Please stop asking why there isn’t a White History Month.
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.
This 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.
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
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?
When I opened up the news earlier this week, I couldn’t believe my eyes:
My immediate reaction was fury.
10 months!? Convicted of rape, and he served 10 MONTHS!?
And then I saw the statement from his lawyer:
“The past sixteen months have been extremely challenging for Ma’lik [Richmond] and his extended family . . . At sixteen years old, Ma’lik and his family endured hardness beyond imagination for any adult yet alone child. He has persevered the hardness and made the most of yet another unfortunate set of circumstances in his life.”
Not once in the statement was the victim, her trauma, or her family mentioned. The victim, clearly, was Ma’lik, and this was just an “unfortunate set of circumstances,” not a series of deliberate choices to hurt another human being.
And then I read some of the comments sections. Don’t ask me why I chose to read the comments on a piece about sexual violence, but I did.
They ranged from blaming the survivor for her own rape to wishing prison rape (often in a “hilarious, joking,” sort of way) on Richmond.
Literally nothing about this story left me feeling hopeful or good or like justice had been served. So I took some time away from this story. I didn’t click any links relating to Steubenville or Richmond at all.
But I couldn’t turn off my brain, and over the last few days, some nuance has crept into my thoughts.
And now I find myself with two conflicting feelings:
- In a society where too few who commit sexual assault are held accountable for their actions, I want to see him serve his term.
- But in a society where far too many young, Black men are locked up (and are more likely to be locked up for committing the same crimes as White men), I have to admit that seeing one less in jail felt good.
Even as I write this, I am afraid to admit the second one. After all, I don’t want to be labeled and lambasted for being a “rape apologist” or accused of saying that a Black rapist shouldn’t serve time simply because he’s Black. After all, the internet is a place of over-simplification, and over-simplification doesn’t advance dialogue.
So as I think through those feelings, I have to ask myself why I want to see him serve his term and why it felt important to see a young Black man free of prison.
Punishment vs Rehabilitation
When I heard that Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were convicted and sentenced to prison for rape, I cheered. I cheered because far too often, men who commit this heinous crime walk free, and many in the town where they live did everything they could to make sure these young men were not held accountable for their actions.
But was I also cheering because I wanted to see them punished? Most definitely. And they deserved punishment. But unfortunately, our criminal “justice” system rarely goes even a single step beyond punishment. Rehabilitation is almost never considered, and worse, when people are released from prison (no matter their crime), they are unlikely to be able to access the resources they need to avoid going back to prison.
Hence my conflicted feelings.
I wonder whether Richmond could possibly have come to understand his crime considering his short jail term and the sentiment of his lawyer that established Richmond as the victim. Yet I also wonder what kind of access to rehabilitation and counseling Richmond actually had in youth criminal detention.
As noted in this Slate piece by Irin Carmon (ignore the terrible title and focus on the point),
Rehabilitation, of course, is one of only three separate functions that intervening in sexual offenses serves, explains Mark Chaffin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and director of research at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. There is “community protection,” identifying predators and keeping those who might re-offend away from potential victims. There is “accountability,” which sends a message as to what is and isn’t acceptable in a community. And then there is rehabilitation, on which researchers are quite optimistic — at least when it comes to juveniles.
“Twenty years ago people lumped juveniles and adults together, and had this idea that if a kid committed a sex offense, he was on this immovable trajectory that was going to head towards more and more sexual deviancy and a lifetime of predation,” says Letourneau. “But that just isn’t the case.”
More and more research indicates that rehabilitation of sex offenders, particular young sex offenders, is possible! And as Katie McDonough puts it, “Consensus in the juvenile justice and medical communities holds that young people should be given counseling, not hard time, for crimes they commit.”
Perhaps by releasing Richmond early, the state has failed in the “community protection” and “accountability” aspects of “intervening in sexual offenses,” but what of the third aspect, rehabilitation? While his sentence mandated counseling, did Richmond receive competent rehabilitation services? And was his progress in those services part of his release?
Locking Up Black Men
But the lack of rehabilitation in our “justice” system, highlighted well in The New Jim Crow, is one of the many reasons why I generally do not cheer when I see that someone’s going to be locked up in our society. And the other reasons that I don’t cheer are the very root of my conflicted feelings.
Our prison system does little more than produce more crime while disproportionately destroying the lives of the poor and people of Color.
When 1 in 3 Black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives, a strong plurality for non-violent drug offenses, and considering the racial disproportionality of sentencing in the U.S., seeing a young Black man who could be reformed gave me pause.
I felt some hope for Ma’lik Richmond. Maybe I’m not supposed to, as he is a rapist, and statistically, that tells us that he will rape again. But I felt some hope.
After all, if there is a chance that one less Black man will be caught up for a lifetime in our racist criminal justice system, could that not be a good thing?
And so I wrestle. I wrestle with the desire to see someone punished, even when I don’t believe our criminal justice system should focus on punishment. I wrestle with my hope that Richmond received counseling to help him change for the better, though I know our system does a terrible job at that. And I wrestle with wanting simultaneously to see one less young Black man locked up while wanting to ensure justice for a young woman who was assaulted.
And I reflect.
Because I know there are no easy answers, but nuance and complexity in my feelings are far more conducive to my growth than than the certainty I know I don’t feel.
Happy New Year!
2013 was a transformative year for me and my writing. My business and my blogging have changed and grown a lot in the last 12 months. In a lot of ways, my writing here at Change From Within has taken a back seat to my writing for larger platforms, namely Everyday Feminism and The Good Men Project, which has been cool to see. As is my yearly tradition, it’s time to reflect on my writing of the past year and highlight those pieces that were most widely-read.
Over at Everyday Feminism, three of my pieces really stood out in terms of reception and hits:
“‘That’s Racist Against White People’ A Discussion on Power and Privilege“ was by far my most popular piece of 2013 at EF with more than 80,000 hits.
Also worthy of mention from my Everyday Feminism writing in 2013 are “Intent vs Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter“ and “So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know“.
At The Good Men Project, I had a few different pieces go bananas in 2013.
“The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21“, a piece I co-wrote with Alyssa Royse, Julie Gillis, and Joanna Schroeder, was by far my most-read contribution of 2013 with more than 1 million hits on numerous platforms.
My “Open Letter to the Rapey Frat Brother and the ‘How to Get Laid’ Generation“ also was widely read, getting picked up by the Huffington Post.
Change From Within’s Top 10 Articles of 2013
Over here at Change From Within, the posts that were most read speak to the changes in my own work. More and more, I have tried to highlight the writing and perspectives of the amazing people in my community, and that’s reflected in the most-read articles of the year. 4 of the top 10 articles of 2013 were composed by friends and mentors!
Without further ado, here are the top posts from Change From Within in 2013:
After “Racism, Appropriation, and the Harlem Shake” (coming in at #2 below), lots of readers were asking questions like, “So what are we supposed to do? How do we actually resist cultural appropriation?” In response, I wrote out a list of simple actions that we can all take to resist cultural appropriation around us.
After being racially and religiously profiled by the TSA in June of 2013, my dear friend Kadra Abdi wrote this powerful call to action with ways that we all can stand up to racial and religious profiling. Her compelling story challenges us to think critically about our own judgments and how we can be part of the solution to this pressing problem.
After much criticism for my piece entitled “Preventing Sexual Violence – Rethinking Lisak & Miller,” I wrote a piece that tackled some of the math being used in criticizing my reconsideration of the groundbreaking Lisak & Miller research. My friend Rida helped me run some mathematical scenarios that rethink the “predator theory” for who exactly we should be focusing on in our work to prevent sexual violence.
In August, Hugo Schwyzer, a man who I have defended in the past, showed everyone who he truly is: a misogynistic, racist fraud. In turn, I owed a lot of people apologies for my defense of this indefensible man. Here is the public version of that apology.
For me, like many people, the “not-guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was devastating. It wasn’t particularly surprising, but it was devastating emotionally and in its wider implications. Thus, I was incredibly thankful when my friend and mentor Daniel Escalante emailed me with a list of suggestions for action that he (and others) put together. Now, a few months after the verdict, it is good for me to revisit these suggestions and recommit to action in 2014. I encourage you to do the same.