more inclusive in my language.

5. Be Careful with Pronoun Use

Part of using inclusive language that is, unfortunately, still pretty new to a lot of people working for social justice is careful use of pronouns.

Not all people would label themselves with the gendered pronouns that you might assume for them, and some people prefer non-gendered pronouns altogether.  A simple way that we can be inclusive is to offer what pronouns we prefer and ask others what they would prefer.

And try not to misgender people by assuming the pronouns that they would prefer unless you’ve heard them assert their preference.

6. Engage More People Who Share Your Identity

As allies, our primary work must be with people who share our privileged identity. Thus, the more we can work to bring people who share our identity to understand their identity and privilege and to act for justice, the better.

7. Don’t Think You’re ‘Holier Than’ Those Who Share Your Identity

I recently had a fantastic conversation with my partner, her mom, and a family friend about a really frustrating thing that we often see among White liberals: the“holier than thou” attitude.

As our primary responsibility as allies is to challenge and bring into the fold those who share our identity, calling people out with no desire to call them in or to engage them or others in dialogue or action toward justice is just lazy, faux activism. Stop it.

8. Cite Your Sources

Whether discussing the origin of a hashtag or referring to a complex theory or idea, if you’re a person of privilege, you have a responsibility to cite your sources.

In the age of the Internet, it can be pretty easy to pass off anything and everything as our own (whether intentionally or out of laziness), but we need to be clear where our ideas are coming from.

If we’re talking about oppression and we’re not oppressed, the ideas aren’t ours. Cite them.

9. Self-Reflect More

Simple. Pretty much everyone of any identity could use more time for both critical and loving self reflection in a society that encourages us constantly to be engrossed in exterior input.

But for people of privilege who want to be allies, it is particularly important that we build into our lives ways to consider our own identity and its impacts on others and how we can more fully live in our values.

10. Interrogate Why You’re Striving to Be an Ally

As part of this self-reflection, it is important to ask why you’re striving to be in solidarity with oppressed people across difference.

Are you doing it because you want to “save” others or “use your privilege” to help someone? Or are you striving for solidarity because, in the words of Lilla Watson,“your liberation is bound up with” those with whom you ally yourself?

Read 11-30 at Everyday Feminism.

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The Holiday Family Freakout: Calling Family In to Dialogue About Justice

Few things give me more anxiety than thinking about spending the holidays with my entire extended family.  Don’t get me wrong; I love them! And much of our time together each year is joyful and loving.

But inevitably someone is going to say something idiotic (read: racist, sexist, heterosexist/homophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-choice, religiously bigoted, or otherwise infuriatingly offensive).  And for years, I’ve struggled with how to navigate these family spaces.

After all, confronting the bigotry directly has been known to lead to all-out Christmas or Thanksgiving verbal brawls with shouting and crying and people walking out.

And I know full well that calling my anti-immigrant uncle out and starting verbal wrestlemania isn’t going to change his mind.  He revels in pissing people off with his political beliefs.  He’s the ultimate internet troll (except that he’s sitting on my grandmother’s couch).

Yet as I walk the precarious path in trying to be an accountable ally, I feel a calling and responsibility to address this stuff.  It’s tough to know what to do.

When talking with a friend the other night about whether or not to engage, I couldn’t help but think of a quote from the controversial but surely-quotable Tim Wise:

“The power of resistance is to set an example: not necessarily to change the person with whom you disagree, but to empower the one who is watching and whose growth is not yet completed, whose path is not at all clear, whose direction is still very much up in the proverbial air.”

As I think about whether to engage, I should consider less whether I want to fight with my trolling uncle than about who is listening.

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Because I’m not going to change his mind, but I very well may plant the seeds of resistance in the minds of my young nieces and nephews.  They are listening.  And at 3, 5, and 7, few times of their lives will be more formative in their development of self and in their construction of “other.”

Further, I might empower someone else in the family to speak up.  Maybe they’ve been just as fed up with the nastiness and bigotry but felt alone at family gatherings.

Inclusiveness CAN Be a Family Value

And while a resistance to bigotry and a commitment to seeking justice are currently not family traditions or ethics, but they certainly can be.

When I saw Cornel West speak at the 2013 CIRCLE Conference, one of the many parts of his talk that stuck with me came in the Q&A.  I can’t remember exactly what question was asked, but he spoke to the need for an ethic of allyship and solidarity as a value.  He talked of needing to highlight more White allies in history, and he talked of needing more vocal allies working with others who share their identity to shift tides of oppression.

But that doesn’t just happen by buying our kids gender-neutral toys or books with fantastic messages.  Instilling inclusiveness as a family value requires some tough conversations.  Yes, these conversations should be respectful and carried out with love, but they need to happen, and they need to be public so that everyone in the family can understand that it is okay and encouraged to challenge someone on a statement that furthers oppression and marginalization.

But it’s also about timing.  If my uncle corners me alone in the kitchen to goad me into a a debate about how Phil Robertson is a perfect example of how Christians are the oppressed minority in the United States today, I’m probably not going to take the trolling bait.

But if during the meal, someone makes a statement about how immigrants are ruining our country, I need to find a way to challenge it and call them in to a discussion.

And while doing so might cause a collective family meltdown, the risk is worth it if we manage to have a powerful conversation that sets the precedent that we can talk through the tough things in our family. After all, doing so makes it clear to those little ones that our family is one that engages, not disengages, with the harsh realities that are the context both inside and outside the walls of our family celebration.

So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know

As happens every time that I read something from Black Girl Dangerous, I recently found myself snapping, nodding, and yelling out “YES!” while reading a piece from Mia McKenzie.

Her article “No More ‘Allies’” made me profoundly uncomfortable – which is a good thing.

I was uncomfortable because it was a call to reflection about my own “ally”identifications and my own work.

To start, read her piece. Seriously. It is awesome.

Beyond that, though, it’s time for those of us who fashion ourselves “allies” or as “currently operating in solidarity with” to have a conversation.

More and more, I am seeing precisely what McKenzie is describing – people of identity privilege who are identifying as “allies” almost as if it is a core part of their identity.

What’s worse, I keep seeing people respond to criticism about their oppressive language or problematic humor with, “But I’m an ally!”

For instance, I recently saw an acquaintance (who notably identifies as Straight)post a pretty problematic joke about Gay men on Twitter.

Aside from expressing my discontent in a tweet, I reached out to her in a private message to explain why I took issue with her joke.

Her response, though, was to say, “Jamie, you know that I’m an LGBT ally! I speak out for Gay rights all the time! This was clearly just a joke.”

And therein lies the problem.

The identification of “ally” was so prominent in this person’s mind that she couldn’t even hear criticism of how her actions were out of alignment with her professed desire to be an “ally!”

So “allies,” let’s talk.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Before I say anything else, though, I should note something important about this article.

None of what I am writing here are my ideas.

They are drawn from Mia McKenzie’s piece, from conversations I’ve had with people of many different marginalized identities, from theorists, novelists, bloggers – but none of them are inherently mine.

They are the ideas of the People of Color, Queer-identified people, women, differently-abled people, poor folks, Jewish people, Muslim people, Atheists, undocumented citizens, and others.

And noting this is important.

Because part of being an ally means giving credit where credit is due and never taking credit for the anti-oppressive thinking, writing, theorizing, and action of the marginalized and oppressed.

Which I guess leads me to my point.

10 Things Every ‘Ally’ Needs to Remember

There are lots of ways to be a great “ally” – and innumerable ways to be a terrible one.

But it’s not rocket science.

There are simple things you can keep in mind and do in order to be a better person “currently operating in solidarity with” the marginalized or oppressed.

And while this list is not comprehensive, it’s definitely somewhere to start.

1. Being an Ally is About Listening

As McKenzie puts it, “Shut up and listen.”

As someone striving to be an ally, the most important thing we can do is listen to as many voices of those we’re allying ourselves with as possible. 

Now, does this mean that we should assume that just because, say, one Person of Color said it that it’s the absolutely truth that we should parrot? Absolutely not.

If that were the case, then Don Lemon would clearly speak for all Black people.

But listening to a diversity of marginalized voices can help you understand the core of any given issue.

And it also can help you understand why the opinion of your one Lesbian friend is not necessarily the best defense of your use of heterosexist language.

2.  Stop Thinking of ‘Ally’ as a Noun

Being an ally isn’t a status.

The moment that we decide “I’m an ally,” we’re in trouble.

As Mia McKenzie puts it:

“’Currently operating in solidarity with’ is undeniably an action. It describes what a person is doing in the moment. It does not give credit for past acts of solidarity without regard for current behavior. It does not assume future acts of solidarity. It speaks only to the actions of the present.”

3.  ‘Ally’ is Not a Self-Proclaimed Identity

Really, being an ally is not an identity at all, but it’s vitally important that we understand that we cannot simply decide we are allies.

Being in solidarity is something we can strive for, but in the end, it is the choice of those we are attempting to ally ourselves to as to whether they trust us enough to call us an ally.

Additionally, just because one person considers me an ally, that does not mean that every person of that marginalized identity considers me an ally or should!

Trust is something earned through concerted action, not given simply because of our actions in a particular arena or context.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.